Many people are surprised to learn Nevada holds 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 U.S., and is second only to Alaska in the percentage of public land it harbors. Safe to say, the Silver State is so much more than casinos, tranquil desertscapes, and the famous Lake Tahoe. (Although these 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 for plenty of room for horses and burros to roam free. Classic Wild West pictures of the herds galloping are stunning, but if you want to see them for yourself, Carson Valley, which encompasses 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’re so accessible. They’re famous, have names, and are followed by people all over the world,” says Kim Steed, a local wildlife photographer. To learn about wildlife viewing in Carson Valley and reserve your spot on area wildlife photography tours, stop by the Visit Carson Valley visitor center in downtown Gardnerville. Be sure to bring binoculars or a long-range lens, since it’s important to stay at least 200 feet from the horses.
She adds that opportunities to photograph wildlife are endless, with many birds, including bald eagles in the winter, migrating through the area. Steed’s favorite year-round bird is the California quail that calls Carson Valley home.
Enjoy Carson City as Your Jumping-Off Point for Northern Nevada
Many use Nevada’s capital city as a central hub to explore all of northern Nevada. According to Lydia Beck, marketing and PR manager for Visit Carson City, “Carson City is a special place not only because of our rich history but our proximity to amazing outdoor recreation. After you’ve visited our museums, like 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 just a quarter-mile hike, the Ash to Kings Trail is a mountain-biking favorite, and of course we’re just 25 minutes from Lake Tahoe where 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 dip event—not a swim, bike and run,” says Beck, “so no training is needed.” The food, drink, and relaxation–centric trifecta hits three amazing establishments on the north side of town: Shoe Tree Brewing Co., Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint, and the historic Carson Hot Springs. “If you visit all three in one day then you’re a champion,” Beck jokes.
Time Travel to the Wild West in Virginia City
While in northern Nevada, take a walk into the past in Virginia City, a historic mining town that is home to the richest silver discovery on the planet. You’ll find Victorian buildings built during a 19th-century mining boom, many of which are believed to be haunted. Take a Bats in the Belfry Ghost Tour for the lowdown, and be sure to visit during October for the monthlong Hauntober event.
Hike to Your Heart’s Content in the Ruby Mountains
To experience one of Nevada’s best-kept secrets, head to the Ruby Mountains outside Elko. Summer is an incredible time to enjoy hiking and camping in the valley here. If you’re looking for a multiday 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 intense commitment, try a day hike to Liberty Lake.
Note: Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway is open seasonally from May through October each year.
Marvel at Earth’s Oldest Living Trees in Great Basin National Park
Have you heard of the bristlecone pine? This extremely rare species of tree is found in only a few states in the American West. Scientists believe the oldest single living organism on Earth, clocking in at nearly 5,000 years old, is a bristlecone pine. While the location of the oldest bristlecone pine stays undisclosed in order to protect the tree, in Great Basin National Park you get a chance to walk among these ancient beings.
“The park is a place of superlatives,” says Liz Woolsey, the owner of the Stargazer Inn and Bristlecone General Store in nearby 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 as far as visitation numbers, as well as air traffic and car traffic,” Woolsey notes. And for all of the peak baggers 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 Dip into History in White Pine County
Beyond Great Basin, there’s much to experience in White Pine County. Ely, Nevada, is your jumping-off point to even more adventure. Explore Nevada’s railroad history at the East Ely Depot Railroad Museum, or check out the Ely Art Bank before heading farther afield. For outdoor activities, tourism director Kyle Horvath recommends the Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park, home to beehive-shaped ovens from the 19th century, miles of hiking trails, and camping areas. Cave Lake State Park is a can‘t-miss spot with beautiful mountains and biking trails galore.
While in Ely, nab a seat on the Great Basin Stars & Champagne Train on the Nevada Northern Railway. This popular excursion includes a ranger-led journey on the historic railway to a platform with telescopes for stargazing.
Tip: Book during a new moon for the best star viewing opportunities. And do so far in advance—this is a popular activity and can sell out a year in advance.
Hop the State Parks in and around Cathedral Gorge
The American Southwest is full of geological features that put you in mind of Mars, but nothing is quite like the orange, layered, cathedral-like formations of Cathedral Gorge. This unique feature was formed when volcanic ash sat under a lake for a few million years and then eroded to become the colorful formations you see today. Here you’ll find slot canyons, as well as some short and moderate hiking trails, including the popular Miller Point and Eagle Point trails, which combine for a three-mile hike through canyons and park overlooks.
Dawn Andone, interpreter for Nevada State Parks, recommends the four other parks in the area as well—Beaver Dam, Kershaw-Ryan, Echo Canyon, and Spring Valley. “You could spend an entire week going from park to park as they are so close together—a unique feature in Nevada,” she says. At the parks, you can camp, fish, hike, mountain-bike, drive off-road vehicle trails, and of course enjoy some of the best stargazing in Nevada.
Discover the Free-Range Art in Goldfield
If you find yourself driving between Reno and Las Vegas, leave time to enjoy the artistic and historic stops along the route. Goldfield, which once held the title of Nevada’s largest city, is a must-see. Now a small town, Goldfield plays host to the International Car Forest of the Last Church—an open-air art museum of spray-painted, nose-down buses and cars nestled amongst 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 view Rocket Bob’s Art Cars, the original car art inspired by Burning Man.
Note: While adding your own spray-paint art to the cars used to be encouraged, visitors are no longer allowed to spray-paint the exhibits.
Go Back in Time at the Lost City Museum Near the Valley of Fire
The Valley of Fire, outside of Las Vegas, earned its fame with its beautiful rock formations and colors, but the area is rich in history, too. The Lost City Museum is located on an Ancestral Puebloan site and features reconstructed pueblo dwellings, ancient ruins, and artifacts from the Pueblo Grande de Nevada archaeological sites.
In addition to learning about the Southern Paiute tribes that live in the region, the Moapa Valley is an amazing place to connect with nature. “Nevada is a great place to reset,” says director of the Lost City Museum, Mary Beth Timm. “We have a lot of open sky, and the desert landscape is to die for.”
Bonus: Dip into North America’s Largest Alpine Lake
Yes, we know Lake Tahoe is one of the state’s most famous features. (The lake straddles the California-Nevada border, and a third of the lake lies in Nevada.) When you’re standing on the shores looking out at its Caribbean-blue water surrounded by snowcapped mountains, it’s easy to understand why Lake Tahoe is at the top of many Nevada travel lists.
But there is so much more to this gigantic alpine lake (one of the largest in the world) than crystal clear water and skiing in the winter, 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 gorgeous meadows, sunrises, sunsets, and awe-inspiring starry skies. Short on time? Pick 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 where inspiration strikes. You never know what the desert and mountains have in store when you get off the main drag 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 promoting and marketing Nevada as a travel destination. Learn more at TravelNevada.com.