Wanted: Young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.
In 1860, this ad appeared for one of the most dangerous jobs in American history - the Pony Express trail rider. Today, Highway 50 (often called the “loneliest road in America”) roughly parallels the route of the Pony Express trail.
That headline above is what intrigued me to take this trip. Nevada celebrates its 150th anniversary on Oct 31, 2014 so I figured it was time to explore the state beyond Vegas. Most people think Nevada is strictly desert and casinos. I was determined to prove them wrong. If you “dig a little deeper”, you will find that the state is really all about the metal. On this trip, my kids and I discovered the distinct correlation between silver, gold, coins, minerals, trains, stagecoaches, casino tokens, typewriters, printing presses, ski lifts, and even the birthplace of San Francisco rock and roll. What started out as a forced family road trip evolved into a journey of exciting new discoveries and adventures we could all cross off our bucket list.
We started out in South Lake Tahoe by way of Sacramento and Northern California and headed across Highway 50. We stayed at the Ridge Tahoe Resort in a spacious 2-bedroom suite with 2 kitchens and a fireplace overlooking the Valley 7,500 feet below. The awe-inspiring view left us all speechless. It was as if we were perched on the wing of an airplane looking down to see the patchwork of the land below. It was amazing how accessible the area was and how one could literally go from the top to the base of the mountain within 15 minutes via car. The resort is conveniently located at the base of Heavenly Ski Resort where they have ski storage and you can walk to the ski lifts. The name also personifies the amazing views!
The kids loved this resort with endless activities like tennis courts, racquetball, a video arcade, miniature golf, free movies in the theater every day, ping pong, and a huge indoor/outdoor pool. It’s definitely family-friendly, even for angsty teens! We can’t wait to come back in the winter during ski season.
We took a cruise on the MS Dixie II. They serve food on board and also have a full bar. The kids loved local legend “Mark Twain” as he narrated the history of Lake Tahoe throughout the experience. We were mesmerized by the crystal blue water and pristine peaks of Lake Tahoe - or "Lake Taco" according to my 4 year-old. The deepest point is over 1600 feet deep. If it were drained, it would take 300 years to fill up again.
For dinner, we enjoyed an assembly of epicurean treats from Executive Chef Peter Brinckerhoff at Riva Grill, along with sweeping patio views of the Ski Run Marina. The menu offers eclectic and delicious favorites like the Dungeness crab sandwich, the lamb chops with smoked gouda, sea bass with mango, crab chili relleno, and the Alaskan King Salmon with chili paste and cucumber salad. Of course, no meal would be complete without their notorious signature cocktail, the Wet Woody – with over 2 million served.
The next day, we headed to Carson City, Nevada. We stopped for lunch at Firkin and Fox, a traditional English style pub inside the St. Charles Hotel where Mark Twain stayed. With over 42 beers on draught, and comfort foods like Shepherd’s Pie and bangers and mash –you could ride out Armageddon there. I love how the mustache and tattoos of our waiter, Jeff, epitomized the celebration of old and new in this unique and historical town that is also the state capital of Nevada.
Across the street at the capital building, we toured the Governor’s office. The kids even took their photo on the bench of the Supreme Court.
Next, we visited the Nevada State Museum in Carson City - home to the most famous mint in the world. Other rare collections include; Fremont's lost cannon from 1844, the first machine gun from 1883, and a gun created for the World's Fair in 1904 worth over $100,000.
This museum also holds the largest collection of mint coins worth over $3 million. It includes every coin made at the Carson City Mint from a private collector. On the last Friday of every month, they create coins with the original mint machine that was built in 1868. You can actually observe coins being produced. This building is like the temple of Solomon for coin collectors and people come from all over the world to view it.
Next, we headed down the road to Virginia City, Nevada. As we drove into town, I marveled at the quaint town, full of character and history. We hopped on a box car on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad with a historical tour and beautiful views of Virginia City - home to the largest silver discovery in history known as “Comstock’s Lode”.
Next, it was off to the Wild West Showthat featured a live audience in an outdoor arena with lots of action and gun play, good cowboys, and bad guys - but not too scary for small kids.
We also took the Virginia City Trolley Tour with narrated tours and great history of the glory days of the gold rush. I never knew that William Randolph Hearst made his fortune here and used it to start his newspaper empire in Northern California.
We savored the local culture with Chicago style pizza, Irish nachos, and native microbrews at Red Dog Saloon. This location dates back to the heyday of the Comstock Mines and the birthplace of San Francisco style rock and roll. Janis Joplin played here in her early days. Her ghost is even rumored to be here. www.reddogvc.com
Next, we wandered over to the Silver Queen Hotelwith the namesake’s likeness stretched floor to ceiling with 3,600 genuine silver dollars on her dress. In 1862, Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain at that spot. He got his start at a local newspaper and lived in the small city for a few years. Captain and Tennille got married there in 1970.
