A skier’s road trip through Nevada
When you think of Nevada, most of you probably conjure up images of the Las Vegas strip with its glitz, blinking lights, and cacophony of sounds.
If you’re introverted like me, this might make you cringe. Or maybe you welcome the ability to namelessly disappear into the streams of people and activity.
Either way, Nevada is so much more than the quintessential scenes of Las Vegas.
A recent road trip took me through the heartland of Nevada and renewed my appreciation for the immense diversity it holds. If you want alone time, you can drive for miles without seeing a soul, including the loneliest road in America.
Nevada is known both as the sagebrush state and the silver state but don’t be fooled by these nicknames. Even with the long landscapes of desert, Nevada has surprisingly tall mountains, along with rivers, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, dunes, canyons, big rocks, and volcanoes. It even has an abundance of ghost towns and wild horses.
I was on a road trip driving through Nevada from Sun Valley, ID to Mammoth Lakes, CA for winter skiing. I was in luck with sunny weather, with great timing between this season’s many atmospheric rivers hitting the west coast of the U.S.
Driving south from Twin Falls, ID, the very first Nevada town you pass through is aptly named Jackpot. It still has the look of a 1950’s border casino town boasting 5 casinos and over 1400 slot machines.
Just south of the towns of Wells and Elko are the surprising and stunning Ruby Mountains, named for the garnets discovered by explorers.
What is unexpected when one imagines the Nevada desert is the impressively tall peaks. Ruby Dome rises to 11,387 ft. There is also evidence of glaciation from relatively recent ice ages; all the features of which can be viewed and accessed via the 12-mile Lamoille Canyon Road, a scenic byway.
My favorite thing about the Ruby Mountains is that it is home to the oldest family-owned heli-skiing operation in the country. Ruby Mountain Heli and Ruby 360 Lodge offer the experience of a lifetime. Their heli and snowcat combo guarantee that you will get out and ski no matter the weather. And the privately owned lodge offers luxurious accommodations, and exquisite meals featuring fresh ingredients along with craft cocktails and west coast wines.
I’ve heard reports of the incredible heli-skiing in the Ruby Mountains and driving by those gorgeous snowy peaks on a sunny winter day had me tingling to go. While not on the itinerary for this trip, I mentally moved a Ruby Mountain heli-ski experience to the top of my travel list.
Nevada by road
In keeping with the state’s mining history, the landscape features many varying colors indicative of the minerals held in the soil and rock. I was also surprised to see areas of volcanic activity. Driving past, I could see some of the Black Rock lava flow which is one of the youngest portions of the Lunar Crater.
I drove past many small herds of wild horses, wooly with their rugged winter coats, but I missed seeing any pronghorn antelope. With a few inches of snow on the ground, I could see a labyrinth of trails and tracks. Little footprints seemed to scurry everywhere amongst the sage on the desert valley floor. I was struck by the evidence of so much life in this desolate part of the world and how I would have missed this if it hadn’t been for the presence of the snow.
Added to that, the snow provided texture and nuance to visualize creases in the landscape, wind patterns, and water flows.
The occasional roadside ghost towns left much to the imagination. One particular site was an old red motel, long and single-story with white doors and broken windows. I wondered at the relief it once brought to weary travelers and what wild shenanigans might have also occurred there.
I was amused by the row of Tesla charging stations I spotted in Tonopah, NV. It was a lonely lot on this particular day but nice to see the infrastructure coming to more remote highways.
Not far out of town is the eye-catching Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project. Due to its unique design, it is one of the only solar projects producing energy both day and night. Mirrored devices track the sun and concentrate in a 650-foot tower that heats molten salt that in turn boils water for steam-driven generators. You cannot miss the glow from this one-of-a-kind tower as you pass by.
A bit of Mammoth, CA on the side
Arriving in Mammoth Lakes, CA after weeks of atmospheric river storms was like driving into tunnels. At this point, there had been about nine feet of snow in town. Since that time, that number has at least doubled.
Having not visited for nearly 20 years, I was eager to see how things looked and what I remembered of the town. But thanks to the enormous piles of snow, nothing was visible from the main roads, and diving in and out of cramped parking lots was quite an adventure.
I watched brave strong men trying to shovel multiple feet of snow off of three-story condo buildings. The streets were lined with enormous dump trucks queuing up to receive snow from driveways and parking lots. The walk to the outdoor hot tub was like a following maze through a snow cave. And yet, after about four feet of snow, the skiing is remarkably ordinary unless the mountain gets frequently refreshed with layers of new snowfall.
The “Jerry of the Day” was a skier repeatedly trying to push open a door of the lodge where the snow was up over the roof. A glass door covered by snow is visually deceiving, but it was hilarious to those of us sitting by.
More features of a Nevada road trip
After a great week of skiing, I headed north through Nevada again on a rather boring route through Hawthorne, Fallon, and Winnemucca. It was a long quiet day disrupted only by the screaming jet engines of the fighter pilots flying out of the Naval Air Station Fallon. This was a great time to let my creative thoughts wander and sort.
Stretching through the middle of Nevada is the soulless US route 50. While US 50 is a transcontinental highway, the Nevada section was named “The Loneliest Road in America” by Life magazine in 1986. This heartland route through Nevada is bookended by Lake Tahoe on the west side and Great Basin National Park on the east side but is pretty isolated in between. Make sure you fuel up before driving this stretch of road.
Great Basin National Park is a great place to escape the crowds of other more popular national parks. It is known for its bristle cone pine forests and numerous caves. It also features Nevada’s tallest mountain and only glacier on Wheeler Peak as well as the spectacular Lexington Arch.
For the badass skiers looking for a great road trip, check out the numerous well-known ski areas around Lake Tahoe but don’t forget the fabulous Mt. Rose between Lake Tahoe and Reno. Then head west and catch a heli-ski day in the Ruby Mountains. Continue on to the smorgasbord of ski areas in the greater Salt Lake City area. You can easily enjoy 2-4 weeks of skiing out of this easy road trip.
For those inclined to check out additional outdoor adventures in Nevada, consider Cathedral Gorge State Park, Valley of the Fire State Park, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area, as well as Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, and of course, Lake Tahoe. There is fabulous hiking, boating, historical sites, and even world-class star gazing in Nevada.
I would emphasize that the winter season adds so much visual art and texture to the landscape and is the best time for a Nevada road trip. I thoroughly enjoyed my long drives through Nevada and added several new things to my list of explorations on future trips to Nevada.
Although winter storms can be harsh in parts of the state, there are gloriously warm and sunny days in the southern parts of Nevada during winter. And the many hot springs feel so much more luxurious when the temperatures drop. Otherwise, bundle up for hikes or just enjoy the drive as you explore the wild natural beauty of Nevada. You will find vast vistas, deep quiet, and big skies in Nevada winters. Keep an eye out for the wild horses!
For more ideas, here is a blog from the Wandering Wheatleys featuring 25 unique activities to do in Nevada.