The Nevada vacation you didn’t know you needed

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Many people are surprised to learn that Nevada has some pretty wild superlatives: the state is home to some of the oldest living organisms on earth, is more mountainous than any other state in the Lower 48, lays claim to the darkest skies in the contiguous US, and is second only to Alaska in terms of public lands it hosts. It’s safe to say that the Silver State is so much more than casinos, serene desert landscapes, and the famous Lake Tahoe. (Although these are worthy attractions too!) For the full Nevada experience, check out some of these lesser-known gems that make for a surprisingly unique vacation.

Admire the Carson Valley wild horses

It’s estimated that more than half of the wild horses in the United States reside in Nevada, thanks to an abundance of public lands that provide plenty of room for horses and donkeys to roam freely. Classic Wild West images of galloping herds are stunning, but if you want to see them for yourself, Carson Valleywhich includes Minden, Gardnerville, Topaz Lake and Genoa is one of the best places.

“Horses are a huge draw for those who come to Carson Valley because they are so accessible. They’re famous, they have names, and they’re 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 reserve your spot on area wildlife photography tours, visit the Visit 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 the horses.

She adds that the opportunities for photographing wildlife are endless as many birds including bald eagles migrate through the area in winter. Steed’s favorite year-round bird is the California quail, which makes its home in the Carson Valley.

Enjoy Carson City as a gateway to northern Nevada

Many use Nevada’s capital as a central hub to explore all of northern Nevada. According to Lydia Beck, Marketing and PR Manager at Visit Carson City, “Carson City is a special place, not only because of our rich history, but also because of our proximity to amazing 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 area. Our Kings Canyon waterfall is only a quarter mile 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, this is not a triathlon. “The Carson City Triathlon is a drink, dine, and dip event — no swim, bike, and run,” says Beck, “so no training is required.” The food, drink, and relaxation-focused trifecta meets three amazing facilities in the north of the city: Shoe Tree Brewing Co., Sassafras Eclectic Food Jointand the historic Carson Hot Springs. “If you visit all three in one day, you’re a champion,” jokes Beck.

Travel back in time to the Wild West in Virginia City

Take a walk down memory lane in northern Nevada Virginia city, a historic mining town that is home to the richest silver discoveries in the world. You’ll find Victorian buildings built during a 19th-century mining boom, many of which are said to be devastated. take one Bats in the Belfry Ghost Tour for the facts, and be sure to visit in October for the full month spooky Event.

Hike to your heart’s content in the Ruby Mountains

To experience one of Nevada’s best kept secrets, visit ruby mountains outside of Elko. Summer is an incredible time to hike and camp here in the valley. If you’re looking for a multi-day adventure, the Ruby Crest Trail is a 70km alpine point-to-point hike that takes you to some of the best lakes and scenery the area has to offer. For less intense engagement, try a day hike to Liberty Lake.

Ruby Crest Trail (Photo: Kristin Addis)

Note: The Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway is open seasonally from May to October each year.

Marvel at the oldest living trees on earth in Great Basin National Park

Have you heard of the Bristlecone Pine? This extremely rare tree species is only found in a few states in the American West. Scientists believe the oldest single living organism on Earth, dating back nearly 5,000 years, is a bristlecone pine. While the location of the oldest bristlecone pine is not disclosed to protect the tree, in Great Basin National Park You have the opportunity to walk between these ancient beings.

“The park is a place of superlatives,” says Liz Woolsey, owner of the Stargazer Inn and Bristlecone General Store in nearby Baker. In addition to having the oldest trees in the world, the Great Basin has some of the darkest night skies. “It’s also the quietest national park in terms of visitor numbers and air and car traffic,” Woolsey notes. And for all you mountaineers out there, you’ll find Nevada’s second highest mountain – Wheeler Peak – in the park, not to mention the longest caves in the state.

