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Consider this a mini Tour Around Nevada, if you will, of 17 historic northwestern towns.
Photo: Charlie Johnston
It’s hard to imagine 150 years ago when downtown Reno’s urban Riverwalk District lacked its hip restaurants and lounges and was nothing more than a muddy riverbank at Lake’s Crossing. Conversely, Virginia City’s boardwalk-lined C Street and its crowded wood-planked storefronts might as well be perpetually locked in 1875, save the paved roadway and modern cars parked along it. It’s that juxtaposition—the comingling of old and new—that makes Reno, Virginia City, and all of the communities in Reno-Tahoe Territory so unique. From Sparks, a railroad town that grew into the unofficial special-events capital of Nevada, to the actual capital, Carson City, where historic buildings serve modern functions, northwestern Nevada is a region where traditional and modern seamlessly coexist.
Following the discovery of silver and gold on the Comstock, Charles Fuller realized the need for a connection between the Truckee River-adjacent California Trail and Virginia City to the southeast. In 1859, he established a basic trading post and toll bridge across the Truckee. In 1861, Fuller sold his bridge and station to Myron Lake, who expanded the outpost and named it Lake’s Crossing.
Lake secured the future of the town when he granted land to the Central Pacific Railroad—the western component of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad—in the late 1860s in exchange for a depot at Lake’s Crossing. On May 13, 1868, the town site of Reno was officially established. It was named for the fallen Civil War General Jesse Lee Reno of the Union Army (who ironically never set foot in his namesake land).
Reno won the seat of Washoe County in 1871 and enjoyed growing prosperity through the 19th century as a business and agricultural center and the principal settlement between Sacramento and Salt Lake City on the transcontinental railroad. The city’s prominence grew even after many nearby towns failed in the wake of dwindling output from the Comstock. By the early 1900s, Reno was arguably the most important and influential city in the state. The University of Nevada was moved to Reno from Elko in 1885, testament to Reno’s permanence in a state typified by boom and bust.
The July 4, 1910 Johnson vs. Jeffries heavyweight title bout—the so-called “Fight of the Century”—also lends credence to the city’s prominent status.
Reno made a name for itself as the nation’s divorce capital starting in the early 1900s thanks to lenient Nevada divorce laws and a general freewheeling spirit. The influx of divorce-seeking men and women also bolstered the city’s growing population. Reno gained its most iconic symbol, the Reno Arch, in 1926, and its well-known nickname “The Biggest Little City in the World” was adopted three years later. The arch that currently resides at Virginia Street and Commercial Row was erected in 1987. The original can still be viewed today a few blocks southeast on Lake Street near the National Automobile Museum. One of the city’s most unique attractions, the museum houses the impressive car collection of casino mogul Bill Harrah. The 1931 legalization of gambling in Nevada paved the way for enterprising men such as Harrah and proved another boon to The Biggest Little City, which in short order added gaming capital to its expanding list of claims to fame.
Though Las Vegas overtook Reno in the mid-1900s as the country’s top gaming destination and Nevada’s most populous municipality, The Biggest Little City continued to grow substantially in population and influence through the 20th century.
Today, Reno is Nevada’s fourth largest city with about 220,000 residents and the center of a metro area of nearly 500,000, the second largest in the state.
Downtown casino-resorts such as Circus Circus, Club Cal-Neva, Eldorado, Harrah’s, and the Silver Legacy are appreciated by tourists and residents for their convenience and lively atmosphere. The array of events that center on the downtown core are also big draws and include food and drink festivals throughout the year, August’s classic-car show Hot August Nights, and September’s motorcycle celebration, the Street Vibrations Fall Rally.
Outside the city center, the Atlantis and Peppermill in Reno’s southern neighborhoods and Grand Sierra Resort near Reno-Tahoe International Airport also host major events and boast expansive casinos, hotel towers, and some of Reno’s best restaurants, making them popular among visitors and locals alike.
Since the 1990s, the city has successfully revamped the section of downtown along the Truckee River, building the Riverwalk District and Truckee River Whitewater Park. The district has since become one of Reno’s most popular destinations, replete with chic shops and lounges and eclectic eateries, and plays host to two of the city’s most popular events, the Reno River Festival and the month-long July celebration of the arts, Artown. The city’s commitment to the arts doesn’t stop at Artown. The Reno Philharmonic, dance troupes, and live theater at venues including the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts and Brüka Theatre speak to the reverence given to creative pursuits in the Truckee Meadows.
