The Road Trips That Will Move Nevada to the Top of Your List

Valley of Fire, credit: Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada
Dec 21, 2018

If the wheels you instinctively associate with Nevada are spun by a croupier, you’re probably not getting out enough. At least not out on the open road of the most mountainous state in the Lower 48, where the surest bet you can make is that the driving will be epic.

Beyond being insanely gorgeous (emphasis on insane around some of the desert art installations), Nevada’s best road trips also happen to make for an excellent antidote to the stuck-inside, wintertime blues. Picture DayGlo mega-sculptures in the Mojave, cowboy poetry jams in the mountains and a brand-new state park on land that hasn’t seen outsiders in more than a century.

For more, check out three of our favorite routes, then hit the road.

The Free-Range Art Highway

Vegas to Tonopah—or Reno

What—you’ve never seen a 40-foot, fire-breathing mantis?

This trail—which links two recently revitalized and heavily art-ified Downtown districts to wild art outcroppings in the desert—will remedy that, and much more. So why now? Though the visuals are amazing year-round, a couple of wintertime bonus stops add a mantle of magic to the whole thing. Plus, you can gawk at outdoor art all day when heat isn’t a consideration. We’re highlighting some of the most notable stops to give you a taste, but you’ll find an expanded version of the route (map included) here. 

The last several years have brought an extreme makeover to downtown Las Vegas, where the new cultural scenes of Fremont East and the Las Vegas Arts District have edged out the old down-at-the-heels vibe. Life is Beautiful—a music, food and art festival born in 2013—has been one of the biggest drivers of that change, with a who’s-who of global street artists creating eye-popping murals and installations for the occasion. And though not everything stays put once the festival ends, plenty does—to the point that downtown is now effectively an open-air gallery. In Fremont East, don’t miss the Container Park’s praying mantis, a 40-foot sculpture by onetime aerospace engineer Kirk Jellum, whose creation periodically breathes fire at night.

Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas. Credit: Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada

Speaking of things to catch at night, we should mention two more. Though they’re not officially part of the Free-Range Art Highway, they’re on your way—and they add enough holiday fairy dust to the journey that they’re worth stopping for. The first: the Glittering Lights at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway 10 minutes from downtown, where (through Jan. 6) you can christen your road trip by driving through the 3 million or so LED lights that twinkle-up this 2.5-mile course.

The second? The 25th anniversary edition of the Cactus Garden Holiday Lights at Ethel M. Chocolates, where (also through Jan. 6) you can wander three acres of wildly bedazzled desert flora, then grab some of Vegas’s favorite sweets for the road. You’ll want to combine this stop—just a few miles south of Vegas—with one of the first official stops on the Free-Range Art Highway: the famed fluorescent boulders meant to evoke human presence in the desert, and now a major cause of human presence in the desert. 

Seven Magic Mountains, outside Las Vegas. Credit: Kaitlin Godbey, TravelNevada

Titled Seven Magic Mountains, these cult-favorite totems by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone look extra gorgeous during the golden hour just before sunset, so you could do a late-afternoon stop here—then a dusk drop-in at Ethel M’s illuminated cactus garden and chocolate shop.

With at least a day in Vegas under your belt—or seat belt, as the case may be—hit the road for Beatty, an improbable arts hub about 120 miles to the northwest on Highway 95. Just outside town, you’ll find the eight-acre Goldwell Open Air Museum, home to a 25-foot pink lady and a ghostly take on the Last Supper, among other installations by an international array of sculptors.

Last Supper Sculpture, Goldwell Open Air Museum. Credit: Sydney Martinez, TravelNevada

While you’re in the neighborhood, check out an unintentional art installation of sorts: the remains of a mining camp now known as the Rhyolite Ghost Town—the most photographed ghost town in the state.

Spend the night in Beatty, where you shouldn’t miss the Happy Burro Chili & Beer’s namesake offerings—nor the men’s room, if you wish you were doing this trip by motorcycle. Just trust us here. Stay in the former digs of Area 51 personnel: the retro (but eco-friendly) Atomic Inn.

From Beatty, you’ll drive 67 miles to Goldfield, once Nevada's biggest city—now a living ghost town, thanks to the fabled International Car Forest of the Last Church. Improbably tipped, stacked and painted by itinerant artists, these cars, trucks and buses are so hallucinatory, you’ll question whether you’ve been remembering to hydrate in the desert (or if you accidentally took something back in Vegas, Wolf Pack-style).

International Car Forest of the Last Church, Goldfield. Credit: Steve Wohlwender, TravelNevada

Drive another 27 miles north, and you’ll hit Tonopah, where you’ll find exhibits both indoors (the Central Nevada Museum) and out (the murals next to the Mizpah Hotel, plus the jillions of stars in the famously dark night sky). Stay at the Mizpah, a faithful throwback to the early 1900s—minus the flat-screen TVs, high-thread-count sheets and Wi-Fi.

From here, you can either head back to Vegas, or drive the 227 miles to Reno, with stops to see the work of acclaimed regional and visiting artists at the Yerington Theatre of the Arts and Fallon's Oats Park Art Center (get here by March 23 to catch Miya Hannan's haunting installations and mixed-media works). Then take a road trip victory lap around downtown Reno's gallery-filled Riverwalk, where you'll also have your pick of a million celebratory bars and restaurants.

