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Road trip: Highway 50 in Nevada

The road before me was empty. The road behind me was empty. In the sky, the setting sun cast an orange glow that made the clouds look like huge cotton balls soaked in iodine. I was beginning to understand why this was called the Loneliest Road in America.
In July 1986, Life magazine described Nevada’s U.S. Highway 50 from Ely to Fernley as the “loneliest road” in America. Life said there were no attractions or points of interest along the 287-mile stretch of road and recommended that drivers have survival skills to travel the route.
The communities along the desolate route decided not to get mad, they got even and developed a tongue-in-cheek “Highway 50 Survival Kit.” The kit contained brochures and maps detailing places along the route and a special Highway 50 passport, which travelers can have validated in the five largest communities (Ely, Eureka, Austin, Fallon and Fernley). Validated maps are redeemed for a Highway 50 pin, postcard and a “Silver State Survivor” certificate signed by the governor.

The Nevada State Legislature authorized “Loneliest Road in America” road signs to be erected along the route.

Since then, Highway 50 has been featured on television and in newspapers and magazines across the country. Thousands of Highway 50 Survival Kits have been distributed and traffic counts show the road isn’t quite as lonely as it used to be. In fact, travelers are discovering that it is one of the most historic and scenic routes in the West.

The road roughly parallels the trail blazed a century ago by brave, tough Pony Express riders. Later, Highway 50 was part of the original Lincoln Highway, the first intercontinental road in the United States. Stretching the width of Nevada, U.S. 50 is a path through places seemingly untouched by man.
It’s country where the watch-out-for-cattle signs far outnumber pedestrian-crossing warnings. Cowboys here are the real deal; there’s dust on their boots, sweat stains on their hat bands and a distinct bovine bouquet on their clothes.

The route

Starting at the Utah-Nevada border, the traveler heading west on Highway 50 crosses Snake Valley, one of the many elongated basins that stretch from north to south across the state.
Nevada and much of the West are part of the region known as the Great Basin. Thousands of years ago, the area was beneath a huge prehistoric inland sea. Over the centuries, geologic activity pushed massive mountain ranges to the surface and formed the now familiar Nevada landscape.

Looming ahead is impressive Wheeler Peak, the crown jewel of Great Basin National Park. Within the park, visitors will find the intriguing Lehman Caves, an extensive series of fascinating limestone caverns at the base of Wheeler Peak.
The park is home of several of the West’s largest and oldest groves of bristlecone pines. These gnarled trees, the oldest living things on Earth, can grow in the most inhospitable of climates. Many in the park are more than 3,000 years old.

About an hour from the park is Ely, a historic copper mining town that is home of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, known as one of the country’s best preserved shortline railroads. The museum in the historic Nevada Northern Railway depot and maintenance yard displays a complete operating turn-of-the-century railroad, which originally was used to transport copper ore from the nearby mines to out-of-state smelters. Rides on the vintage equipment are available throughout the year as the “Ghost Train” takes visitors around the hills above Ely.
The road between Ely and Eureka — some 77 miles long — affords some of Nevada’s unique high desert scenery. It is open range, so watch for roaming cattle.
The open road offers time for introspection. Yellow road markings seem to stretch for an eternity. At night, the air is so pure that a car radio can receive signals from seven western states and Mexico. Sometimes you see no other traffic in either direction. Out here, one can begin to comprehend the loneliness of the cowboy searching for strays or the Pony Express rider galloping into the unknown.

Ahead is Eureka, perhaps Nevada’s best-preserved example of a 19th century mining town. It’s a great place to explore, with fascinating ruins and beautifully restored historic buildings, including the Eureka County Courthouse, built in 1879, the Eureka Sentinel newspaper building, now a museum, and the restored Eureka Opera House.
The town boasts a large number of authentic frontier cemeteries that make for an interesting visit. Travelers also will find plenty of services and accommodations.

About 45 miles west of Eureka is Hickison Summit, the site of rare Indian petroglyphs. While no one is quite sure how to interpret them, petroglyphs are ancient Indian rock writing that appear to represent significant events and activities, such as hunting and harvesting.

The next stop is Austin, another former mining town that still claims three of the loveliest frontier churches in the West, several cemeteries and a number of historic structures and ruins. A century ago, Austin was one of Nevada’s largest communities with more than 8,000 residents. Today, it offers a handful of accommodations, services and restaurants.
At the east end of Austin is the restored Gridley Store, built more than a century ago. At the west end of town, overlooking the adjacent Reese River Valley, is Stokes Castle, an architectural oddity built in 1897 by an eccentric millionaire to resemble a three-story Roman Villa.
From Austin, it is a two-hour drive to Fallon.
Along the way are the ruins of several Pony Express and Overland Stage stations. The best preserved are the stone ruins at Cold Springs and near Sand Mountain. The latter is an unusual 600-foot mountain of sand that stretches for two miles. The giant dune, a popular recreation spot for off-road vehicles, was created by wind-blown sand from the beaches of the prehistoric sea that once covered Nevada.

About 15 minutes from Fallon is another Indian petroglyph site at Grimes Point. An interpretive trail leads through the writings. Adjacent to the petroglyphs is Hidden Cave, an archeological site that has yielded important artifacts that tell the story of Nevada’s earliest inhabitants. The cave is open to guided tours that can be scheduled through the Churchill County Museum in Fallon.

The region is famous for its “Hearts of Gold” cantaloupes, known to be the sweetest, juiciest cantaloupes and only available for a short time around Labor Day. Locals know how tasty they are and snatch up the stock quickly. Visitors can find numerous lodging choices and other services in Fallon.
The Churchill County Museum in Fallon is one of the finest rural museums in the state. Inside, the museum offers exhibits describing the trip across Nevada by covered wagon. (Fallon was on the Emigrant Trail at the end of the dreaded “40 Mile Desert.”)

A half-hour from Fallon is the Lahontan Reservoir, which offers a full range of water sports, fishing, boating and camping. Completed in 1915, the reservoir is part of the Newlands Irrigation Project, the nation’s first federal reclamation project.

An interesting side trip just south of the loneliest road, on U.S. 95, is historic Fort Churchill. The facility was built in 1861 as a garrison for federal troops during the Civil War and to protect the citizens of the state from hostile Indian attacks. Today, the worn clay walls of the buildings that once housed dozens of troops are picturesque reminders of the past. Best time of day to visit the area is late afternoon when the sun is low and the shadows give greater dimension to the ruins.

About a half-hour from Fort Churchill is Fernley, the western gateway to the Loneliest Road. Originally an important agricultural center and railroad station, Fernley has evolved into a fast growing city that offers plenty of services for road travelers on either Highway 50 or Interstate 80.

As I turned from Highway 50 onto busy Interstate 80, I was struck by the differences. Highway 50 was more leisurely. If Interstate 80 could be described as a sprint, than Highway 50 is a casual jog. I accelerated to keep pace with the other cars. Lonely no more.

Written by Rich Moreno




Document Information
Source: Article by Rich Moreno for Nevada Commission on Tourism; magazineUSA.com;
Last modified: 20070904
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