Sports fans delight in cheering for Reno’s two professional teams, the Aces (Triple-A baseball) and Bighorns (NBA D-League), and the University of Nevada, Reno’s 2010 Western Athletic Conference Champion Wolf Pack football team frequently sells out the nearly 30,000-seat Mackay Stadium. The university’s men’s and women’s basketball teams and baseball and softball teams also draw enthusiastic crowds. For folks whose idea of entertainment is loftier than sports arenas, the stars at Fleischmann Planetarium & Science Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, are literal stars…and moons, and planets, and galaxies, too.
As popular as Reno’s in-town offerings are, many of its staunchest fans love The Biggest Little City for what lies just beyond the city limits. Dozens of the most picturesque greens and fairways in the state—both within the city and nearby—offer superb golfing, and, in August, Montrêux Golf and Country Club hosts the PGA Tour’s Reno-Tahoe Open. Easy access via one of only two international airports in the state makes Reno the gateway to Lake Tahoe and its myriad activities in all seasons from world-class skiing in the winter to hiking and biking on thousands of miles of alpine trails in the summer.
Beyond the downtown whitewater park, the Truckee River’s entire stretch from Tahoe to Pyramid Lake is popular among kayakers, rafter, and anglers. The nearly complete Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway follows the Truckee for 116 miles between the lakes and allows access to the river for walkers and cyclists.
City of Reno
PO Box 1900, Reno, NV 89505
Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority
4001 S. Virginia St., Ste. G, Reno, NV 89502
Much like our nation’s capital, Carson City was envisioned as a seat of government from its conception when Abraham Curry set aside 10 acres of the Eagle Valley settlement in 1858 expressly for the construction of a Capitol—three years before the formation of the Nevada Territory in 1861, six years before statehood in 1864, and 13 years before the Capitol was constructed in 1871.
The region was first explored by John C. Fremont’s 1843-44 expedition, during which Fremont named the Carson River for his scout, Christopher “Kit” Carson, whom the city itself was later named for as well. The town’s precursor, Eagle Station trading post, was established near the river in 1851.
Following the discovery of the Comstock Lode, made public in 1859, the soon-to-be capital city grew into a major center of commerce and was the staging point for much of the nearby mines’ workers, lumber, freight, and other supplies. Carson City’s status as state capital and seat of then Ormsby County spared the town from the fate of many Nevada settlements and kept it alive—with a drastically decreased population—once the Comstock busted.
During the early 20th century, the capital again served as a waypoint for Tonopah- and Goldfield-bound supplies and miners during those towns’ mining booms. By 1960, Carson City surpassed its historic high population of about 4,500 and has continued to grow into the 21st century. Today, more than 55,000 people call the city home. Ormsby County was merged into Carson City in 1969 to consolidate government services, making it the only independent city (it does not belong to a county) in Nevada.
In addition to housing its government, Nevada’s sixth-largest incorporated city is home to many of the state’s best-preserved historic buildings and other attractions that make it a highly regarded tourist destination. The Nevada State Museum, Carson City occupies the 1869 U. S. Mint and is full of enough historical and cultural exhibits to entertain visitors for most of a day.
The blue line painted on the sidewalk outside of the Mint is the Kit Carson Trail, a 2.5-mile walking path through downtown that passes more than 60 historic landmarks, including the Capitol, the 102-year-old Governor’s Mansion, the Frederic DeLongchamps-designed Heroes Memorial Building and Ormsby County Courthouse, the 1891 Paul Laxalt State Building (which houses the offices of Nevada Magazine), and more than 20 Victorian-era homes. The former Carson Brewing Company (also on the walking tour) is home to the Brewery Arts Center, which hosts musical and theater productions and art shows.
Train and history aficionados will appreciate the Nevada State Railroad Museum and its collection of more than 60 locomotives and cars, the bulk of which were once part of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. The recently refurbished V&T line from Mound House, just east of Carson City, to Virginia City offers 1.5-hour one-way excursions between the historic cities (the V&T becomes The Polar Express during select dates in November and December). The family-favorite Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada offers dozens of exhibits that entertain and educate. The state’s native history is honored at the Stewart Indian School, a former boarding school that educated American Indian youths from around the West from 1890 to 1980.
For non-history recreation, Carson is central to the Divine 9, nine of the area’s most picturesque golf courses. Myriad hiking and biking trails crisscross the surrounding foothills and climb into the imposing and beautiful Carson Range. The Carson River is also home to a host of trails and one of Northern Nevada’s best waterways for rafting and kayaking. To fuel a long day of exploring the capital, the city’s eclectic array of dining options—from gourmet dinners at Adele’s and Glen Eagle’s to inspired international fare at The Basil Thai restaurant and Kim Lee’s Sushi—offers a meal to suit any taste.
