Dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America” by Life Magazine in 1986, Nevada Highway 50 used to not be for the faint of heart. With supposedly little to see and do across this 500-mile stretch between Carson City and Baker, drivers were warned to avoid it if at all possible, and if not, to sharpen their survival skills.
The state tourism board, though, leaned into the moniker and created an official survival guide for those eager for adventure. The booklet not only has travel tips and points of interest, but those who collect enough stamps along the way can score some sweet souvenir swag.
Gateway to ghost towns
A journey along Highway 50 is best begun in Carson City, then moves through Fallon, Austin, Eureka, and Ely before reaching the end point of Baker. During the trip, travelers follow in the footsteps of the Pony Express and through former ghost towns to uncover some of the mining communities that drew settlers out West.
Old Town Dayton, at the mouth of Gold Cañon on the Carson River, is the site of the state’s first gold strike in 1849. Once word spread about the discovery, the Nevada gold rush was on. Thousands headed to the area to prospect in hopes of finding hidden treasure.
Fallon, Nev., is a community that came into existence because of the gold rush because travelers rested along the nearby river after crossing 40 miles of desert. Originally known as Ragtown due to the amount of laundry hanging from the wagons and trees, the area grew rapidly in the early 20th century and earned a reputation as the “oasis of Nevada.” Today it boasts great farm-to-fork food fare, a vibrant arts scene, several state parks and plenty of places for guests to rest and rejuvenate before the next leg of their trip.
Room to breathe
Austin, Nev., was once considered an unexplored area of the state. That is until William Talcott discovered a rich silver vein that held strong for nearly two decades and resulted in several substantial buildings that still exist today and are on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also home to three of the 14 nationally designated wilderness areas in the state: Arc Dome Wilderness Area, Alta Toquima Wilderness Area and Table Mountain Wilderness Area.
Not far away, visitors can enjoy the Toiyabe National Forest for a day of hiking, cycling or backpacking. They can end the day by relaxing at Spencer Hot Springs to soothe away the aches and pains in the 140-degree temperatures of the cluster of natural springs on unimproved public land. Before hopping in though, the guide warns to be sure to read up on local hot spring etiquette and prepare for “soak-cess!” It also recommends popping into Nevada’s historic Sagebrush Saloon to enjoy some of the best beer in the area.
The 1.25-hour drive from Eureka to Ely can be incorporated into the drive to Austin or made a day unto its own. Although it is a short trip, travelers will find plenty to explore in this mountain town known for its art, history and outdoor adventure. They can go on a treasure hunt for their own ruby-like jewels at Garnet Hill or find ready-to-purchase stones at the Garnet Mercantile.
Some visitors want to make a point of exploring Cave Lake State Park, driving along the aspen tree-lined Success Loop and “buzzing” by the beehive-shaped kilns at Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park: The historic park pays tribute to Ely’s mining history with six 30-foot-tall beehive-shaped stone kilns that were built in the 1870s to melt down the ore extracted from the mines. Although they were only used between 1876 and 1879, there is a local legend that the kilns were later used as hideouts for stagecoach bandits. This park is open 24/7 and is the perfect spot to take in Nevada’s star-studded night sky.
A sanctuary of solitude
The last leg of the journey across Nevada Highway 50 will take drivers from Ely to Great Basin National Park. A Silver State standout, Great Basin is a sanctuary of solitude; and although it is one of the least visited national parks in the country, it is also one of the most exceptional. Here, visitors can hike Nevada’s second tallest summit, Wheeler Peak, enjoy a wide range of spectacular landscapes and learn why half of the park is designated as an “after dark location.” Spoiler alert, it’s because it has some of the best stargazing in the nation.
Designated an International Dark Sky Park by the association DarkSky International, Great Basin National Park is home to what some astronomers call the last true dark night sky left in the United States. On most summer nights, the Milky Way is visible to the naked eye, along with thousands of constellations, planets, nebulas and additional galaxies. Even visitors who can’t get there during the summer can take in the awe-inspiring view during the Great Basin Astronomy Festival each fall.
Those who have completed the Nevada Highway 50 tour say it is well worth the drive. Online praise includes a comment from Robert D. of Gypsum, Colo., who traveled the “Loneliest Road” with his family in Spring 2020 and said it was his favorite part of his 2,100-mile trip.
“The views and isolation are breathtaking,” he said in a Tripadvisor review. “You’ll never look at a gas station the same way again. Next time, we plan to camp there for a week.”
Another reviewer, Jeff C. of Palm Harbor, Fla., said Nevada’s Highway 50 is a relaxing and beautiful drive. “The mountains in the distance and the open road go on forever … The highway crosses several large desert valleys separated by numerous mountain ranges towering over the valley floors … This is a great road trip to explore American history and travel the path of the Pony Express.”