Aside from gambling, Reno's claim to fame is its diversity of attractions. The area has long billed itself as a place where one can ski in the morning and go kayaking that same night. Along with a vibrant nightlife and growing opportunities for shopping and fine dining, many tourists see no reason to stray from the beaten path.
But Reno also serves as a hub for visitors interested in getting a feel for the "real" West, a place where mining remains a key industry, Native American colonies still flourish and a surprising number of political fortunes have been made. For now, we'll assume that you can find your own way to the slopes, so here are some classic Northern Nevada day trips that shouldn't be neglected, especially for the historically inclined. In each case, you can expect to be back at your hotel by dinnertime.
Nevada's capital city is about 30 miles south of Reno, a straight 70 mph shot along U.S. 395. While the Governor's Mansion (606 Mountain St.) and Capitol Grounds (101 N. Carson St.) have always been modest tourist draws, the rest of the area was much less interesting (for the average visitor, at least) until recently. Recently, though a concerted redevelopment effort has created a corridor of shops and restaurants along Curry Street (which runs parallel to Carson Street/U.S. 395), an IMAX theater and other mainstream attractions. Some other high points include:
Kit Carson Trail
This historic walking path through Carson City's residential homes district showcases Carson's most notable homes. Mark Twain's home and the former set of John Wayne's last movie "The Shootist" are among the stops on the tour. Visit www.visitcarsoncity.com/tours/kitcarson_talkinghouses.php for details and to download a podcast that will help guide you.
Nevada State Museum
The Nevada State Museum (600 N. Carson St., www.nevadaculture.org), rated one of the 10 best regional museums in the West, is a dream for the Old West history buff. Just emerging from a massive remodel, the museum lets visitors tour a silver mine and see the original equipment used to stamp more than $50 million in gold and silver coins mined from the Comstock Lode. The building is the actual structure that housed the Nevada branch of the U.S. mint during the silver rush.
Nevada State Railroad Museum
(www.nsrm-friends.org, 2180 S. Carson St.) Along with its restored 19th century railroad cars and locomotives, the Nevada State Railroad Museum has added an exhibit that depicts Nevada railroads during the 20th century. It is an HO-scale (1/87th actual size) model railroad that volunteers and staff are creating at NSRM. Work began in mid-2006 and continues, according to the Web site. The Museum also has more than a dozen highly detailed, HO-scale models of Virginia & Truckee, Southern Pacific, and Nevada Copper Belt equipment, a yard full of railroad equipment and train rides on special occasions. Visit the Web site for details.
Northern Nevada Children's Museum
Let your kids run free among the 25 hands-free exhibits displayed in the Northern Nevada Children's Museum (www.cmnn.org, 813 N. Carson St.). They are sure to love the walk-in kaleidoscope and the metaField Maze, a life-sized version of the classic marble-rolling table game. There's also a cool gift shop.
For folks from outside the West, Virginia City is known for one of two things: As Mark Twain's destination in his book "Roughing It" and the country's largest historic landmark, or as one of the most (allegedly) haunted towns in America. Fans of either will have plenty to see, as Virginia City still hosts centuries-old buildings, boardwalks and cemeteries. Only 23 miles from Reno and 15 from Carson City, it's a rare chance to get close to some of the more transient features of the Old West without having to trek into the middle of the desert.
Much of the fun in Virginia City comes from wandering the streets and discovering things on your own. The town is certainly small enough for most able-bodied visitors to walk it without much trouble. Addresses are of limited use on t he irregular, sloping streets, but signs directing visitors to the famous Bucket of Blood Saloon and other attractions are in no short supply. A word of advice for visitors from warmer climates: Virginia City's elevation is 6,220 feet, nearly 1,000 feet higher than Denver's, so expect it to be cold and snowy during the winter. Some key points include:
Bullette Red Light Museum
The Bullette Red Light Museum (5 C St.) showcases the history of Julia Bullette, a favored "soiled dove" -- or prostitute -- of 1860s Virginia City. A unique experience, the museum features vintage erotica and antique medical equipment.
First Presbyterian Church
The First Presbyterian Church (www.vcpresbyterianchurch.org, 196 S. C Street) is one of the only original buildings that survived the great fire of 1975. Mark Twain is thought to have helped fund the church during his time as a writer for the local newspaper in the 1860s.
Territorial Enterprise Building
The former site of Mark Twain's newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise Building (23 S. C St.) now holds a museum dedicated to him. Local lore also holds that Twain's pen name came not from his work on riverboats but from a term Virginia City miners used for running a tab at John Piper's saloon. True or not, Piper's Opera House (www.pipersoperahouse.com, 12 N. B St.) still hosts performances today.