Great Basin National Park (Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada)

Mountain biking and immersing yourself in history in White Pine County

Beyond the Great Basin, there’s plenty to do in White Pine County. Ely, Nevada is your home base for even more adventure. Explore Nevada’s railroad history at the East Ely Depot Railway Museumor check them out Ely Kunstbank before going any further. For outdoor activities, tourism director Kyle Horvath recommends this Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic ParkHome to 19th-century beehive-shaped kilns, miles of hiking trails and campgrounds. Cave Lake State Park is a canT-Miss spot with beautiful mountains and bike trails galore.

Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park (Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada)

In Ely, take a seat on the Great Basin Stars & Champagne Train on the Nevada Northern Railway. This popular excursion includes a ranger-led ride on the historic railway to a stargazing platform with telescopes.

Tip: Book at new moon for the best stargazing opportunities. And do it well in advance – this is a popular activity and can sell out a year in advance.

Visit the state parks in and around Cathedral Gorge

The American Southwest is full of geological features that will remind you of Mars, but nothing quite like the orange, layered, cathedral-like formations of Cathedral Canyon. This unique feature was formed when volcanic ash lay beneath a lake for a few million years and then eroded to become the colorful formations you see today. You’ll find slot canyons here, as well as some short and moderate trails, including the popular Miller Point and Eagle Point trails, which combine for a three-mile hike through canyons and park vistas.

Cathedral Gorge State Park (Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada)

Dawn Andone, interpreter for Nevada State Parks, also recommends the four other parks in the area –beaver dam, Kershaw-Ryan, Echo Canyonand Spring valley. “You could spend a whole 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 ATVs and of course enjoy some of the best stargazing in Nevada.

Discover outdoor art in Goldfield

If you’re driving between Reno and Las Vegas, take your time to enjoy the artistic and historical stops along the route. Goldfield, which once held the title of Nevada’s largest city, is a must-see. Goldfield is now a small town and home to the Last Church International Car Forest– an open-air art museum with spray-painted buses and nose-down cars nestled between Joshua trees. Originally built by artists Mark Rippie, Chad Sort and Zak Sargent and now curated by local Goldfield artists, the exhibit is free to visit and explore.

Last Church International Car Forest (Photo: Kristin Addis)

In downtown Goldfield you can see Rocket Bob’s Art Carsthe original car art inspired by Burning Man.

Note: While applying your own spray art to the cars was once encouraged, visitors are no longer allowed to spray paint the exhibits.

Travel back in time at the Lost City Museum near the Valley of Fire

That Valley of Fire, outside of Las Vegas, gained fame with its beautiful rock formations and colors, but the area is also steeped in history. That Lost City Museum is located on an Ancestral Puebloan Site and features reconstructed Puebloan dwellings, ancient ruins and artifacts from the Pueblo Grande de Nevada archaeological site.

In addition to learning about the southern Paiute tribes who live in the region, the Moapa Valley is an amazing place to connect with nature. “Nevada is a great place to reset,” says Lost City Museum director Mary Beth Timm. “We have a lot of open sky and the desert landscape is a dream.”

Bonus: Dive into North America’s largest alpine lake

yes we know LakeTahoe is one of the most famous features of the state. (The lake straddles the California-Nevada border, and a third of the lake is in Nevada.) Standing on the shore and gazing out at the Caribbean-blue waters surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it’s easy to see why Lake Tahoe is at the top of many Nevada travel lists.

Sand Harbor State Park (Photo: Travel Nevada)

But this gigantic alpine lake (one of the largest in the world) has so much more to offer 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 almost 170 miles around the lake, it’s the perfect way to see beautiful meadows, sunrises, sunsets and impressive starry skies. Little time? Choose a section like Mount Rose to Spooner Lake and enjoy the summer wildflowers and alpine lakes.

With so much to see and do, no two Nevada vacations are the same. Be sure to leave unplanned time in your itinerary to make your own discoveries and follow the inspiration. You never know what the desert and mountains have in store when you venture off the main road to explore the unexpected.


Travel Nevada (the Nevada Division of Tourism) is part of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. It is responsible for the promotion and marketing of Nevada as a tourist destination. Learn more at TravelNevada.com.

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