Rural Wranglers: Tonopah
Discover adventure in the historic “Queen of the Silver Camps.”
Located halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, Tonopah is a welcome stop for road-weary travelers. But this old mountain town is no mere rest stop. Tonopah is the perfect weekend getaway to wander Sahara-like dunes, dine in luxurious haunted hotels, and take in some of the darkest skies around.
Legend has it that the silver near present-day Tonopah was discovered by a burro. It’s said that in the year 1900, a prospector named Jim Butler was wandering the uncharted hills of central Nevada looking for his stray burro. When he finally found the animal, he grabbed a nearby rock to throw at it, only to realize he was holding a big chunk of silver.
Whether or not that’s how it happened, it’s true that Butler’s site contained Nevada’s richest silver lode since Virginia City’s legendary bonanza. By 1901, the mines had produced almost $750,000 in silver and gold. One of the Old West’s last rushes was underway, and the remote mountain outcrop was home to a bustling city. By 1906, Tonopah was the largest city in Nevada with around 10,000 residents.
Tonopah’s peak mining years lasted into the 1920s, but by WWII, most of the silver was gone. During the war, the town was home to the Tonopah Army Air Field, an important training base for American pilots.
These days, Tonopah stays busy thanks to its location midway between Reno and Las Vegas. Not only is the town a full-service oasis, it’s also rife with amazing accommodations, delicious dining, outrageous outdoor adventures, and stellar stargazing. In other words, Tonopah is so much more than just a rest stop: It’s your hub for exploring central Nevada.
THINGS TO DO
Tonopah Mining Park
This 100-acre park is home to much of the mining infrastructure that made Tonopah the “Queen of the Silver Camps.” Start your journey at the visitor center, then embark on foot—or by ATV—to explore buildings, mine tunnels, and massive pieces of historic equipment. The park is structured with freedom to roam, and while guided tours are available, it’s also fine to quietly wander the sprawling complex to soak in some perfectly preserved mining history.
Tonopah Stargazing Park
Thanks to its remote location, Tonopah is one of the nation’s best places to stargaze while still enjoying all the services of a town. The park offers plentiful picnic tables and a large concrete pad to set up your telescope or camera. Enjoy long hours admiring the dazzling night sky while looking forward to a comfortable bed and a hot meal.
Central Nevada Museum
This museum features a host of exhibits covering the history of this corner of the Great Basin ranging from the prehistoric to present day. Visitors to this story-packed museum are sure to become enthralled in the tales of colorful characters who made their mark here, including saloon keeper and boxing promoter Tex Rickard, crime-fighting brothers Wyatt and Virgil Earp, and even the enigmatic billionaire Howard Hughes.
WHERE TO STAY
The Mizpah Hotel
The iconic Mizpah Hotel—built in 1907—is one of Nevada’s most historic hotels. In 2011, the building was restored to its bonanza-era glory, and today its glorious lobby boasts authentic chandeliers, velour Victorian couches, and one of the classiest saloons around. The hotel’s 52 rooms also promise a historically immersive stay and include themed suites like the Jim & Belle Butler Suite, the (reportedly haunted) Lady in Red Suite, and the Wyatt Earp Room.
The elegant Belvada Hotel was originally the Nevada State Bank & Trust when it was built in 1906. When the bank closed, the building became something of an early commercial mall, hosting a saloon, barbershop, and a clothing store. After the Great Depression, the building sat vacant for 80 years before it was renovated in 2020.
This is without a doubt the one landmark that all passersby remark on as they roll through town. As expected, this famous motel is the West’s clown capital: Some 3,200 clown figurines call the motel’s lobby home, and rooms are even decorated with custom-made clown paintings. No matter how you feel about clowns, expect a cozy (and memorable) place to stay the night.
DAY TRIP DESTINATIONS
Countless adventure opportunities are located within a short drive of downtown Tonopah. ATV enthusiasts, photographers, and people who just like walking barefoot on warm sand should head for Crescent Dunes (also called Tonopah Dunes) just north of town. If you’re the type of person who likes to earn their souvenirs, make a reservation with Otteson Brothers Turquoise to enjoy a day of rockhounding.
About 50 minutes north of town await two living ghost towns. The charming remains of Belmont include the ruins of a massive stamp mill and a 100-foot-tall brick chimney, plus the wonderfully preserved Belmont Courthouse and the still-open Dirty Dick’s 1867 Belmont Saloon. Over in nearby Manhattan, check out the “Stolen” Belmont Church and stop in at the Manhattan Public Library to learn about the town’s history.