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EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ROAD TRIPPING THE USA'S STUNNING HIGHWAY 50 AKA THE LONELIEST HIGHWAY IN NEVADA, INCLUDING THE TOP 8 THINGS TO SEE ALONG THE WAY.
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, and 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 this beautiful state. Now, don’t get us wrong, Nevada is still empty - there is no denying that - but that, in truth, is part of its appeal. In fact, the state is so empty that it has had one of its major highways - Highway 50 - nicknamed the Loneliest Highway in America.
Highway 50 - better known as the Loneliest Highway - stretches from Fallon, Nevada (near the much bigger city of Reno) all the way across the state to Delta, Utah. Along the way, the road twists and turns over mountain ranges, next to various ghost towns, through historic mining communities and stunning state parks (home to many fun recreational opportunities). If you are looking for a road trip that combines nature and history, but you don't want to deal with crowds, then driving the Loneliest Highway might be a great way to spend a couple of days.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we decided to drive the Loneliest Highway west to east (we started in Reno and ended in Delta) but you can very easily go the opposite direction. Just note that the stops below and the directions to each will need to be reversed.
LONELIEST HIGHWAY | BY THE NUMBERS
472 miles | the distance from Reno, Nevada to Delta, Utah, this is considered the main route of the Loneliest Highway.
7.5 hours | the average time it takes to drive from Reno to Delta, though this does not include any stops along the way.
3.14 million | the total population of the entire state of Nevada, over one-sixth of that lives in the city of Las Vegas.
300+ | the number of mountain ranges in the state, which surprisingly, is the most mountainous state in the USA (you will drive over many of these mountain ranges along the Loneliest Highway).
WHAT IS THE LONELIEST HIGHWAY?
While Life magazine was the first publication to give the highway the nickname “ the Loneliest Highway in America” back in 1986, it was the Nevada Commission on Tourism that really made it stick (check out their website here).
This was largely due to their numerous marketing campaigns that included such things as creating a Highway 50 Survival Guide as well as large highway roadside signs that remind you mile after mile that you are out there entirely alone. Heck, you can even receive a certificate, signed by the governor of Nevada, if you complete the entire driving route.
Thanks to all of that, what began as a fun moniker in the 80s has now become a well-known slogan for a road that stretches just over 400 miles across the entire state of Nevada.
\\ The Best Time to Drive the Loneliest Highway
The shoulder seasons are always a good time to visit this area of the USA. In the 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 region.
We actually drove the Loneliest Highway in the winter, and while everything was open and there wasn't too much snow around (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, then this could also be a great time to drive the highway and explore the area.
\\ Where to Stay Along the Loneliest Highway
While you can do the whole drive from Reno or Carson City to Delta in one long day, we instead recommend splitting it up into at least 2 days. This allows you enough time to stop off at the many scenic places along the way - including 8 of the best destinations down below.
The main towns you can stay in along Highway 50 are Reno, Carson City (depending on where you are starting from), Austin and Ely. Below are some of the best places to stay in each town.
ATLANTIS CASINO RESORT SPA
Located in the southern part of the city of Reno, this casino/resort hotel has a wonderful pool, gym, ample parking and is well-located near many popular tourist attractions. It is also quite close to two major roads - Highway 580 and Highway 659 - both of which take you out to the start of the Loneliest Highway. Book a room here.
GRAND SIERRA RESORT AND CASINO
Another good option is this resort and casino, which like the hotel above, also offers a pool, gym, parking and access to a casino. This resort is actually the largest resort in all of northern Nevada, so if you want lots of options for things to do, then this might be the place to go. Book a room here.
HOLIDAY INN EXPRESS & SUITES
While it might not have the pizzazz as some of the resorts in nearby Reno, this simple hotel in Carson City checks all of the boxes - plus it comes with free breakfast. Book a room here.
There are really only a few options when it comes to staying in Austin, Nevada - luckily, the options are pretty cute and definitely funky. We personally stayed at the Pony Canyon Motel and have nothing bad to say about it. The other options are Cozy Mountain Motel and Union Street Lodging (this is actually a very cute Bed and Breakfast).
When booking a night in Austin, expect to either do it over the phone (at least for the Pony Canyon Motel and the Union Street Lodging BnB) or just show up in person.
PROSPECTOR HOTEL AND GAMBLING HALL
Keeping with the theme of hotels also being casinos or places where you can gamble, we bring you Prospector Hotel, located in the heart of Ely, Nevada. The hotel offers a nice pool, ample parking, a bar and of course, a casino. Book a room here.
Another option is to stay at this locally owned and run motel near the southern side of town. While this motel is quite basic, it does allow pets. Book a room here.
\\ What to Bring With You When Road Tripping the Loneliest Highway
Besides the obvious items - clothes, comfortable shoes to walk around in, etc. - a few other useful things you should remember to bring are...
| An extra gas can. This is more of a "just in case" thing, but something definitely worth considering since you then won't have to stress about the relatively long distances between gas stations. For example, it is 110 miles between the town of Fallon and Austin with no gas stations along the way. Similarly, between the town of Ely and Baker/the Utah border it is 65 miles and then from that gas station it is yet another 90 miles to the next gas station in Utah (near Delta).
| Plenty of snacks and water. Before heading out on the Loneliest Highway you will first want to make sure you stock up on ample amounts of food and water. Besides a few small restaurants, between the towns of Fallon and Delta (aka the entire stretch of the Loneliest Highway) there really are not very many food options available. We recommend stocking up in Reno or Carson City if coming from the west and the Salt Lake City area if coming from the east. Similarly, you will want plenty of water while driving, especially if you plan to do any walks along the way.
| A swimsuit and towel for the hot springs. The state of Nevada has roughly 300 hot springs dotted around its land, and many of those are within somewhat easy driving distance of Highway 50. We highly recommend stopping off, at the very least, at Spencer Hot Springs (read more below). While this hot spring is clothing optional, it is never a bad idea to come prepared with a swimsuit and towel - just in case.
