Nevada Road Trip: Reno & Beyond
With Las Vegas to the south, Burning Man to the north, and Lake Tahoe to the west; Reno is the "Nice Guy" of Nevada, always passed over for the bad boys. Even with the Mustang Ranch, the "premier brothel of northern Nevada," just outside of town.
I've come to the "Biggest Little City in the World" for the casinos - no offense to the Mustang ladies. Don't get me wrong; I love the casino experience, and I appreciate how honest Vegas is about wanting to wring every last cent out me. But the endless, beeping, flashing, perfumed labyrinths of Sin City are a bit much. Yes, I know that's the point, but I got to a level where I just thought:
Which is why I've set up shop in the Peppermill Casino. Not for the food or the Toscana Spa (both of which are exceptional), but because no matter how I deep I get into the slots, blackjack tables, or ice bars, there is always an escalator, restaurant, or the front desk within eyeshot. When it comes time to walk away, I can.
The wattage makes Reno's casinos the cityscape standouts, but gambling isn't even in the top five of the city's attractions. Here in the high desert, the physiques at the 5-Star Saloon (
If you aren't on the ground, you are either in the air or somewhere in between. Then the sun goes down and you all compare notes and/or bruises among the burgers at Campo or the veritable Niagara Falls of craft beers at the Brasserie St. James. Huzzah!
Giving Up The Ghost
Enjoying the stark allure of the high desert seems to be the point. Although only 45 minutes of (white-knuckle) mountain road to Reno's southeast, the surrounding panoramas are so utterly empty, Virginia City comes across as a head-scratcher: Why is a town here?
Then I cozy up to the bar at the Silver Queen Hotel that features a painting of a 15-foot tall woman dressed head to toe in 3,261 pure silver dollars. Turns out I'm sitting on the site of Comstock Lode, one of the biggest silver strikes in history.
Mystery solved - this is the town money made! Legends were born, fortunes were made, and saloons with names like "Bucket of Blood" served up firewater like it was the end of the world. It was in the local paper a would-be miner turned journalist first used the moniker "Mark Twain." But when the silver petered out in 1880, the miners moved on and Virginia City froze in time.
Avoiding the mustangs wandering through town, I stroll the wooden sidewalks of C Street and conclude "VC" is a ghost town with people still in it. The train to Gold Hill (population: 69) crosses a landscape rife with abandoned mines, sluices, winches, and mills. But don't be fooled; the town is phantasmally thriving.
I mean it when I say "ghost town." Every hotel, tunnel, saloon, even a saloon
A Desert Oasis
A tumble down the mountains from Virginia City is tiny Genoa. The oldest town in the state (est. 1851), this fist of green punches in between the Sierra Nevada and bone-dry Great Basin; for the "California or Bust" crowd, the town heralded the hardest part of the journey west was over. For eastbound Pony Express boys, the fun was just starting.
Either way, you could get in a good soak. Nevada is alive and kicking underground, and not just with VC's restless denizens. A geothermal parure of turquoise pools set in the blazing gold of the Carson Valley, Dave Walley's Hot Springs Resort and Spa washes the high desert dryness out of my parched hide as I hopscotch its five steaming lagoons. Nevada's "in secret" going back to 1862, the springs today are a grand-scale resort complete with an approachable menu helmed by Executive Chef Brandon Kealoha and spa amenities including Vichy Shower treatments, eucalyptus steam rooms, and more.
The oldest settlement in the Silver State, it goes without saying Genoa ("juh-NO-uh") has the oldest bar, although the proper term is "thirst parlor." The Genoa Bar has been "kept in first-class style in every particular way" since 1884... with some debate as to what "first-class" means.
Genoa jams the last 131 years onto every available surface so you experience them all at once. Gleefully low brow, from naked-lady paintings to posters of outlaws wanted dead or alive, if only the walls could talk! - or at least, the deer head with Raquel Welch's bra hanging off it. Of course the drinks put hair on your chest; it is a running theme in these parts.
As are friendly crowds. I crashed a biker rally when I walked in, and in 15 minutes, we were all pals. I'm not nearly so lucky in WeHo...
JetBlue flies into Reno-Tahoe International Airport, but for the Mustang Ranch, Virginia City, and Genoa, rent a car and bring a map - the high desert is desolate of phone towers so be prepared.