Downtown wine walks on the first Saturday of each month are just the beginning of the impressive array of events in the capital city that include the Northern Nevada premier of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Carson City Community Center, starting Friday, November 4, with weekend performances through November 20. Numerous farmers’ markets run through spring and summer, entertaining “ghost walk” tours are a fall favorite, and the annual Nevada Day Parade at the end of October celebrates the state’s admission to the Union.
Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau
1900 S. Carson St., Carson City, NV 89701
201 N. Carson St., Carson City, NV 89701
Named for English homesteaders John and Mary Gardner, the farming community of Gardnerville was founded in 1879 on the fertile banks of the East Fork of the Carson River. Because of its abundant farms, dairies, and ranches, the town was a natural gathering place for Basque sheepherders who gravitated to Gardnerville’s boardinghouses for the familiar food, language, and customs of the old country.
The town’s heavy Basque influence is celebrated today at JT Basque Bar & Dining Room, Overland Hotel, and Carson Valley Country Club Basque Restaurant where traditional family-style Basque meals and hospitality are served in gargantuan proportions. Photo: Jay Aldrich (Movies in the Park)
Today, the city of about 5,000, much like its close neighbor Minden, is centered on the business district that follows U.S. Highway 395 through town. Carson Valley’s answer to the Twin Cities, Gardnerville and Minden share many services and traits while still keeping distinct identities.
In addition to the popular and historic JT Basque and Overland Hotel, Gardnerville’s section of the highway is lined with historic buildings, many of which are occupied by charming, locally owned shops and restaurants. The Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center houses exhibits that share the story of the region’s cultural history, including displays on the native Washoe people and Basque immigrants. Nearby recreation opportunities include the 18-hole Carson Valley Golf Course; hiking, cycling, equestrian, and OHV trails; and Topaz Lake, 21 miles south. Topaz, on the Nevada-California border, offers some of the area’s best fishing and boating and accommodations at Topaz Lodge Casino and RV Resort.
Town of Gardnerville
1407 U.S. Hwy. 395 N., Gardnerville, NV 89410
Main Street Gardnerville
1407 U.S. Hwy. 395 N., Gardnerville, NV 89410
WORTH A CLICK
Carson Valley Visitors Authority
1477 U.S Hwy. 395 N. Suite A, Gardnerville, NV 89410
One of the most charming locales in Nevada—let alone the Reno-Tahoe Territory—Genoa is also one of the state’s oldest towns. Actually, depending on who you ask, it is the oldest and remains very much entrenched in a friendly, often entertaining dispute with the nearby Pony Express Territory town of Dayton for claim to the title.
The sleepy town came to be in 1851 when Mormon settlers from Salt Lake City started a trading post at the base of the Carson Range. It was called Mormon Station until 1855 when Judge Orson Hyde renamed it for Christopher Columbus’ birthplace of Genoa, Italy. The town was named the seat of Utah Territory’s Carson County in 1854 and was later awarded the seat of the new Nevada Territory’s Douglas County in 1861. Genoa never grew to the prominence of many of its Silver State cousins, and, following a devastating fire in 1910 from which the town never fully recovered, lost the seat to its Carson Valley neighbor, Minden, in 1916. Photo: Sydney Martinez
Despite, or perhaps because of, its somewhat languid existence, Genoa is today highly regarded among locals and visitors alike—being home to “Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor,” the Genoa Bar, certainly doesn’t hurt. In addition to the 1853 tavern (pictured above), the town claims Genoa Courthouse Museum—which served as the original county courthouse and a school—Mormon Station State Historic Park, and a host of other historic and interesting spots such as the 1853 Pink House, built by one of the town’s founders, John Reese.
Another fascinating stop is the Snowshoe Thompson statue at Mormon Station. Norwegian-born Thompson became a local hero and legend in the 1850s, ’60s, and ’70s by carrying mail to and from Genoa over the snow-choked Sierra Nevada. The nearby 1862 David Walley’s Hot Spring Resort is one of Carson Valley’s oldest and most revered resorts, and four cozy bed and breakfasts offer visitors the opportunity to become temporary residents of the town of about 200. Genoa Lakes Golf Club offers two 18-hole courses.
The best times to visit Genoa are during the town’s lively family-friendly events that include Christmas in Genoa and Christmas in the Sierra, December 2 and 10, respectively, Genoa Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival, April 27-29, 2012, Concerts on the Green throughout the summer, and the world-famous Candy Dance Arts & Crafts Faire, which will celebrate its 92nd year in September 2012.
