Take all the space you need in Nevada

May 22, 2024

When daily life starts to feel constricted to small screens—and you find yourself daydreaming about the opposite—limitless spaces, vast skies, wild landscapes and a wide-open road come to mind. And while that mental image may feel a bit abstract, the real-life version is close at hand: Nevada. Even the name—a Spanish allusion to the Sierra's snow-covered peaks—is dreamy, to say nothing of the actual scenery. Think vertiginous peaks, otherworldly geologic formations and dark sky sanctuaries. And where else will you find a Sunset, Stars and Champagne Train?

To see for yourself, read on. We've put together a showstopper of a road trip. If you don't have the time for the full round-trip, you could fly into Las Vegas and out of Reno (or vice versa), though affordable flights between the two cities allow for plenty of flexibility.

Part one: Las Vegas to Tonopah

Approximately 210 miles

Put the neon and nightlife of the Las Vegas Strip in the rearview mirror as you head northwest on US-95. Within an hour and a half, you'll be deep in the Mojave Desert and entering Amargosa Valley.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

What's so special about this place? For starters, it's home to the highest concentration of endemic species in the United States. This unreal array of plants and animals can be found within Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, where turquoise and sapphire pools lie at the heart of the largest oasis in the Mojave Desert. The local superstars are the pupfish, especially the endangered Devils Hole pupfish, whose latest comeback just made The New York Times.

Amargosa Big Dune Recreation Area

While wandering among the refuge's other pools and boardwalks, keep an eye out for ospreys, ducks ... pretty much whatever you wouldn't expect to find mid-Mojave. Of course, some out-of-towners think the most surprising animal around these parts is Alphie, aka Big Bovine, the enormous fiberglass cow you'll spot—and invariably take a picture with—outside the Longstreet Inn, Casino & RV Resort. Something else that rises dramatically from the local desert floor: the singing sands of Amargosa Big Dune Recreation Area, aka Amargosa Dunes, where you'll need an OHV to navigate the slopes. But if your car has four-wheel drive, you can at least get close enough to behold the beauty of the 500-footer, among other dunes.

Goldwell Open Air Museum

Have lunch in Beatty—Nevada's gateway to Death Valley—at an absolute icon of a Sagebrush Saloon: Happy Burro Chili & Beer. Then walk off your meal in the neighboring ghost town of Rhyolite and the surreal art installations of the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Next, make your way to the turn-of-the-century mining town of Tonopah, where you'll want to check in to the restored historic Mizpah Hotel and grab an early dinner at the Tonopah Brewing Co. before heading out for a night in the Clair Blackburn Memorial Stargazing Park.

Part two: Tonopah to Ely

Approximately 170 miles

Spend the morning getting to know Tonopah before you hit the road. To get a sense of what gave rise to the hotel you’ve just stayed in—and the rest of the historic downtown—start at the Tonopah Historic Mining Park, home to more than 100 acres of preserved equipment and buildings as well as exhibits and video presentations, all a fun crash course in how this town earned the nickname "Queen of the Silver Camps."

Tonopah, Nevada

You may also want to visit the graves of some of the camp's most interesting denizens at the Old Tonopah Cemetery, where a brochure available at the adjacent Clown Motel will serve as your guide. If you find yourself developing an affinity for the kinds of characters you encounter there, continue your tour at the motel. The place is reportedly full of ghosts. But even if they elude you, the countless clowns on display from around the world will surely creep you out at what some have called America's scariest motel. It is, if nothing else, a perfect road trip photo opp. 

Ward Charcoal Ovens

Whatever you choose to do before you move on, make sure your tank is full and you've got extra water and snacks before you hit the road. The stretch you're about to drive has no services until you reach your destination 170 miles away. About an hour into your drive, you'll arrive at the Lunar Crater National Natural Landmark, worth seeing for landscapes that would indeed be at home on the moon, even if they were actually caused by ancient earthly volcanoes. You'll reach the landmark after a drive on the Lunar Crater National Back Country Byway, a rugged, unpaved 24-mile volcanic field maars, cinder cones and basalt flows. But don't dally too long, because you still have one stop before Ely: the hive-shaped Ward Charcoal Ovens, which processed silver ore in the 1870s.

Sunset, Stars & Champagne Train

The idea is to reach Ely in time for an early dinner—Margarita’s is a perennial favorite for Mexican food—so that you can get to the Nevada Northern Railway Station in time to catch the 7:15 Sunset, Stars & Champagne Train. This 150-minute experience is as dreamy as you might imagine, but it's available only on particular Thursdays and Saturdays, so if you have your heart set on riding the rails out into the high desert above the Steptoe Valley for a panorama of the sunset—and then the dazzling night sky—plan (and book) accordingly. For a historic stay in the heart of this remote mountain town, go for the landmark Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall.

Part three: Ely to Fallon

Approximately 260 miles

There's so much to see and do around Ely that you may want to spend two nights here. 