The Rubies Route

An Elko-based hub-and-spoke trip

Cowboys and heli-skiing and ice-fishing, oh my! Northern Nevada’s Ruby Mountains are the embodiment of a Western Winter Wonderland, complete with a legendary cowboy poetry and music fest if you time your trip to the 35th anniversary edition (Jan. 28 – Feb. 2, 2019). 

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko. Credit: Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada

If you’re already a fan of the #ranchlife—or merely cowboy-curious—Elko is the place to be in late January, when thousands flock to this century-old mountain town for six days of poetry, music, dance, art and storytelling: the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, with the famed Colter Wall and Corb Lund on hand for this year's epic edition. But whether or not you make the Gathering, you can soak up the local vibes at the new Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum and the Western Folklife Center.  

From Elko, die-hard skiers should head southeast for 20 miles to Lamoille—that is, the best place you’ve never heard of, according to Outside Magazine, whose editors count this among the continent’s best places to heli-ski. Something to do with the 10 peaks above 11,000 feet, the 30 or so alpine lakes and some seriously dry and fluffy powder.

Ruby Mountain Heli Ski. Credit: Ruby Mountain Heli Skiing

Another 20-mile drive from Elko—this one almost due south—takes you to the South Fork State Recreation Area, where ice fishing for trout is a beloved winter pastime. (FYI: This 1650-acre reservoir is also great for boating and swimming, should you find yourself so smitten that you want to return in summer, as many do.)

If cross-country skiing is your jam—or you just want to check out some other wonderlandy terrain—head to either Angel Lake (about 55 miles northeast of Elko) or Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge (about 62 miles to the southeast).

Angel Lake. Credit: Sydney Martinez, TravelNevada

Toast to your adventures at the acclaimed Ruby Mountain Brewing Co. on a working ranch (you'll find it between Angel Lake and Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge), rest up at the classic Thunderbird Motel—and refuel at Machi's Saloon & Grill.

The Lake Tahoe Loop

Reno, the Carson Valley and Lake Tahoe with a detour for the adventurous

It’s not every day that Nevada gets a new state park. Not even every decade. But 2018 saw the opening of the first one in 20 years—the stunning Walker River State Recreation Area—12,000 acres of riverside land that hadn’t been accessible to the public in more than a century. And this pristine wilderness pairs perfectly with the buzzing state capitol—plus "the Biggest Little City in the World" (Reno), the historic hamlets of the Carson Valley and the stunning shores of Lake Tahoe.

Fly into Reno, where—in keeping with the nickname—you should explore the biggest and best of the local offerings, from the nation’s tallest climbing wall to the larger-than-life sculptures imported from Burning Man to the new Reno Playa Art Park—a free downtown public installation north of the Reno Arch.

Mural in Reno. Credit: Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada

From there, it’s about a 30-mile drive south to the state capital of Carson City, where the 21st century meets the 19th (see: the 1870 capitol building and the 1869 U.S. Mint-turned Nevada State Museum, among other vestiges of the mining boom). To stretch your legs and get the best look at the city’s historic sites in the process, walk the self-guided Blue Line Trail.

If you want to dig deeper into mining boomtown history—or you love American lit—take the half-hour detour to Virginia City, where you’ll find a wealth of mid-19th century architecture, the state’s oldest hotel and the milieu that birthed Samuel Clemens’ newspaper career.  It was here in 1862 that he started covering local life for the Territorial Enterprise under the name Mark Twain.

Virginia City. Courtesy of Visit Virginia City.

Keep traveling back in time as you make your way south into the Carson Valley, the river-and-mountain-veined pastoral patch where you’ll find the Mormon Station State Historic Park as well as a trio of historic towns: Minden, Gardnerville and Genoa, the last of which happens to be the oldest town in Nevada—and home to the state’s "Oldest Thirst Parlor." Don’t miss this saloon, where you should make a point of spotting the famous spots—from the tomato juice splatters to Raquel Welch’s leopard-print bra (and try asking for an explanation).

Nevada's Oldest Thirst Parlor, Genoa. Credit: Sydney Martinez, TravelNevada

After checking out Genoa’s town hall, community church and courthouse museum—all of the same vintage as the 1853 saloon—check into the 1862 David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort and Spa, where you should take advantage of the onsite thermal waters. And before you hit the road again, stop at the 1855 Pink House for either a meal or artisanal sandwiches (the Pink Pig is a fan favorite) to eat in the car.

1862 David Walley's Hot Springs Resort and Spa, Gardnerville. Credit: Laura Rose Robb, TravelNevada

The road trip’s grand finale? Choose your own adventure: If you're doing this trip in spring—or you're up for some seriously rugged (read: tricky roads, no cell service) wintertime fun in the backcountry—head to Nevada’s newest state park, a 61-mile southeasterly drive from Genoa. After 125 years of being off limits to the public, the pristine Walker River State Recreation Area will have you trading your wheels for hiking boots—or snowshoes. 

Or take the road less rugged (but no less fun), and relax at the resorts in Stateline—not even 20 miles away from Genoa—then loop back up along the #NevadaSide of Lake Tahoe to Incline Village on the lake's northern shore, for the slopes and some serious après-ski by the outdoor firepit at the Lone Eagle Grille

Lone Eagle Grille, Credit: Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino

Ready to go? These road trips only scratch the surface of what you'll discover in Nevada. Find more road trip itineraries and travel inspiration through TravelNevada, or request a visitor's guide to plan your next trip.

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