Let’s face it: Interstate 80 Nevada is a ribbon of highway most motorists expect to blast down, pedal-to-the-metal, on their way to somewhere, well… else.
Which is why they’re missing out. Reno to West Wendover on Nevada’s Interstate 80, better known as the Cowboy Corridor, is where tradition still rings loud and proud. Next time you’re passing through, the speed limit may say 80 mph, but when you hit a town, slow down. Because just down that offramp you’ll discover lively, welcoming communities whose western roots still show, inviting you to explore Nevada’s history and plenty of exciting present-day attractions at the same time.
With a population of nearly 250,000, Reno is one of Nevada’s larger urban areas. It is home to the ranches of the early 20th century — where women seeking divorces often rented rooms while fulfilling their residency requirements (which now of course are a thing of the past). The city’s Wild West legacy still lives on though events as the annual Reno Rodeo in June and with hearty, traditional Basque cuisine at Louis’ Basque Corner restaurant all year long.
From Reno it’s off to Fernley, a city of about 19,000 people and about a 30-minute drive east on Interstate 80 Nevada. Refresh yourself with a variety of tasty milkshakes at Mary and Moe’s Wigwam (you can't go wrong with butterscotch) and check out its collection of American Indian artifacts.
Keep your eyes peeled for the Main Street Art Park, a sculpture garden that houses some of the artwork from the annual Burning Man gathering, just north of Fernley in the Black Rock Desert. Continue east for about an hour to reach to Lovelock, population 1,900. Lovelock was once a stop for pioneers traveling to California for the Gold Rush of 1848. (Note: The section of Interstate 80 from Elko to Lovelock roughly follows the California Trail, which followed the path of the Humboldt River, the longest river in the state.)
If you want to take a deeper dive into understanding the rich mining history in the area, take the 45-minute drive south of Reno to Virginia City and combine two unique road trips by hopping on the Lake Tahoe Loop. Here, visitors can bask in the former glory of the legendary Comstock Lode, which was one of the largest silver strikes in American history. The wealth from the silver ore mined in the area helped develop much of Northern Nevada, and the Western United States, and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark District.
While you take the drive through Virginia City and loop back through Lake Tahoe, it’s a fun fact to note that “Bonanza” was filmed at the Ponderosa Ranch in North Lake Tahoe, keep your eyes out for some of your favorite scenes before you head back through Reno.
Lovelock is anchored by the Pershing County Courthouse, which opened in 1921 and sports a grassy courtyard home to Lovers Lock Plaza, where couples help Lovelock live up to its name by “locking their love” to a chain, symbolizing eternal love.
While here, take note of the courthouse's unique round shape, which was designed by locally renowned architect, Frederic DeLongchamps. He built the Pershing County Courthouse along with a slew of other Nevada county courthouses and noteworthy properties peppered throughout the state. Also in town: check out the Cowpoke Café for a tasty bite to eat and Nanny Jo’s for some pretty amazing antique shopping.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: From Pershing County Courthouse, Lovelock Cave, an ancient Shoshone shelter that housed nearly 10,000 artifacts, including the world’s oldest tule duck decoys (c. 400 BC).
The original decoys are now housed in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., but the Tule Duck Decoy has officially been deemed the Official State Artifact of Nevada. Word to the wise: Visit the BLM office in Reno, Winnemucca or Elko for a copy of the “Lovelock Cave Back Country Byway” brochure, which includes a map and more information about the area.
Rye Patch State Recreation Area, a 22-mile-long reservoir with hiking trails, is about a 30-minute drive northeast of Lovelock on Interstate 80. About 20 minutes past that is the offbeat roadside attraction Thunder Mountain in Imlay. Listed on the Nevada State Register of Historic Places, Thunder Mountain is an array of sculptures built almost entirely from items found along the highway decades ago. Looking for an opportunity to jump out of the car and stretch your legs to see something you certainly wouldn't encounter anywhere else? That, friends, is Thunder Mountain.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: Fancy a detour? Although you won’t be “roughing it” the way Mark Twain did, opt for a short jaunt to Unionville ghost town, a 19th-century mining community where the famous author once tried (and miserably failed at) mining. It is just 40 minutes (one way) south of Imlay on Nevada state Route 400.
Keep an eye out for one of Mark Twain's original cabins and consider an overnight at the Old Pioneer Garden B&B Guest Ranch—a decision you won't soon forget. The property features many historical buildings (like the town's original blacksmith shop) that have been repurposed as guest rooms.
From there, it’s another 30-minute drive to Winnemucca, one of the state’s oldest settlements due to its location near the Humboldt River. Named after a Paiute Indian chief in the region, Winnemucca is home of the Buckaroo Hall of Fame & Heritage Museum as well as the Humboldt Museum.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: About 100 or so people still live in the area which was aptly named by settlers who were under the impression they'd actually found Heaven on Earth... or, Paradise. Aside from the historic Micca House and other fascinating original structures, be sure to pop into the Paradise Valley Saloon & Bar G. Word on the street is that they've got the best Saturday night ribeye steak dinners in the state, and quite the selection of whiskey to boot.
Eating in Winnemucca: If your appetite finds itself in Winnemucca, hit The Martin Hotel, one of a handful of historic Basque dinner houses found in northern Nevada. Another local classic: The Griddle, a mom-and-pop breakfast-and-lunch cafe classic.