The Silver Queen was also the first stop onour Bats of the Belfry Ghost Tour. It was a fun walking tour of many local “haunts” and well worth the time and money. Debbie, our guide, shared the best local ghost stories and showed us registered portals for ghosts in the area. We were even able to monitor their activities with a few cool “ghost meters”. I haven’t experienced that much ghostly activity since my time in Edinburgh, Scotland. But this is standard in a town where there are more dead people than live ones.
We stayed at the comfortable and affordable Silverland Inn and Suites. It was close to downtown, steps away from local attractions, and also included breakfast. The kids loved their indoor pool as well.
The next morning, I had a few unexpected and rare happenings that I will never forget. These collective incidents catapulted Virginia City to the top of my list of most favorite places that I have visited. First of all, I am a huge Mark Twain fan. As a writer, I always look for the story and inspiration in the daily curiosities of life. I was able to view Mark Twain's actual desk at the Mark Twain Museumwhere he wrote some of his best work and also experienced his daily grind at the newspaper office. This building also serves as a registered portal for ghosts. It houses the original publishing presses and was the former office of Territorial Enterprise newspaper where Mark Twain got his start. If you don’t believe in the spirit world, then you will be a believer when you feel the raw energy of this place. If you are afraid of the spirit world, then do not go in this building. It was undeniable, creepy, thrilling, unexplainable and palpable.
Then it got even better. I had the thrill of a lifetime as I rode atop an authentic 1866 Concord Stagecoach with cowboy and owner Gary Teel of TNT Stagelines.. Riding behind a thunderous cloud of dust as the four painted horses were clopping into a full run was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done – and something every red-blooded American should experience. Gary also shared a story with me about the time my relative, Horace Greeley, actually visited here. I never knew he was actually friends with Mark Twain and famous stagecoach driver, Hank Monk. They all spent time in Virginia City and he shared some pretty wild stories. In fact, the original stagecoaches that brought them West are still in operation for you to experience yourself.
After hearing about the candid stories and places that Mark Twain and Horace Greeley had visited, I was fascinated to learn more. So I pulled up a stool at the Washoe Club and sipped Mark Twain's favorite cocktail where he and Horace Greeley once sat and had many heated conversations about writing and publishing. This historic building is also home to the famous Millionaire’s Club and is considered the most haunted place in the West. I could feel the history all around me. Perhaps this was the place that inspired Horace to utter “go West, young man”. What a magical day on anyone’s bucket list! And that particular barstool was haunted (the fourth one from the right as you walk in). I even felt a kick - or maybe that was just Twain motivating me to finish my book!
The next city on our road trip was Reno, Nevada. I couldn’t help comparing it to Vegas as we drove into town. We stayed in an amazing 2-room Jacuzzi suite at Circus Circus! It’s the perfect place to stay with a family and boasts many amenities, including a kitchen, Jacuzzi tub, 2 bedrooms, and bonus room with a pull out couch.
There is so much to do as this hotel for every age, you could literally stay inside the hotel and never leave. You could play games at the Midway, marvel at the circus shows, and happy hour is two for one - on just about everything in the hotel.
We enjoyed dining at the restaurants inside the hotel as we had six dining options to choose from. We opted for Dos Dekos Cantina and Kokopelli’s Sushi. Where else can you have Mexican and sushi together? The fresh jalapeño poppers were crispy, yet delicate, for perfection. The family platter offered a generous sample of everything so we didn’t have the tough choice of only one appetizer. The basil salmon roll with Tobiko and Royal Flush roll with salmon, shrimp, crab and cream cheese were both to-die-for.
Next, we found ourselves rockin’ out with guitar legend Shuggie Otis at closing night of Artown, an annual Summer music and arts festival in Reno. Shuggie is a talented blues/R&B musician who has recorded with Frank Zappa, Etta James and even Mos Def. Artown is an annual festival for live music, art, and more. We enjoyed a picnic under the trees as the sun set and we danced until the stars came out.
With such a vast culture of history, within a few miles of each other – each of these cities offer unique activities, food for every palate, and a chance to fulfill so many adventures and new experiences. This part of Nevada is truly a worthy destination, and is often overlooked or dwarfed by Vegas. We hit the jackpot and discovered gold in our own way – with a fun family vacation that we will never forget.
Melanie Warner (aka Wander Woman) has served as a travel and lifestyle journalist for 20 years with over three million avid readers, travelers and followers each month. She specializes in luxury and adventure trips, helping travelers discover the best vacations and unique trips in the world – without breaking the bank. Follow Melanie Warner's latest adventures here