Town of Genoa
PO Box 14, Genoa, NV 89411
The dispute over which town is Nevada’s oldest pits a group of Salt Lake City traders who settled Genoa against a throng of California miners who toiled for gold near Dayton. Both groups arrived in 1851 during a hazy period in Nevada history… Between them, these two small towns can claim most of the important historical firsts in Nevada. In the 1850s, Genoa was the site of Nevada’s first house, business, ranch, post office, government meeting, lawsuit, and newspaper. Dayton was the site of Nevada’s first marriage, divorce, dance, and gold discovery.
“What’s Nevada’s Oldest Town?”
Nevada Magazine, October 1998
GERLACH & EMPIRE
Gerlach is best known to outsiders for the annual Labor Day Weekend counterculture extravaganza of Burning Man, held in the nearby Black Rock Desert. As uniquely entertaining as the 50,000-person temporary Black Rock City is, Gerlach has plenty to offer the rest of the year.
Established by the Western Pacific Railroad in the early 1900s, the dusty outpost 110 miles north of Reno has until recently avoided the boom-and-bust cycles of so many Nevada towns. A 24-hour gas station and convenience store, two bars, and Bruno’s Country Club (a restaurant, motel, and bar) constitute the town’s business district, and Planet X Pottery just north of town offers a studio and three show galleries. Aside from Burning Man, the major draws to the area are exploring the vast Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area and hunting in the surrounding wilderness. The new Black Rock Field Station serves visitors to the area spring through fall.
Just south of Gerlach, Empire was founded in 1923 to serve the Pacific Portland Cement Company’s mining operation in the area. In 1948, United States Gypsum Corporation purchased the claim and the town, which it has owned ever since. The January 31, 2011 closing of the USG mine and plant in Empire—and corresponding flood of newspaper coverage—made the town and its unfortunate plight a household name throughout Nevada and the West. After the end of the 2011 school year (June 20), the company-owned town closed, its 89405 Zip Code was discontinued, and its few hundred residents were displaced. It is worth noting that USG allowed employees with children to remain, rent-free, for the five months between the close and the end of the school year.
As strongly tied as the neighboring towns have long been—Gerlach’s school shut down following the closure of Empire, since Empire was responsible for the majority of the region’s 500 or so residents—Gerlach’s future without its southern companion is uncertain.
WORTH A CLICK
Friends of Black Rock/High Rock
GLENBROOK & ZEPHYR COVE
Contrary to its under-the-radar modern existence, Glenbrook played a vital role in supporting the mines of the Comstock and claims the title of Lake Tahoe’s oldest settlement. Much of the timber used to build Virginia City and support the countless miles of tunnels beneath it was cut and milled at Glenbrook, where lumber from around the lake passed through the burg on its way to the silver mines. Named for the two main features of the site, a narrow valley, or glen, and the brook that passes through it, Glenbrook’s picturesque setting was also the home of Tahoe’s first resort in 1863.
About five miles south of Glenbrook, Zephyr Cove’s history is one of leisure—the secluded, charming crescent of sand and languid surf has been home to Zephyr Cove Resort since the early 1900s.
While Glenbrook is primarily a residential area with stunning mountain and lakeside homes today, Zephyr Cove has remained a tourist destination, its original cabins restored to feature modern conveniences. In addition to the cabins, Zephyr offers an RV park and campground, restaurant, and one of the lake’s most popular beaches.
The year-round favorite M.S. Dixie II paddlewheel offers scenic and dinner cruises from Zephyr Cove Resort’s boat dock (pictured at right), and in the winter months, the resort offers snowmobiling excursions from nearby Spooner Summit. A few miles south of Zephyr Cove, Round Hill Pines Beach and Marina is a secluded local gem just two miles from the casinos of Stateline.
Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority
169 U.S. Hwy 50, Stateline, NV 89449
WORTH A VISIT
Zephyr Cove Resort & Marina
760 U.S. Hwy 50, Zephyr Cove, NV 89448
Morning and afternoon [snowmobile tours at Zephyr Cove Resort] follow groomed trails and include transportation to Spooner Summit from Zephyr Cove; a helmet, snowmobile, and knowledgeable guide; and all the spectacular views you can handle. “It was hard keeping my eyes on the trail,” says rider John Vicknair of Laplace, Louisiana. “I just wanted to keep watching the scenery.”