THE TOP 8 DESTINATIONS ALONG THE LONELIEST HIGHWAY
To get to the Loneliest Highway you can either start in Carson City - the capital of Nevada - 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 onto the route, so make sure to stock up on all supplies (food, gas, coffee) before starting the drive east.
💬 INSIDER TIP: when we drove the Loneliest Highway, we chose to begin in Reno solely because we were coming from the west near Lake Tahoe. While Reno is a bit bigger than Carson City (the capital of Nevada), that quaint town also has all the amenities you could need.
1 | RENO
This city 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, Utah or Las Vegas, Nevada, 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). From Fernley, the highway will stay busy until you reach the town of Fallon (a well enough sized town that is truly the last option for any sort of grocery store or restaurant).
While Fallon might not seem like much, one of the coolest things about this town and the surrounding area, is that it is surrounded by various 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 (yes that program does actually exist).
A few other interesting things about Fallon are that in the 1960s the government did nuclear weapons testing in the desert nearby (you can actually visit the site, learn more here), that the city has been the setting for a couple of movies (mostly from the 80s and 90s) as well as the post-apocalyptic book, The Stand by Steven King.
Once you leave the city lights of Fallon, you really start to feel the emptiness of the highway. We drove through this area 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.
2 | AUSTIN
It is approximately 173 miles from Reno to the small town of Austin, Nevada. This should take you around 3 hours to complete - though there are a few interesting things to see along the way, including Grimes Point Archeological Area, the Sand Springs Pony Express Station (now a ruin, but an interesting place to explore), and the Shoe Tree of Middlegate - which is just a large cottonwood tree with dozens of pairs of shoes dangling from it (learn about the origin story here).
By the time you drive into Austin, you will have started to get an idea of the beauty that northern Nevada holds: empty, wide open, mountainous and somewhat barren, but beautiful non the less.
Austin is a small, one street, Old West-style town. It is also the first place to get gas after Fallon. The one main road in town 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 - which makes 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 interesting things to see - including the International Hotel, the oldest building in Nevada, Stokes Castle, a three-story tower structure right outside of town, and the Trading Post, where various turquoise items are sold (Austin is considered a turquoise mecca).
While Austin is by no means a destination on its own, it is one of the better stopping off points on Highway 50. We recommend spending a bit of time here, learning about the areas history and walking around the historic town.
3 | 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 on Highway 50 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 roughly another 10-15 minute drive until you reach a wide open dirt lot. From there, you can see a couple of primitive campsites (only discernible because of the stone fire pits). The hot spring itself is just a bit of a walk away from the parking lot.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: you can find the exact location of the hot springs here. Also, besides the main hot spring tub at Spencer's, there is supposedly a few other hot pools just a short walk away. We did not do much exploring ourselves when we visited (it was too cold), but it could be a neat way to spend a couple of hours.
Spencer Hot Springs is not really natural - instead it is 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 was 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 and 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 visiting other hot springs in Nevada? Then check out this list of 20 of the best.
4 | HICKISON PETROGLYPHS RECREATION AREA
Once done soaking in Spencer Hot Springs, head back out to Highway 50. Keep driving until you see a sign for this recreation area on your left. While this is definitely just a quick pit-stop, this spot is actually 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.
5 | EUREKA
This small town is the next form of civilization on the route after Austin. While today Eureka is just another small, old West-style town, many years ago it 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.
Presently, 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 in 1887), the Jackson House Hotel (built in 1877), and the Eureka Sentinel Museum, which once housed the Eureka Sentinel Newspaper.
Eureka actually has a few really neat places to stop off at, including a cute coffee shop (Eureka Depot), a few restaurants, the aforementioned Eureka Sentinel Museum, and the nearby Ruby Hill ghost town.
6 | CAVE LAKE STATE PARK
Between the town of Eureka and Cave Lake State Park (a distance of 92 miles) 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 also some short hikes to head out on, which is especially nice if you are looking to stretch your legs after a long day of driving, as well as a few mountain bike trails to explore.
If you are looking to stay nearby, there are two campgrounds available. Both offer campsites with tables and fire pits, as well as flushable toilets and running water.
7 | 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 (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).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: it costs $5.00 per vehicle (if from Nevada) or $10.00 per vehicle if you are not from Nevada to enter the state park. If you want to spend more time exploring the area consider camping - per night it costs $15.00 for people from Nevada and $20.00 per vehicle for out-of-staters.
8 | 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 in the park 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), take a turn around a grove of some of the oldest trees on Earth: the Bristlecone Pine (they are known to live for nearly 5,000 years), and even see a couple of high mountain lakes.
Another must-do in Great Basin National Park is to take a tour of the famous Lehman Caves - the longest cave in Nevada and one full of unique life forms and structures. The park offers two different tours or the caves: the Parachute Shield Tour and the Grand Palace Tour.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: both tours usually sell out ahead of time and therefore it is recommended that you reserve your spot early. You can make your reservation for the Lehman Caves here.