Fairly or not, most people think of Las Vegas when they think of Nevada.
However, as I learned recently, there’s more to the Silver State than the city that never sleeps.
My recent visit started after flying into Reno, which admittedly felt like a smaller Las Vegas. After picking up a rental car and spending the night at the Aloft, a newer hotel right across from the airport’s passenger terminal, I embarked upon a three-day road trip across Reno-Tahoe to discover Nevada’s oldest towns.
Anchored by the state capital of Carson City, the region sits on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near magnificent Lake Tahoe. At more than 6,200 feet in elevation and 1,645 feet in depth, the lake is North America’s largest alpine lake and the second-deepest lake anywhere on the continent.
I first stopped in Virginia City, which despite its name, isn’t a city. Instead, the unincorporated old mining town—first settled in 1859 after the discovery of the Comstock Lode—and seat of Storey County with a population of 855 people at the last census is officially recorded in government records as a census-designated place. Some readers may remember it from the old TV series “Bonanza,” which revolved around life at the fictional Ponderosa Ranch.
While small today, Virginia City had one of the largest populations anywhere west of the Mississippi River when Nevada’s silver and gold mining industry was at its peak. Just how important were the mines? The amount of silver and gold extracted in and around the town has been valued at more than $20 billion in today’s currency value.
In fact, silver mining was a major reason behind Nevada joining the Union as the 36th state just eight days before the 1864 presidential election. Not only did the mines finance the North during the Civil War, but the state’s Republican-dominated politics of the time were helpful to President Abraham Lincoln’s wartime reelection.
Virginia City is a postcard-perfect Old West town with blocks of historic buildings. Most date from after 1875, when a fire destroyed pretty much everything in the town. The Carpenter Gothic-inspired First Presbyterian Church on C Street is an example of a building that survived the fire.
A couple of blocks away is St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains, which was rebuilt after the fire within the brick walls of the original church. The cathedral-esque Roman Catholic church with its Gothic revival architecture overshadows St. Paul the Prospector, the first Episcopal parish in Nevada. Now as then, the churches play second fiddle to the saloons, although the number of drinking establishments today is far fewer than the 100 saloons that once lined Virginia City’s streets.
About a half-hour’s drive away, through other once-prosperous mining towns such as Gold Hill and Silver City, is Nevada’s capital. Carson City, named after legendary explorer Kit Carson, is one of the country’s most underrated state capitals.
What looks like the palace of an obscure European principality is the Capitol building, which dates back to around 1871. The surrounding park with various statues and monuments, including one of Carson, offers plenty of shade from the dry heat of the high desert. Within walking distance is the interesting Nevada State Museum, partially housed in an old U.S. mint. Other attractions include the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum, which had the unfortunate luck of opening in early 2020 just before the start of the pandemic, and the State Railroad Museum.
Twenty minutes south in Douglas County is Carson Valley, where cattle, sheep, and even wild horses graze against a backdrop of the mighty Sierra Nevadas.
I later found myself in the quaint town of Genoa. It dates back to 1850, when it was the Utah Territory and the Latter-day Saints erected a small trading post on the California Trail called Mormon Station. With a population of 939, the town—Nevada’s first settlement—has a streetscape reminiscent of a small town somewhere in New York, Ohio, or Pennsylvania.
My guide, Sue Knight, showed me everything to see, including the famous Genoa Bar. Having opened in 1853, it’s the state’s oldest continuously operated bar or, as the sign out front proclaims, “thirst parlor.” Visitors craving more than a drink should visit the deli in the Genoa Country Store, which is across from the reconstructed stockade at Mormon Station State Historic Park. The county courthouse-turned-local historical museum is also nearby.
The coolest experience I had over the three-day trip was an early morning excursion in the Carson Valley’s backcountry to see the wild horses with local wildlife photographer J.T. Humphrey. The horses have been genetically traced to the horses first brought to the New World centuries ago by the Spanish.
If You Go
Virginia City’s Visitor Center on C Street, effectively main street, is a must to visit. Not only can you buy tickets to all of the attractions, including the Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s awesome journey to Gold Hill, but you can also get a tour from docent Deke DiMarzo, who portrays several characters from the olden days.
I stayed at Cobb Mansion, a circa 1876 Victorian Italianate home, in Virginia City. The charming bed-and-breakfast features six well-appointed rooms, all en suite, and the delightful hospitality of the owner-innkeeper. Alternatively, try the Silverland Inn & Suites. Making Carson City your base makes sense if you don’t want to switch hotels every night. The brand-new Staybridge Suites is the best option.
Trip planning resources are available at the websites of the Reno-Tahoe Territory (RenoTahoe.com), Visit Carson City (VisitCarsonCity.com), Visit Carson Valley (VisitCarsonValley.org), and Virginia City Tourism Commission (VisitVirginiaCityNV.com).