Nevada Magazine, January/February 2010
INCLINE VILLAGE & CRYSTAL BAY
Like much of the Lake Tahoe region, settlers first took notice of what would become Incline Village thanks to its abundant pine forests and an ever-growing need for lumber in Nevada’s bulging mining camps. The Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company camp of Mill Creek was the precursor to Incline Village, which is named for the Great Incline Tramway, built by Mill Creek’s loggers in 1878 and used primarily to transport lumber.
In 1935, the San Francisco-born California Gold Rush heir George Whittell Jr. purchased a more than 40,000-acre swath of lumber-company land that encompassed 27 miles of Tahoe shoreline, including the future site of Incline Village. From 1938-59, Whittell gradually sold much of his property in small pieces. The town was born of those parcels amid the Tahoe building boom of the 1950s and ’60s. The enigmatic real estate magnate’s grand Thunderbird Lodge still stands today. Photo: Rachid Dahnoun
Visitors can tour Whittell’s former summer estate (May through September), which includes a boathouse and beautiful antique yacht—owned for a spell by Bill Harrah.
Crystal Bay’s early days had a more Nevada-style disposition, which is to say the town that straddles the Nevada-California line on Tahoe’s north shore owes its dot on the map to good times and gambling. The 1920s brought a proliferation of vacation homes to the area, and the 1926 opening of the Cal-Neva Lodge started Crystal Bay’s ongoing run as a resort destination. From its early days as a mob-hangout to regular appearances by performers such as Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, the getaway has earned its place in the upper echelon of storied Nevada resort-casinos. Today, guests can crisscross the state border in the Cal Neva Resort Spa Casino’s swimming pool. Adding to the area’s mob ties, the Tahoe Biltmore Lodge and Casino, built in 1946, was owned for a period by Lincoln Fitzgerald, rumored to be a Detroit mobster. Born as the Ta-Neva-Ho in 1937, the recently renovated Crystal Bay Casino rounds out the gaming options in Crystal Bay.
Collectively, Incline Village and Crystal Bay are home to about 11,000 people occupying some of the priciest, most sought-after residences in the country—the average home price in 2009 was almost $850,000. Services in the area are typical of like-sized cities, and residents (and paying visitors) have special access to private, city-owned beaches. Resorts such as Incline’s Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe join the Crystal Bay lodging options.
Locals favor Diamond Peak Ski Resort and Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe as much for their terrain as their proximity—the former is literally in Incline and the latter about 10 minutes away on State Route 431.
Summertime brings beaches and the Bard, with miles of warm sand and the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival at Sand Harbor in July and August. While private beaches take up much of the shoreline near Incline and Crystal Bay, Sand Harbor and a handful of secluded sandy coves occupy Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park five miles south of Incline, and the California towns of Kings Beach, Tahoe Vista, and Carnelian Bay offer many public options as well. Two 18-hole golf courses within the city limits of Incline also offer summer fun—with an emphasis on staying out of the sand and water.
Incline Village General Improvement District
893 Southwood Blvd., Incline Village, NV 89451
Lake Tahoe Incline Village & Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau
969 Tahoe Blvd., Incline Village, NV 89451
Founded at the southern terminus of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad in 1905, Minden’s early layout was influenced by rancher and land baron Heinrich Friedrich Dangberg Jr., whose 1906 plan for the burgeoning hamlet called for a European-style community built around a central square—Minden Park. The town was even named for a town near the German birthplace of Dangberg’s late father. The family’s ranch and home are part of a historic park today. The park, a mile south of town, offers historical exhibits and $8 tours by reservation of the 1857 homestead. Once a state park, the site is now operated by the nonprofit Friends of the Dangberg Home Ranch. The December 3-4 and 10-11 Holiday Toy Exhibit offers visitors a look at antique toys that once belonged to the Dangberg children.
Minden was named the seat of Douglas County in 1916, and the town’s pleasant rural setting and proximity to Lake Tahoe made it a favorite getaway for Hollywood icons such as Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in the first half of the 20th century. The 1950s brought commercial development along U.S. Highway 395 and the town’s first residential subdivisions. Such development continues to shape Minden to this day.
The town of about 3,000 gets into the holiday spirit with its annual Gazebo Lighting, Parade of Lights, and Minden Weihnachts Fest arts and crafts fair on Friday and Saturday, December 2-3. Block parties, concerts, car shows, and farmers’ markets in the warmer months draw enthusiastic crowds of locals and visitors; the Minden Street Celebrations in June and September are among the most popular gatherings.