History lovers will find plenty to explore, too, starting with the train depot you set off from last night. Reportedly the least altered and most complete main yard complex remaining from the steam locomotive era, The Nevada Northern Railway Complex is worth a proper wander. Other stops that will give you a good feel for that moment in history: the White Pine Public Museum, the McGill Drugstore Museum and the Renaissance Village. If art museums are more your thing, don't miss the Ely Art Bank (literally, a historic bank that became a gallery), nor a self-guided tour of the town murals. Perhaps as eye-popping—at least for rockhounds—are the deep red titular treasures you'll find at Garnet Hill.

Great Basin National Park

To get farther out into nature, devote a good chunk of a day at the Great Basin National Park. This park is about an hour's drive in the opposite direction from Fallon, but it's a spectacularly worthy detour (formation-filled caves! yellow-bellied rock marmots! endless trails!).

If you don't have the time to spare, or you'd simply rather not wander that far off course, you can also find gorgeous trails right around Ely. Check out Cave Lake State Park, which offers four trails between 3 and 5 miles that range from easy to moderately strenuous. If you've gotten a Nevada fishing license online, you can fish at this state park, too. And if you've got a mountain bike in tow, bust it out now—or at Ward Mountain Recreation Area.

Mountain biking in Ward Mountain Recreation Area

When you've feasted your eyes on all that you can in the Ely area, head to Fallon  for an actual feast, as this historic farm town has become one of the most improbable foodie havens anywhere. Unwind over beloved pub fare and craft beers—and perhaps a game of cornhole—at The Grid before spending the night at the national chain hotel of your choosing (they're plentiful here). 

Part four: Fallon to Gerlach

Approximately 105 miles

If you've never heard of the Bread Basket or Oasis of Nevada, spending time in the agriculture-rich Lahontan Valley that surrounds Fallon is worthwhile for the sheer who-knew?! factor (let alone the abundance of farm-fresh fare). Plan for breakfast at either Courtyard Café or Stone Cabin Coffee, lunch at The Slanted Porch, and a snack stop for to-go road trip treats (or on-the-spot treats if you can't wait) at Lattin Farms.  

Fuel up in Fallon

Between meals, wander the historic Maine Street, head over to the Oats Park Arts Center (a schoolhouse turned gallery) and if you want to get out into nature, visit the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (particularly good for birders) or the 600-foot Sand Mountain (if you haven't had your fill of dunes yet). And though you're presumably not road-tripping in a funky race car, you may well want to head to the famed local Top Gun Drag Strip to see who is (make sure to check the event schedule).

Pyramid Lake

Next up: an afternoon at Pyramid Lake, home to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, for whom these waters and surrounding lands are sacred. Learn more at the visitor center and museum, where you can also buy recreation, boating and fishing permits. Another endemic species hot spot, the lake is home to the cui–ui sucker fish and the largest breeding ground of the American White Pelican (look out for thousands of migrating birds in this protected habitat, too). From there, make your way to tiny Gerlach—gateway to the Black Rock Desert of Burning Man fame—and have dinner (and check into) Bruno’s Country Club, Motel & RV Park, where the ravioli and Picon Punch are obligatory.

Part five: Gerlach to Massacre Rim

Approximately 75 miles 

Start today with the idea that your evening's goal is to be in an extremely remote dark sky sanctuary—where you can camp if you're interested and prepared—and work backward from there. Because Gerlach is the gateway to, among other things, Burning Man, you’ll find outdoor safety supplies and food for sale at the Empire Store. But just in case this needs saying: Do not camp in the wilderness if you're not fully equipped.

Black Rock Playa

Get an early start to allow for plenty of time in the Black Rock Desert. If you've never been to Burning Man, or even if you have but you want to see it without the people (assuming you avoid the area August 25-September 2 this year), head to the fabled Black Rock Playa. See the multicolored, hot spring water-spewing Fly Geyser on a guided walking tour. And for that matter, soak in the Black Rock Hot Springs. Just remember that once you get off the main roads and head into the surrounding wilderness areas, you'll want four-wheel drive, a good spare tire, plenty of extra water, a map and the sense of adventure required to explore sans cell service.

Massacre Rim Dark Sky Sanctuary

But again, leave plenty of time to get to today's main event: the Massacre Rim Dark Sky Sanctuary, one of the darkest places on earth and an exceptional place to gaze upon the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. This wilderness area of more than 100,000 acres is also phenomenally quiet, a boon to nocturnal desert creatures. So camping here, even along the periphery, is something worth making time for if you're at all inclined. You'll be navigating remote dirt roads hours from hotels, services and—crucially to what you're doing here—electricity. Massacre Rim has no light pollution, and the incomparable stargazing here makes for the blingiest possible grand finale to your road trip.

You could also skip camping in favor of a post-stargazing stay at Old Yella Dog Ranch, the closest indoor accommodation to the dark sky sanctuary. The next morning, you're looking at a drive of about 230 miles—and 4 hours—to Reno. Then again, after last night's look into the distant cosmos, time (and yes, space) will be meaningless.

Ready to go? Find more inspiration for a Nevada road trip and request a free guide.

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