Many people are surprised to learn that Nevada holds some pretty crazy superlatives: the state is home to some of Earth’s oldest living organisms, is more mountainous than any other state in the Lower 48, boasts the darkest skies in the contiguous United States, and is second only to Alaska for the percentage of public land it contains. Safe to say that the Silver State is so much more than casinos, tranquil desert landscapes and famous Lake Tahoe. (Though those are worthy attractions too!) For the full Nevada experience, check out some of these lesser-known treasures that make for a surprisingly unique vacation.
Marvel at the wild horses of Carson Valley
It’s estimated that more than half of the wild horses in the United States live in Nevada, thanks to an abundance of public land that allows horses and burros to roam freely. The classic Wild West images of galloping herds are great, but if you want to see them for yourself, Carson Valleywhich encompasses Minden, Gardnerville, Topaz Lake and Genoa, is one of the best locations.
“Horses are a huge draw for those who come to Carson Valley because they are so accessible. They are famous, have names and are followed by people all over the world,” says Kim Steed, a local wildlife photographer. To learn more about wildlife viewing in the Carson Valley and book your place on wildlife photography tours of the area, stop at the Visit the Carson Valley visitor center in downtown Gardnerville. Be sure to bring binoculars or a long range lens as it’s important to stay at least 200 feet away from horses.
She adds that the opportunities for wildlife photography are endless, with many birds, including bald eagles in winter, migrating to the area. Steed’s favorite year-round bird is the California quail which inhabits Carson Valley.
Take advantage of Carson City as a jumping-off point for northern Nevada
Many use Nevada’s capital as a hub to explore all of Northern Nevada. According to Lydia Beck, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for Visit Carson City, “Carson City is a special place, not only because of its rich history, but also because of its proximity to incredible outdoor recreation. After visiting our museums, like the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, you’ll find world-class hiking and mountain biking trails just minutes from our quaint and charming downtown. Our Kings Canyon waterfall is only a 400 yard walk away, the Ash to Kings trail is a mountain bike favorite and of course we are only 25 minutes from Lake Tahoe where the options are endless. .
While you’re in town, be sure to complete the triathlon. But don’t worry, it’s not that kind of triathlon. “The Carson City Triathlon is a drink, dine and swim event, not a swim, bike and run,” says Beck, “so no training is required.” The trifecta centered on food, drink and relaxation hits three amazing establishments on the north side of the city: Shoe Tree Brewing Co., Eclectic Restaurant in Sassafrasand the Historic Carson Hot Springs. “If you visit all three in one day, you’re a champion,” Beck jokes.
Time travel to the Wild West in Virginia City
While in Northern Nevada, take a walk down memory lane by Virginia-City, a historic mining town that is home to the richest silver discovery on the planet. Here you will find Victorian buildings built during a mining boom in the 19th century, many of which are said to be haunted. Take one Bats in the Belfry Ghost Tour for the truth, and be sure to visit in October for the month haunting an event.
Hike to your heart’s content in the Ruby Mountains
To discover one of Nevada’s best-kept secrets, head to ruby mountains outside of Elko. Summer is an amazing time to enjoy hiking and valley camping here. If you’re looking for a multi-day adventure, the Ruby Crest Trail is a 43-mile point-to-point alpine hike that takes you to some of the best lakes and scenery the area has to offer. For a less strenuous commitment, try a day hike to Liberty Lake.
To note: Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway is open seasonally from May to October each year.
Marvel at the oldest living trees on Earth in Grand Bassin National Park
Have you heard of bristlecone pine? This extremely rare tree species is found in only a few states in the western United States. Scientists believe the oldest living organism on Earth, at nearly 5,000 years old, is a bristlecone pine. Although the location of the oldest bristlecone pine is not disclosed in order to protect the tree, in Great Basin National Park you have the chance to walk among these ancient beings.
“The park is a place of superlatives,” says Liz Woolsey, owner of the Stargazer Inn and Bristlecone General Store near Baker. In addition to the oldest trees on the planet, Great Basin has some of the darkest night skies. “It’s also the quietest national park in terms of visitor numbers, as well as air and car traffic,” Woolsey notes. And for all the Peak lovers out there, you’ll find Nevada’s second tallest mountain, Wheeler Peak, inside the park, not to mention the longest caves in the state.