The recently renovated and rejuvenated Carson Valley Inn anchors Minden’s tourist offerings with three restaurants, a large casino, more than 200 rooms, and an RV resort. The year-round Carson Valley Swim Center is a popular family destination with six pools, waterslides, and other water-related fun.
Town of Minden
1604 Esmeralda Ave. Suite 101, Minden, NV 89423
WORTH A VISIT
Carson Valley Inn
1627 U.S. Hwy. 395 N., Minden, NV 89423
Mound House’s location along a major 19th-century route to California was responsible for its earliest settlers in the 1850s, and from 1860-61 it supported a Pony Express stop. The Comstock Lode boosted the town’s population and importance through the 1860s and ’70s.
A Virginia & Truckee Railroad station built in 1871 set the stage for Mound House to become an important transfer point, and its railroad prominence grew with the construction of the narrow-gauge Carson & Colorado Railway in 1880. Declining output from the region’s mines and the 1905 completion of the Hazen branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad—which bypassed Mound House—dealt the town a staggering blow, but gypsum mining and milling saved the day and kept the town alive.
In addition to the gypsum venture, which still operates today, the unincorporated burg on the Lyon County border a few miles from Carson City is home to substantial industrial enterprises, a handful of residential areas, and four legal brothels that account for the majority of Mound House’s out-of-town visitors.
When the Southern Pacific Railroad succeeded the Central Pacific and took and over its lines through Northern Nevada, it also cut a few miles off the route and bypassed the former roundhouse and maintenance shops in Wadsworth. Rather than abandon the town, the railroad moved it in 1903 to a swampy tract of land four miles east of Reno. Newspapers called it East Reno and New Reno, although the post office was named for Southern Pacific president Edward Harriman. In 1904, residents renamed it in honor of then-Governor John Sparks. A year later, the City of Sparks was officially incorporated and, for the first half of the 20th century, was very much a railroad town.
A shift away from the railroad in the 1950s and ’60s was accompanied by the growth of warehousing and light industrial development, and the 1955 opening of Dick Graves’ Nugget got the attention of tourists. In 1960, Graves’ food service manager, John Ascuaga, bought the Nugget and gradually developed it from a 65-seat diner with slot machines into the world-class 1,500–room resort residents and visitors see today from Interstate 80.
The 1980s brought a vigorous approach to attracting tourists and beautifying the city with the redevelopment of the once-blighted downtown area into the inviting, festival-friendly Victorian Square (pictured above). Some of Northern Nevada’s best-loved events call Victorian Square home, including the Sparks Hometowne Christmas and official State of Nevada Christmas parade, December 2-3, weekly farmers’ markets June through August, Street Vibrations’ Spring and Fall Rallies in June and September respectively, Star Spangled Sparks 4th of July celebration, Hot August Nights, and the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off in August and September.
Today, the state’s fifth-largest incorporated city with more than 90,000 residents is barely distinguishable from its neighbor; the pair is often referred to as Reno-Sparks. In addition to John Ascuaga’s Nugget and Victorian Square, Sparks is home to Outlets at Legends, an outlet shopping mall anchored by a manmade lake and Scheels sporting goods store. At 295,000 square feet, Scheels is among the largest sporting goods stores in the world, complete with a 65-foot Ferris wheel and two 16,000-gallon aquariums.
The 77-acre Sparks Marina Park features walking paths, sandy beaches, a dog park, picnic tables, and volleyball courts all a stone’s throw from Legends. The city’s history is on display at Victorian Square’s Sparks Heritage Museum, where artifacts and exhibits tell the story of the former railroad town and No. 8 Engine train tours are offered every Saturday and Sunday.
The nearby Wild Island Family Adventure Park offers go kart race tracks, bowling, miniature golf, and Northern Nevada’s only water park. More water-based fun can be found at the Rock Park Whitewater Park along the Truckee River, and Sparks is the Truckee Meadows’ gateway to boating and many other recreational opportunities at Pyramid Lake, 28 miles north of the city via State Route 445.
City of Sparks
At the turn of the present century there was no such thing as a town called Sparks, Nevada. So the town grew up in an environment of change, noting every improvement in mechanization as it applied to railroads. With only 50 years of history the town is still a youngster with plenty of vitality and spirit to carry forward over many rugged miles and years of future railroading.
