If you are anything like us you have probably looked at a map of the Western part of the United States and focused in on states like Colorado, Utah, California. You scan it over and just barely glance at the state in between: Nevada.
For years we never gave the “Silver State” a second thought. It was the state that you drove through, not a state you stopped and did things in. To us it seemed empty, arid, cracked and dismal. It seemed there was nothing there to actually see.
But that is completely and utterly wrong.
We have now seen the error of our ways and cannot wait to spend more time exploring the state. Now, don’t get us wrong, Nevada is still empty - there is no denying that, but that, in truth, is part of the appeal. As for the idea that the state seemed dismal and "boring" is also totally untrue.
In fact, Nevada has more mountain ranges than any other state, as well as plenty of diverse biomes and natural wonders. Do you want canyons, caves, petroglyphs, dinosaur bones, hot springs, forests and wide open plains? All without seeing anyone else? Then go to Nevada.
If we have sold you on the idea of adventuring in the Silver State but you don’t know where to start, then you have come to the right place. Below is the perfect 4 day road trip itinerary for a beautiful and exciting adventure through northern Nevada on the famous Highway 50, otherwise known as, the Loneliest Highway.
| What is the Loneliest Highway
Life magazine was the first publication to give the road the name, “Loneliest Highway in America” back in 1986. But the Nevada Commission on Tourism was really the one to make it stick. Thanks in part to their marketing campaign that included creating a Highway 50 Survival Guide and large highway roadside signs reminding you mile after mile that you are out there...alone. Heck, you can even receive a certificate, signed by the governor of Nevada, if you complete the entire route. Thanks to all of that, what began as a fun moniker has now become a well-known slogan for a road that stretches just over 400 miles between the cities of Fallon, Nevada, and Delta, Utah.
| Top Spots to See on a Northern Nevada Road Trip
To get to the Loneliest Highway you can either start in Carson City - the capital - or head a bit further north and start in the town of Reno, aka "The Biggest Little City in the World." Either city will be one of the last remaining bastions of services before heading out on the route, so make sure to stock up on all supplies (food, gas, coffee) before heading east. Note: when we did the route we chose to begin in Reno, solely because we were coming from Lake Tahoe.
This is a great jumping-off point for an exciting Nevada adventure because a) It will be the biggest city you go through until you reach either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, so make sure to stock up on anything you might need and b) It is relatively easy to reach and even has a good-sized airport nearby. Reno also has a couple of fun things on offer, including casinos, parks and of course, nearby Lake Tahoe.
From Reno head out on Highway 80 until you reach the town of Fernley. Now, there isn’t much of a town here except some gas stations and a couple of fast food joints. But this is the easiest way to get onto the Loneliest Highway (Highway 50). The highway will stay busy until you reach the town of Fallon (a well enough sized town that is really the last option for any sort of grocery store or restaurant).
The coolest thing about Fallon (if you are nerds like us) is that it is surrounded by Naval Airbases, including Naval Air Station Fallon - a training airfield that is the home of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC), which includes the TOPGUN training program.
From Fallon you really start to feel alone out on the highway. We drove through at dusk and once out of the city - and once it became truly dark (another perk of the area are the dark skies), it was dead silent. Almost eerily so.
This is when you really start to see the beauty of northern Nevada. Austin is a small, one street, Old West style town. It is also the first place to get gas after Fallon. But the town itself is quite cool. The one main road is lined with historic buildings that look right out of a Western movie, think an old saloon, a Masonic hall and a historic courthouse. The city, though tiny (pop. 192) is nicely placed. It is right on the edge of the Toiyabe mountain range and sits at over 6,000 feet in elevation - making it really feel like a high desert mountain town.
Like many towns in Nevada, Austin’s heyday was in the late 1800s and was entirely dependent on the mining of silver. By 1880 the town was pretty much dead (today it is known as a “living ghost town”). But there are still some cool things to see - including the International Hotel, the oldest building in Nevada and Stokes Castle, a three-story tower structure right outside of town that was only in use for one month, and the Trading Post, where various turquoise items are sold (Austin is considered a turquoise mecca).
Austin is by no means a destination. BUT it is one of the better stopping off points on Highway 50. There are three motels (we stayed at the adorable and very affordable Pony Canyon motel), a well-stocked gas station and some interesting and photographic buildings.
\\ Spencer Hot Springs
Looking for a nice way to relax and take in the beautiful surrounding mountains? Then a quick stop at Spencer Hot Springs is a must.
Once out of Austin, drive 20 more minutes east until you reach the intersection of Highway 50 and Road 376. From there, turn right and then take the first left onto a long dirt road. From that turn, it is about another 10-15 minute drive until you reach a wide open dirt lot. From here you can see a couple of primitive campsites (only discernible because of the stone fire pits). The hot springs itself is just a bit of a walk away from the parking lot.
Spencer Hot Springs is not really natural. Think a large metal circular tub or trough, like the ones farmers use to give their cows water, with just a rusted pipe pumping out scalding hot water. While it might not sound like much, in truth it is actually quite heavenly.
When we stopped by, there was no one there, but this was also the middle of winter and only a couple of days before Christmas. We can imagine it does get relatively busy (as busy as something off of the Loneliest Highway can get at least). If you really want to take full advantage of the springs then consider camping out in the area for a night or two. You likely will have much of it to yourself and have the ability to see some stunning stars, see some wildlife (including wild donkeys, jackrabbits and coyotes). Plus, the view of the sun hitting the mountain peaks across the large valley in the morning is absolutely dreamy.