Mountain bike and immerse yourself in history in White Pine County
Beyond the Great Basin, there’s plenty to discover in White Pine County. Ely, Nevada is your starting point for even more adventures. Learn about Nevada’s railroad history at East Ely Depot Railway Museumor consult the Ely Art Bank before going further. For outdoor activities, tourism manager Kyle Horvath recommends the Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Parkhome to 19th century beehive-shaped ovens, miles of hiking trails and camping areas. Cave Lake State Park is a can‘t-miss spot with beautiful mountains and cycle paths galore.
While in Ely, take a seat on the Grand Bassin stars and champagne train on the Northern Nevada Railroad. This popular excursion includes a ranger-guided trip on the historic railroad to a platform with telescopes for stargazing.
Point: Book during a new moon for the best stargazing opportunities. And do it well in advance – it’s a popular activity and can sell out a year in advance.
Hop into state parks in and around Cathedral Gorge
The American Southwest is full of geological features that make you think of Mars, but nothing is quite like the orange, layered, cathedral formations of Cathedral Gorge. This unique feature was formed when volcanic ash sat beneath a lake for a few million years and then eroded into the colorful formations you see today. Here you’ll find slot canyons, as well as short and moderate hiking trails, including the popular Miller Point and Eagle Point trails, which combine for a three-mile hike through the park’s canyons and viewpoints.
Dawn Andone, interpreter for Nevada State Parks, also recommends the other four parks in the area—beaver dam, Kershaw Ryan, echo canyonand spring valley. “You could spend an entire week going from park to park because they’re so close together — a unique feature in Nevada,” she says. In the parks, you can camp, fish, hike, mountain bike, drive ATV trails and, of course, enjoy some of Nevada’s best stargazing.
Discover outdoor art at Goldfield
If you find yourself driving between Reno and Las Vegas, allow time to enjoy the art and history stops along the way. Goldfield, which once held the title of largest city in Nevada, is a must-see. Now a small town, Goldfield hosts the Last Church International Car Forest—an open-air art museum of spray-painted buses and cars, nestled among Joshua trees. The exhibit, which was originally built by artists Mark Rippie, Chad Sort and Zak Sargent and is now curated by local Goldfield artists, is free to enjoy and explore.
In downtown Goldfield you can see Rocket Bob’s artistic carsoriginal automotive art inspired by Burning Man.
To note: While adding your own spray paint art to cars, visitors are no longer allowed to spray paint exhibits.
Step back in time at the Lost City Museum near the Valley of Fire
The valley of fire, outside of Las Vegas, has earned its fame with its beautiful rock formations and colors, but the area is also rich in history. The Lost City Museum is located on an Ancestral Puebloan site and features reconstructed pueblo dwellings, ancient ruins, and artifacts from Nevada’s Pueblo Grande archaeological sites.
Along with learning about the Southern Paiute tribes that live in the area, the Moapa Valley is an amazing place to connect with nature. “Nevada is a great place to reset,” says Mary Beth Timm, director of the Lost City Museum. “We have lots of open skies and the desert landscape is to die for.”
Bonus: dive into the largest alpine lake in North America
yes we know Lake Tahoe is one of the state’s most famous features. (The lake straddles the California-Nevada border, and one-third of the lake is in Nevada.) When you stand on the shores gazing at its Caribbean-blue water surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it’s easy to see why Lake Tahoe is in tops many Nevada travel lists.
But there’s so much more to this gigantic alpine lake (one of the largest in the world) than crystal clear water and winter skiing, including mountain biking, kayaking and boating. If you’re a hiker, you’ll love the Tahoe Rim Trail. At nearly 170 miles around the lake, it’s the perfect way to see beautiful meadows, sunrises, sunsets, and awesome starry skies. Short on time ? Pick a section, like Mount Rosa to Spooner Lake, and enjoy the wildflowers and alpine lakes of summer.
With so much to see and do, no two Nevada vacations are alike. Be sure to leave unscheduled time in your itinerary to make your own discoveries and follow inspiration. You never know what the desert and mountains have in store for you when you leave Main Street to explore the unexpected.
Travel Nevada (the Nevada Division of Tourism) is part of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. He is responsible for promoting and marketing Nevada as a travel destination. Learn more about TravelNevada.com.