“Sparks, Nevada—Out of the Swamp to a Railroad Town”
Nevada Highways and Parks, January–April 1951
The Washoe people inhabited the Lake Tahoe region and its surrounds for generations before the first white man laid eyes on the awe-inspiring alpine sea. One of the lake’s earliest non-native settlements was the 1860-61 Pony Express trail’s Friday’s Station, at virtually the same site occupied by Stateline today. Despite the mail route’s short existence, the region drew continued attention thanks to its vast supply of the Comstock’s primary building material: lumber. As demand for lumber declined through the late 1800s, the lake was increasingly viewed as a recreational getaway. In 1944, the modern face of Stateline began to take shape when Harvey Gross opened Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Saloon and Gambling Hall near the Nevada-California border.
In the following decades, more casinos, hotels, and the 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley contributed to development and population booms in Stateline and all of Lake Tahoe. Today, the town of almost 1,400 is for all intents and purposes the Nevada extension of California’s South Lake Tahoe, a city of 21,000.
Stateline is most recognized for its four high-rise resort casinos straddling the border with California: MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Harveys Lake Tahoe, and Horizon Casino Resort. The resorts’ combined repertoire of restaurants, clubs, entertainment venues that include the popular Harveys Outdoor Amphitheater, and the nearby Heavenly Mountain Resort and Heavenly Village make Stateline the lake’s most-visited tourist destination.
In addition to Heavenly—one of the largest and most popular ski resorts in the country—Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort and Kirkwood Mountain Resort are 30 minutes and an hour away, respectively. Fall and winter activities that attract skiers and non-skiers alike include the Valhalla Holiday Faire, November 19-20, and Gala Dinner, December 3, and the Lake Tahoe Festival of Trees and Lights, December 2-4.
During the warmer months, myriad beaches from Nevada Beach, just two miles north, and Baldwin Beach near Emerald Bay cater to sun worshipers and offer lakeside camping. Nevada Beach is also a great vantage from which to watch South Lake Tahoe’s July 4th fireworks display. One of the lake’s two iconic, turn-of-the-century paddlewheels, the Tahoe Queen, departs for regular scenic and dinner cruises from Ski Run Marina.
Nearby golf resorts such as Edgewood Tahoe (pictured below)—which hosts the annual favorite American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament, July 17-22, 2012—offer world-class links amid unparalleled alpine scenery and sweeping lake views.
Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority
169 U.S. Hwy 50, Stateline, NV 89449
Born as O’Neil’s Crossing in 1860, Verdi was established near the Truckee River in 1868 in conjunction with the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad about eight miles west of present-day Reno. Railroad officials were responsible for the name change, an homage to Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.
The town grew into a major milling site and terminal for the shipment of construction timbers and ties and is rumored to have at one time been larger than Reno. One of Verdi’s earliest claims to fame was the 1870 Great Train Robbery, during which an express car carrying close to $50,000 in gold and silver was held up and relieved of its contents. The lumber town’s major foe, not surprisingly, was fire. In Verdi’s almost 150-year existence, it has been plagued by more than 20 major fires. The blaze of 1926 was arguably the worst as it crippled the town and ended its days as an active railroad stop.
Today, the biggest draws to the mainly residential community of about 3,800 are Boomtown Hotel Casino and Cabela’s outdoor superstore, just one exit east of the burg on Interstate 80 toward Reno, and Terrible’s Gold Ranch Casino and RV Resort, one exit west toward California. Crystal Peak Park, southwest of the town center, has a scenic walking path along the river.
Verdi History Preservation Society
PO Box 663, Verdi, NV 89439
The spring 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode on the flanks of Mount Davidson ranks as one of the most significant events in the history of Nevada. If not for the almost $400 million in silver (and gold) extracted from the Comstock and the population boom that accompanied it, the Silver State would lack its most treasured nickname, and perhaps even its statehood. In addition to nicknames, statehood, and mindboggling wealth amassed by a handful of individuals, the Comstock Lode brought a host of technological advances that continue to shape the mining industry to this day.
Following the discovery of silver and gold, Virginia City practically exploded into one of the West’s most important cities overnight. Named for longtime local miner and one of the lode’s early discoverers, James “Old Virginny” Finney, Virginia City claimed more than 30,000 residents and rivaled San Francisco for prominence at its peak in the mid-1870s. But prosperity was shortlived. The 1880s brought steady decline, and, by the late 1890s, the mines of the Comstock had all but dried up.
Virginia City continued to whither for a few decades until a different sort of bonanza struck in the mid-1900s. Despite several devastating fires, the town retained many Comstock-era buildings that attracted people interested in finding a piece of the Old West. The 1940 Warner Bros. film “Virginia City” featured the town, and the 1959 birth of the hit NBC television series “Bonanza” made the town of about 1,000 a household name. It’s little surprise that Virginia City is such a popular destination. Walking along the Comstock’s vintage creaking boardwalks and sauntering into the world-famous Bucket of Blood or Delta Saloon is about as close to the Old West anyone lacking a time machine can get.