Continue east on Interstate 80 for about two hours and you’ll hit the cryptically named Battle Mountain, a community of 3,635 people with neither a mountain nor historical records of a battle being fought nearby. What you will find: Roller Coaster Fireworks Outlet, the shop of the Cassorla brothers — Earl and Steven— who can advise on fireworks and where they can be discharged—legally. (Craving some #WeirdNevada? Don’t miss the amateur taxidermy—especially the “chupacabra”—and the fireworks mini “museum.”) Here, you can count on walking in a customer and leaving as a friend. Learn about the area’s history at the Battle Mountain Cookhouse Museum before heading out to Elko, the heart of Nevada’s cowboy and ranching culture.
Founded in 1869 as a railroad town, Elko quickly assumed its role as the center of the state’s cattle industry. Today, mining is Elko’s major enterprise, but cattle ranches and other legacies of the region’s cowboy and ranching past remain. Saddles, bridles and other cowboy essentials are displayed at the Cowboy Arts and Gear Museum, which opened in early 2018 in the historical Garcia Bit & Spur Co. building. One of the main forces behind the museum is J.M. Capriola Co., a longstanding Western wear and gear shop where saddles are still made by hand. Don’t forget to check out the nearby Western Folklife Center, home of the organization that oversees the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The center, open throughout the year, has a gift shop and art gallery. Together, a visit to all three are crucial to understanding the robust heritage and tradition of the Great Basin Buckaroo.
As you explore this western cultural legacy, make sure to stop by the Northeastern Nevada Museum on your way from Reno to (West) Wendover, which showcases the area’s local and natural history, as well as a collection of work by Western artist and author Will James. From the Northeastern Nevada Museum, travel about eight miles west of town on Interstate 80 for FREE admission to the California Trail Interpretive Center and get your fill of the stories of pioneers who endured the 2,000-mile trek from Missouri to California, and the route that defines Nevada's history. About a quarter of a million people traveled the California trail from 1841 to 1869 — and their stories are told here in a series of hands-on exhibits.
Take in the beauty of the nearby Ruby Mountains by driving the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway. It’s a 30-minute drive from Elko to the Ruby Mountains and the entrance of Lamoille Canyon. This glacier-carved canyon is known for its beautiful fall foliage and spring waterfalls. The Ruby Mountains are commonly referred to as the Alps of Nevada, widely known for its recreational opportunities, particularly heli-skiing.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: Tuscarora, a former mining town and site of the annual Tuscarora Summer Pottery School, is about an hour’s drive northwest of Elko. Founded in 1867 on the promise of rich gold and silver veins in the area, Tuscarora’s population swelled to 5,000 by 1878. The mines eventually played out and the community dwindled into a ghost town, a common storyline in rural Nevada. But, the Basque influence remained and is strong in Elko today.
The city is home to the annual National Basque Festival (typically held during the Fourth of July weekend each year) and to one of the most well-known Basque dinner houses in the state: The Star Hotel. If you feel like washing your meal down with another taste of tradition, treat yourself to a picon punch, the unofficially official State Drink of Nevada. You can find them in Basque restaurants and “sagebrush saloons” around northern Nevada. Make sure you ask the locals for their favorite variation of this infamous cocktail’s long list of cautionary sayings. Some of our faves? “The first two are the picon, the third is the punch!” “One’s plenty, two’s too much, and three’s not enough!” It’s a sippable right of passage.
Keep your eyes peeled for mule deer and mountain goats as you fish or explore the trails around Angel Lake, an alpine lake in the East Humboldt Range and an extension of the Ruby Mountains. It’s about an hour’s drive from Elko, and when visiting the region, be sure to plan ahead to include a trip to Ruby Mountain Brewing Co., located on Steve Safford's Angel Creek Ranch. But we mean plan ahead, it’s only open by appointment. The brewery is about a 20-minute drive from Angel Lake or a 30-minute drive south of Wells. Stop at the city of Wells for a bite to eat at Bella’s Restaurant and Espresso or Luther’s Sports Bar & Grill.
Continue east on Interstate 80 for about one hour to get to West Wendover, which flows seamlessly into neighboring Wendover, Utah—the community is split by the state border. Although West Wendover is in Nevada, locals opt to observe Mountain Time (one hour ahead of Nevada) to minimize confusion.
West Wendover is a great base camp while visiting other regional gems, including the Historic Wendover Airfield, a repository of World War II Army Air Force history. There’s also Blue Lake, a hot springs-fed lake that is popular with scuba divers and is about a 30-minute drive from West Wendover. If your journey continues east on Interstate 80, you’ll come upon the Bonneville Salt Flats, formed when ancient Lake Bonneville dried up. The flat landscape, covered with a crust of salty soil, is home to the Bonneville Speedway, where numerous land speed records have been set during Bonneville Speed Week. If you’re looking for some real excitement, plan your trip around this six-day event, but don’t forget to bring your sunscreen!
Snap a photo with the beloved Wendover Will on Wendover Boulevard. You can’t miss him — he’s a 63-foot tall neon sign that got his start in 1952, welcoming guests to one of the area’s casinos. If scheduling allows, catch a show at the Peppermill Concert Hall or venture to the Goshute Mountains, where Hawkwatch International operates a migration monitoring station to study raptors as they migrate through the Intermountain Flyway.
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