Old Washoe Club
The Old Washoe Club (112 S. C St.) is at best a funky old social club with a storied history and at worst the site of numerous unexplained deaths. Along with the Virginia City cemetery on the north side of town (don't worry, you'll see it), this is the most popular spot for ghost hunters. The documentary "Ghost Adventures" purports to show spirits flitting though the hallways here and the hosts of the film periodically return to update their findings. Whether you believe them or not, it's worth a look. It somehow manages to be creepy and hospitable at the same time.
We'll now focus on Douglas County, about 35 miles south of Reno on U.S. Highway 395. While not one of Nevada's more famous counties, Douglas is actually incredibly diverse. The county includes the Carson Valley area, home to several smallish towns that still show signs of Nevada's Basque and Mormon settlers; Topaz Lake, a famous trout fishing site; and the Zephyr Cove and Stateline areas of Lake Tahoe. Those interested in Tahoe should point their browsers to our sister site over at www.LakeTahoe.net. Everyone else, read on.
Coming from Reno, you must pass through either Virginia City or Carson City to reach Douglas County (unless you go dramatically out of your way). If it's your first trip to the area, we recommend sticking to the main highway all the way there. It can be slow-going through Carson, but it will give you a real sense of going back in time from urban Reno to rustic Genoa and you'll also pass by a lot of state government landmarks. In any case, about 12 miles south of Carson, you'll see a turnoff for 160-year-old Genoa, arguably the oldest town in the state.
Genoa is small enough that you won't need directions. There is literally one main street and a handful of cross streets. Visit www.genoanevada.org to download a full tourist map.
Mormon Station State Park at the center of town is the site of Nevada's first permanent non-native settlement. A replica of the original trading post built in 1851 houses a small museum with relics of pioneer days. Picnic and group facilities are available. The park is generally so quiet that employees can give you one-on-one history lectures, and it's not unusual to see deer or even bears wandering down the street. During annual programs such as "Pops in the Park" on July 4 or The Candy Dance Arts & Crafts Festival in Septermber, however, tens of thousands of people jam the area. The Genoa Courthouse Museum, Genoa Cemetery and Hanging Tree are all within walking distance. Also keep an eye out for the Genoa Bar and Saloon, the state's oldest drinking hole. It looks like something out of a John Wayne Movie.
Next stop, Minden, the county seat, and adjoining Gardnerville. In addition to various county buildings and paks, some of which are interesting artifacts of old-time Nevada, be sure to check out: The CVIC (NOT "civic") Hall (1604 Esmeralda Ave.) includes a stage, kitchen, large open area, restrooms and two meeting rooms in the old building. Various organizations and individuals utilize the CVIC Hall for everything from weddings to exercise classes, and you can happen across some fascinating small town events on any given weekend. Sometimes the events are private, of course, so check in at the door.
The Bently Biofuels station (1350 Buckeye Road) sells various blends of biodiesel and ethanol for all vehicles along with an assortment of healthy foods and eco-friendly products. For those who wonder if biofuels will ever really take hold in this country, it might be reassuring to stop by Bently around 7 a.m. on a weekday and watch all the local diesel truckers and farm workers line up to buy ethanol. Attendants are also trained to educate visitors about biofuels and the zero-impact station building, which can be fun for green-minded visitors.
The Carson Valley Inn (1627 N. U.S. 395) is a standard hotel-casino, but it's a pleasant break from Reno's resorts. Local business and community leaders can often be found sharing breakfast in the coffee shop here, and locals swear the casino odds are the best around. Also, look upstairs for Job's Peak, a surprisingly homey espresso bar.
You probably won't notice the Minden/Gardnerville border when you cross it, but the following stops are located in the latter:
The Carson Valley Museum & Cultural Center (1477 N. U. S. 395) features impressive exhibits on natural history, the Basque people, Native Americans and local art. Events such as artist receptions and educational talks are also held regularly.
JT Basque Bar and Dining Room (1426 Main St.) is one of a block of old-Nevada bars and Basque restaurants. Most of these places are far from fancy, but they add to the sense of history and general ruralness surrounding the area. The food is good, too.
Finally, as you reach the border between Douglas County and California's Mono County, you'll come upon Topaz Lake and the Topaz Lodge (1979 S. U.S. 395). Topaz Lake is an outdoor lover's paradise with camping, fishing, boating, water skiing and gambling along the lake. A fishing license from either state is honored on the entire lake. The lake is known for its trophy trout (rainbows and browns), which can be caught through Sept. 30.
On the Douglas county side, a camping park complete with RV hookups and tent spots is available. While the lodge and other businesses often close during the winter, fisherman from across the country have made it a tradition to camp overnight on New Year's Eve and start fishing when the season starts at midnight. For those less enthusiastic, the lodge offers hotel rooms, hot meals and gambling.
Article written by Matt Farley. Farley is a Nevada native who has worked for the Reno Gazette-Journal and Nevada Magazine and been syndicated by The Associated Press, Gannett News Service and the Las Vegas Review Journal.