Among the dusty wooden walkways and artifact-laden bars, Virginia City offers visitors a multitude of activities and opportunities to peer into the past. The former residences of some of Virginia City’s mining magnates still stand. The 1860 Mackay Mansion houses a museum that includes mining artifacts, original furnishings, and Tiffany silver, and the 1861 Chollar Mansion is a bed and breakfast.
Art exhibitions and oral history lectures make use of the 1876 Fourth Ward School Museum, and theatrical performances grace the 1885 stage of Piper’s Opera House. Although claimed by the devastating Great Fire of 1875, the Storey County Courthouse and St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic church were each rebuilt the following year and today are, respectively, the state’s oldest continuously operated courthouse and most prominent structure in the town. The Mark Twain Museum at the Territorial Enterprise is a tribute to Virginia City’s most famous resident and Nevada’s oldest newspaper with 1860s printing equipment and Twain’s former desk.
To venture (literally) deeper (literally) into the Comstock’s history, visitors should consider an excursion on the recently refurbished Virginia & Truckee Railroad and underground tours of the Chollar and Ponderosa Mines. Rides on the V&T include the 35-minute roundtrip route to nearby Gold Hill and 1.5-hour one-way trips to Mound House, just east of Carson City. Holiday-themed Polar Express trains November through December and Christmas Elf Trains, December 3, 10, 11, 17, and 18, offer yuletide cheer and fun for the whole family.
As though all of the historic offerings in Virginia City weren’t sufficient to attract throngs of tourists, the town’s many annual events are almost as legendary as the Comstock itself. The Veterans Day Parade takes over C Street on Friday, November 11, and the Christmas on the Comstock and Parade of Lights, December 2-4, celebrate the holiday season with a Virginia City spirit. One of the city’s most popular events is March’s Mountain Oyster Festival and St. Patrick’s Day Parade—for the uninitiated, mountain oysters are sheep’s testicles. September’s International Camel Races always draw a crowd, and the Outhouse Races in October practically guarantee a laugh from onlookers.
Virginia City Convention and Tourism Authority
86 S. C St., Virginia City, NV 89440
WASHOE CITY & WASHOE VALLEY
Named for the native Washoe people who inhabited the Lake Tahoe area and nearby western Nevada valleys, Washoe Valley was inhabited for countless generations before white settlers reached the region. Franktown was occupied by several Mormon families as early as 1848. Following the discovery of the Comstock Lode in nearby Virginia City in 1859, Ophir and Washoe Cities were established around smelters and mills in the valley in 1860.
Named the seat of newly formed Washoe County in 1864, Washoe City was home to more than 2,500 residents (the total population of the valley surpassed 4,000) and numerous hotels, stores, and saloons. Decline followed the county seat’s 1871 move to Reno, and dwindling production from Comstock mines through the 1870s spelled the end of prosperity for the valley’s towns.
Being roughly midway between Reno and Carson City, the burgs in Washoe Valley were spared the fate of many Nevada towns that had outlived their utility and continued to support ranches and occasional businesses. Today, the bulk of the population (roughly 13,600 people live in Washoe Valley) is on the east side of the valley, locally referred to as New Washoe City. The mostly residential area has basic services and is only a few miles from Washoe Lake State Park, where fishing, hunting, wildlife-viewing, boating, windsurfing, horseback riding, picnicking, and camping are popular activities in all seasons. The campground has 49 sites with tables, grills, fire rings, restrooms, and showers.
Scattered neighborhoods, ranches, and locally owned shops such as Nevada Lynn Emporium and the Chocolate Nugget Candy Factory occupy the western part of the valley where historic Washoe City, Franktown, and Ophir used to be. In addition to the aforementioned shops, the 1863 Bowers Mansion and its surrounding park are popular stops, and Davis Creek Regional Park and Campground offers hiking trails, fishing, ice-skating on a pond that typically freezes in the winter, and 63 campsites with tables, fire pits, grills, restrooms, and showers.
WORTH A CLICK
Northwestern Nevada is home to the most varied collection of golf courses in the state. From nine-hole community links and private resorts with championship courses to desert greens and lakeside fairways, Reno-Tahoe Territory has a course to fit any golfer. Visit golf.travelnevada.com for a complete list of courses, statewide golf map, and golf travel deals.