Curious about other hot springs in Nevada? Then check out this list of 20 others.
\\ Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area
This is a quick pit stop right off of Highway 50 and does not require more than an hour to see. But it is pretty neat - especially if you have any interest in the prehistoric people that used to live in the area.
The Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area offers a short self-guided tour of the petroglyphs as well as views of the surrounding peaks and ranges and the flora and fauna of the region. There are some picnic tables and grills, along with camping spots and bathrooms.
This is the next form of civilization on the route after Austin. In truth, Eureka was once a real happening town: in 1878 nearly 10,000 people called Eureka home (it was also said to have had upwards of 1,000 saloons in its heyday). Today, they estimate the population to be around 480. The decrease in population, like many other Nevada towns, was due to a decrease in mine production and changing market conditions, which led to the closing of mines - including the Richmond Mining Company and the Eureka Mining Company.
Today, some of the more famous sites in and around Eureka are the historic Eureka Opera House (built in 1880), Raine’s Market and Wildlife Museum (built 1887), the Jackson House Hotel (built 1877), and the Eureka Sentinel Museum, which housed in the 1879 Eureka Sentinel Newspaper Building.
\\ Cave Lake State Park
Between the town of Eureka and Cave Lake State Park you will really start to see just how open and empty this part of Nevada is. But don’t expect it to be boring. Along the way to the next city of Ely, you will pass more tall mountain ranges, go over curving mountain passes, view wide open vistas, and cut through multi-colored canyons. Eventually, you will reach Ely, which is just over an hour from Eureka. This is also a good spot to grab a couple of things, including gas and food. From Ely, head five miles south to reach Cave Lake State Park.
This state park is most commonly used for fishing since a majority of it is made up of a 32-acre reservoir. But there are some short hikes to head out on, especially if you are looking to stretch your legs after a long day of driving. There are also a couple of campsites and even a yurt if you are looking for a nice spot to stay in the area.
\\ Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park
About 18 miles south of Cave Lake State Park sits Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park. While the park's charcoal ovens might resemble artifacts from prehistoric times, in fact, they were only built in the late 19th century on the site of the now-defunct town of Ward.
Ward, like many towns in Nevada, was once a major silver mining town (are you sensing a trend yet?) that had upwards of 1,500 people. The six beehive shaped charcoal ovens were only in use for three years (1876 through 1879) and were built to help process the rich silver ore that was discovered in the area. But once mining ended, the charcoal ovens were instead used to shelter travelers crossing the state and they even had a reputation as a hideout for stagecoach bandits.
Besides taking a tour of the ghost town of Ward, which now only has a mill, a couple of foundations and a cemetery left, you can go for a hike or take a turn around the state park on a mountain bike (there is also camping available).
Note: it costs $5.00 per vehicle (if from Nevada) or $10.00 per vehicle if you are not from Nevada. While camping is $15.00 per vehicle, per night ($20.00 per vehicle, per night if from out of state). If you are looking to bike in, it is $2.00 per bike.
\\ Great Basin National Park
Sitting just west of the Utah border, this hard to get to national park is definitely worth spending a day or two exploring. Encapsulating what makes Nevada so pretty - open desert, angular mountain peaks and even caves - Great Basin National Park really has something for everyone.
A couple of must do’s are driving up the 12 mile long Wheeler Peak Scenic Road where you can start a number of great hikes, including summiting Wheeler Peak (which sits at 13,063 feet), taking a turn around a grove of some of the oldest trees on Earth: the bristlecone pine (they are known to live for over 4,900 years) and even seeing a couple of high mountain lakes. Another must is taking a tour of the Lehman Caves (two different tours are offered throughout the day). For the tours you MUST get your tickets ahead of time for they regularly sell out.
Similarly, Great Basin National Park is one of a couple of national parks in the USA certified by the International Dark Sky Association (IDSA). Meaning it is one of the BEST places to stargaze - so if you can spend a night in the park at any of the campgrounds, we highly recommend it. Or, if you don't feel like camping in the park, head right outside where you can stay on BLM land and get the same stunning night sky.
Check out our list of other dark sky parks in the USA.
From Great Basin National Park you have pretty much completed the entire Highway 50/Loneliest Highway route. From the park, you have the option to drive to multiple larger cities. Including, Salt Lake City (just under 4 hours away to the east) and Las Vegas (4.5 hours away to the south). Note: the road to Las Vegas (Highway 93) is slightly more scenic than the road to Salt Lake City.
While Nevada will never likely be listed next to California or Colorado as a must-see state, it is still definitely worth a visit. The remoteness of it, especially off of the Loneliest Highway makes you feel like you have the place all to yourself (and more than likely you do). So, if you are itching for a trip that doesn’t include hundreds or even thousands of other people (looking at you Yosemite) then definitely consider taking a tour of the wilds of Nevada. Here you will find epic mountains, rustic hot springs, geologic wonders and historic mining ghost towns.
| Best Time to Visit
The shoulder seasons are always a good time to visit this area. In spring you will have a great chance of seeing everything in bloom - including wildflowers in Great Basin National Park. Whereas during the fall, you will get to see the trees change color, especially the aspen groves that can be found throughout the entire area.
We visited in the winter, and while everything was open and there wasn't too much snow (this was the end of December), it was definitely very (very) cold. If you aren't afraid to be a bit chilly on hikes, or are totally prepared to bundle up, this could be a great time to visit.
| Want to Learn More
\\ History of Highway 50 in Nevada