Drive the Loneliest Road in America, the stretch of U.S. 50 that traverses Nevada, and you’ll find more than peace and quiet. There’s a burger-eating challenge, a hot springs to dip into and the chance to mine garnets along the way. Make a game of it: grab a copy of the Official Highway 50 Survival Guide and get it stamped at the old mining towns on the route. Finish your travels with a side trip to Great Basin National Park, where you can tour the Lehman Caves or hike up 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak.
285 miles/457 kilometers, plus side trips to Great Basin National Park and other attractions
Check out the map HERE
- Day 1: Fernley, Fallon, Frey Ranch Distillery, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, Grimes Point, Sand Mountain, Shoe Tree; overnight in Austin
- Day 2: Hickison Petroglyphs, hot springs, Eureka, Garnet Hill, Nevada Northern Railway; overnight in Ely
- Day 3: Great Basin National Park
DAY 1: FERNLEY TO AUSTIN
Start your trip in the small community of Fernley, about 35 miles east of Reno. Stock up on road-trip supplies, get your Official Highway 50 Survival Guide stamped at the Fernley Chamber of Commerce and hit the road.
The next town you’ll see is Fallon, an agricultural community known for such small farms as Lattin Farms (open to the public). Check out Churchill Vineyards, one of three vineyards in Nevada, and its sister property Frey Ranch Distillery, one of only two grain-to-glass distilleries in the country. Bird watchers may want to make a side trip to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, about 12 miles from Fallon proper on Nevada state Route 116. Migrating waterfowl and shorebirds traveling the Pacific Flyway stop at Stillwater, an internationally recognized area for bird watching.
About seven miles east of Fallon on the Loneliest Road is Grimes Point Archeological Area, where you can see petroglyphs (ancient rock art) along a short interpretive trail. Grimes Point is about 1.5 miles from Hidden Cave, a four-millennia-old American Indian storage site that can be visited via twice-monthly guided tours offered by the Churchill County Museum.
Continue eastward, and in about 20 miles you’ll hit Sand Mountain Recreation Area, a 600-foot-high sand dune created by geological forces over several millennia. Today, the area is popular with off-road enthusiasts and photographers. More than a century ago, this area was a stop on the Pony Express route, a horseback mail service in operation from 1860 to 1861. The Loneliest Road roughly follows the path of the Pony Express, and historical markers here, as well as at Cold Springs (farther east) represent the former way stations.
From Sand Mountain, it’s about 25 miles to Middlegate Station, a small outpost on the south side of the roadway. Come hungry. This is the home of the Monster Burger: more than a pound of ground beef stacked inside a sourdough roll sliced into thirds and garnished with lettuce, onion, cheese and sometimes jalapeno peppers, served with a pile of French fries. Eat it all, and you get an “I Ate the Monster” T-shirt. Only the hungriest are victorious.
Nevada has its share of quirky roadside attractions, and one of them is about one mile east of Middlegate, on the north side of the highway. The Shoe Tree is a giant cottonwood bedecked with hundreds of shoes dangling from its branches.
From here, it’s another 65 miles to the old mining town of Austin and a warm bed for the night.
CATCH SOME ZZZs:
- Union Street Lodging Bed & Breakfast, 69 Union St. in Austin, 775-964-2364, www.unionstreetlodging.com.
- Miles End Bed & Breakfast, 107 del Drive, Austin, 775-964-1046. (Note: Miles End is about 30 miles south of Austin proper in the community of Kingston. www.milesendbnb.com
DAY 2: AUSTIN TO ELY
Wake up in Austin, population 192, and grab breakfast at the Toiyabe Café. An outdoor visitors’ center on the Loneliest Road (Main Street) has interpretive panels telling the story of the community’s origins in 1862. Be sure to check out Stokes Castle on the western end of town, an 1890s-era stone structure built as a summer home for one of the area’s eccentric silver mine investors.
Mountain bikers may want to spend some extra time in Austin exploring area trails, then take a short detour to Spencer Hot Springs, about 20 miles southeast of Austin (ask a local for specific directions). Here, you can soak in a tub or below-ground pool of naturally heated water.
From Austin, continue east on the Loneliest Road for about 24 miles to the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area. If you didn’t get a chance to stop at Grimes Point, here’s another chance to see some of the ancient rock art carved by the area’s indigenous people.
Continue another 46 miles to Eureka, a mining town with Old West charm. Stop here to check out the historical Eureka Opera House, a beautifully restored 1880s-era building; and the Eureka Sentinel Museum, housed in the 1879 Eureka Sentinel Newspaper Building.
Now you’re on the road to the mining town of Ely, home of the steam-powered Ghost Train of Old Ely. But just west of town, before you hit Ely proper, is Garnet Hill, a public rock-hounding area where you can look for garnets embedded in rock and take them home. Once you’ve settled into your lodging in Ely, check out the Ghost Train — also known as the Nevada Northern Railway — a historical train, depot, and rail yard. Also check out Renaissance Village, a section of restored homes that reflect the various ethnic groups that came to the Ely area, and view the town’s many murals depicting regional history.
CATCH SOME ZZZs:
- Hotel Nevada, 501 Aultman St., Ely, 775-289-6665, hotelnevada.com
- The Bunkhouse and the Caboose at Nevada Northern Railway Museum, 1100 Ave A, Ely, 775-289-2085, nnry.com
DAY 3: SIDE TRIP TO GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK, WARD CHARCOAL OVENS AND CAVE LAKE
From Ely, it’s 67 miles to Great Basin National Park, one the country’s most beautiful and most isolated parks. Here, you can take a guided tour of the Lehman Caves, a marble cave ornately decorated with stalactites, stalagmites and more than 300 rare shield formations; and hike up Wheeler Peak -- Nevada's second tallest peak at 13,063 feet. A 12-mile scenic drive takes you to the Wheeler Peak campground, where you can hike to see bristlecone pines, 5,000-year-old trees believed to be the oldest living things on earth.
Other suggested side trips include Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park and Cave Lake State Park. Ward Charcoal Ovens, about 20 miles south of Ely, is notable for its six beehive-shaped ovens, all about 30 feet tall, where charcoal was made from 1876 to 1876. Juniper and pinyon pine were burned in the ovens to create charcoal to be used in the smelters of the Ward Mining District. Cave Lake, about 14 miles southeast of Ely, draws people for fishing, hiking and oddball events, such as the annual Great Bathtub Races in June.