Drive the Loneliest Road in America, the stretch of U.S. Route 50 that traverses Nevada, and you'll find more than peace and quiet. There's a burger-eating challenge, hot springs to dip into and the chance to mine garnets along the way.
In July of 1986, Life Magazine didn't think there was too much out here, though. They described Nevada's Highway 50 as the "Loneliest Road in America." The article states there were no attractions or points of interest along the original stretch of road and warned drivers not risk traveling the route unless they had "survival skills."
However, Nevadans knew better then and we know better now. Because sure Highway 50 is wide and open but isn't that part of the allure? As it happens, this storied road is also your link to unsurpassed recreational opportunities including hiking, biking, climbing, camping, RV-ing, offroading, motorcycling, horseback riding, sandboarding, stargazing, saloon-hopping, and even hot springing.
In fact, why not make a game of it? Grab a copy of the Official Highway 50 Survival Guide and get it stamped at any of the communities along the route. Finish your travels with a side trip to the Great Basin Highway, a stunning destination where you’ll find your journey merging with another one of our classic Nevada road trips, the Great Basin Highway. Once you arrive, you can tour the Lehman Caves or hike up 13,064-foot Wheeler Peak!
Start your trip in the small community of Carson City, about 32 miles south of Reno. Stock up on road trip supplies, get your Official Highway 50 Survival Guide at either the Carson City Culture & Tourism Authority office or at the Carson City Chamber of Commerce, receive your first stamp and hit the road! Another option is to start in Fernley, about 35 miles east of Reno on Interstate 80 at the intersection of I-80 and Alt. 50. There are quite a few places in Fernley to grab your survival guide, so check out the official Pony Express Nevada Territory website for more details and locations.
Leaving from Carson City, don't miss Dayton, the site of Nevada’s first gold discovery. You can get a stamp here, peruse Old Town Dayton, or enjoy Dayton State Park.
The next town you'll see is Fallon, an agricultural community known for small farms like Lattin Farms (open to the public). Check out Churchill Vineyards, one of three vineyards in Nevada, and its sister property Frey Ranch Distillery, one of only three estate distilleries in the country. Bird watchers should make time for a side trip to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 minutes from Fallon on Nevada state Route 116. Migrating waterfowl and shorebirds traveling the Pacific Flyway stop at Stillwater, an internationally recognized area for bird watching, which is considered to be of global importance for migratory birds following the Pacific Flyway.
About seven miles east of Fallon on the Loneliest Road, Nevada, is Grimes Point Archeological Area, where you can see petroglyphs along a short interpretive trail. Grimes Point is about 1.5 miles from Hidden Cave, a four-millennia-old American Indian storage site that can be visited through twice-monthly guided tours offered by the Churchill County Museum & Archives.
Continue eastward and in about 20 miles you'll hit Sand Mountain Recreation Area, a 600-foot-high sand dune created by geological forces over several millennia. Today, the area is popular with off-road enthusiasts and photographers. More than a century ago, this area was a stop on the Pony Express route, a horseback mail service in operation from 1860 to 1861. The Loneliest Highway roughly follows the path of the Pony Express, as well as at Cold Springs (farther east past Middlegate), which also represents the former way stations.
From Sand Mountain, it’s about 25 miles to Middlegate Station, a small outpost on the south side of the roadway. Come hungry. This is the home of the Monster Burger: more than a pound of ground beef stacked inside a sourdough roll sliced into thirds and garnished with lettuce, onions, cheese and sometimes jalapeno peppers, served with a pile of French fries. Eat it all, and you’ll be rewarded with an "I Ate the Monster" T-shirt. Only the hungriest are victorious. It’s a serious feat, trust us.
Nevada has its share of oddball roadside attractions, and one of them is about one mile east of Middlegate, on the north side of the highway. The Middlegate Shoe Tree is a giant cottonwood bedecked with hundreds of shoes dangling from its branches. Read more about why in Anything But Lonely on Nevada's Highway 50.
From here, it’s another 65 miles to the historic silver mining town of Austin for a warm bed for the night.
Before you continue your journey along U.S. Hwy 50, wake up in Austin, population 192, and grab breakfast at the Toiyabe Café. An outdoor visitors' center on the Loneliest Road in America (Main Street) has interpretive panels telling the story of the community’s origins in 1862. Be sure to check out Stokes Castle on the western end of town, a 1890s-era stone structure built as a summer home for one of the area's most eccentric silver mine investors.
Mountain bikers may want to spend some extra time in Austin exploring area trails, too, before taking a short detour to Spencer Hot Springs, about 20 miles southeast of Austin. Here, you can soak in a tub or a natural rock pool of naturally heated water.
From Austin, continue east on the Loneliest Highway for about 24 miles to the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area. If you didn't get a chance to stop at Grimes Point, here's another chance to see some of the ancient rock art carved by the area's indigenous people.
Continue another 46 miles to Eureka, a mining town with more to offer than just Old West charm. Stop here to check out the historic Eureka Opera House, a beautifully restored 1880s-era building and the Eureka Sentinel Museum, housed in the 1879 Eureka Sentinel Newspaper Building. Once you arrive, you will be transported back to the days of yore—seeing really is believing.
Back to Highway 50 Nevada. Now you're on the road to the copper mining town of Ely, home of the steam-powered Ghost Train of Old Ely. But just west of town, before you hit Ely proper, is Garnet Hill, a free, public rockhounding area where you can look for garnets embedded in rock and take them home with you as souvenirs.
Once you’ve settled into your lodging in Ely, check out the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum and the perfectly preserved offices of this historic rail operation, now the modern gateway to the extensive grounds of the Nevada Northern Railway train pot and rail yard. Also, make sure to visit Renaissance Village, a section of historically preserved homes that reflect the various ethnic groups that came to the Ely area. Viewing the town’s many murals depicting regional history will tie it all together.
From Ely, it’s 67 miles to Great Basin National Park, one of the country’s most beautiful and most isolated parks. If you’ve taken the Great Basin Highway road trip, this might sound familiar! Here, you can take a guided tour of the Lehman Caves, a marble cave system ornately decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, and more than 300 rare shield formations. Or, hike Wheeler Peak—Nevada's second tallest peak at 13,064 feet. A 12-mile scenic drive takes you to the Wheeler Peak campground where you can hike to see the magnificent bristlecone pines, which are 5,000-year-old trees, believed to be the oldest living things on earth.
Other suggested side trips include Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park and Cave Lake State Park. Ward Charcoal Ovens are about 20 miles south of Ely and are notable for their six beehive-shaped ovens, all about 30 feet tall, where charcoal was made from 1876 to 1879. Juniper and pinyon pine were burned in these ovens to create charcoal which was used in the smelters of the Ward Mining District. Cave Lake, about 14 miles southeast of Ely, draws people in for fishing, hiking and oddball events such as the annual Fire and Ice Winter Festival, held each January.
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