1. The Old West
In Nevada, the Old West is alive! Sort of. And yes, I am thoroughly guilty of romanticizing bygone eras, but when was the last time you went to a ghost town? Like a real ghost town? When was the last time you even heard the words “ghost town?” Hell, there are whole websites (like ghosttowns.com) that chronicle all the ghost towns of Nevada.
But that has naught to do with what I mean when I say the Old West is alive. The further out from Vegas you get, and the closer to the tiny towns that sprinkle the desert you get, the more boots, cowboy hats, and (thanks to open carry) handguns you see. Sure, you’re not going to get into a tiff over jumping a claim, but it’s hard not to feel like you’re walking in the footsteps of the pioneers. I always found something special about those old, leathery, salty folks who live on the outskirts of the city.
2. Area 51
In August and again in December of 2013, the internet’s many conspiracy theorists rejoiced, for these were the first times in history that the CIA and President officially acknowledged the existence of Area 51. Peers were somehow shocked by my lack of enthusiasm — any resident of NV could have told you it was a real place, and a good chunk of the touristy stuff you can do outside Vegas hinges on this fact.
Yes, it’s a real place, yes there are armed guards allowed to shoot you if you trespass. Yes, the “Extraterrestrial Highway,” which runs along the eastern side of the site, is a hotbed for UFO sightings. Apparently the truth is out there, in the Nevada desert.
3. Lax laws
Of course, I couldn’t write this section without nodding to the fact that prostitution is indeed legal in the state for towns under 400,000 people (which, save Vegas, is most of them). It’s a pretty massive industry, which my superficial research shows is having a harder time in recent years.
Personally, I’m far more interested in the sprinkling of Native American reservations throughout the state, and their ability to sell the most incredible fireworks you’ve ever seen. Ideological and ethical debate aside, there was a certain magic to being a child reading Harry Potter days before encountering my first roman candle. I remember stopping at Moapa River reservation on our way to a family camping trip. Inside the main building, I was a kid in a candy store. Except all of the candy explodes and could easily take off a limb. I was spoiled; these were the best fireworks you could find: mortars, bottle rockets, M80s, the real deal. The really ILLEGAL (everywhere else) deal.
And sure, you were legally allowed to discharge them on the premises, and many did, but where’s the fun in that? No, we’d stock up, drive far out to where the cops would take at least a few minutes to get to us, and light the sky on fire for an evening.
4. Fly Geyser
One of the sickest natural occurrences I’m aware of, and very high on my list to visit, is this accidentally manmade geyser in Washoe County. You’ve seen pictures of it — it looks like something out of Super Mario World. Sadly, the geyser is located on private property and is therefore closed to the public. Less sad are the wealth of personal accounts and tutorials available online for seeing it anyways.
5. Burning Man
Somehow, only Nevada could provide the right atmosphere for Burning Man, which is why the Nevada desert has been the only venue for the event since the ’80s. The weeklong festival, held at the end of August, draws tens of thousands of people each year to celebrate art and radical expression in a makeshift city that disappears without a trace by September. For more, check out Matador’s full suite of Burning Man content.
6. Alien terrain
Those movies of yesteryear, where a team of space explorers land on Martian terrain and hop over red and tan swirly boulders around cliffs and up canyons, were most likely filmed in Nevada. In fact, coupled with the heat, you’d swear you were on a planet closer to the sun, where life is scarce and getting jumped by a Tusken Raider is a semi-legitimate concern. Plus, have you ever seen a rattlesnake? That’s some Dune-quality shit.
7. Nellis Dunes
If you’ve never experienced off-roading on sand dunes, you should probably get on it. Somehow I convinced myself that they were safe…that flipping my ATV would be like landing in a pillow (it wasn’t). But there’s a certain kind of shift in thought, from the utter fear of sliding (that driving on the pavement imbues in you) to its pursuit, which makes zooming around and weaving in the sand about as much fun as you can have with your pants on.
Realizing that America had its own brand of hieroglyphics was a profound and patriotic wakeup call for a younger me. And the best part? In Nevada, they’re everywhere. This early cave- and rock-carving graffiti from America’s ancient tribes (some dating back 15,000 years) tells all kinds of stories, though we can still only decipher them as far as their literal pictorial representations.
9. Lake Mead / Hoover Dam
The Hoover Dam is worth the trip, at least once. You go to say you’ve seen it, but you stay because a day at Lake Mead, where the red rocks meet the blue water, makes for a consistently awesome time. Rent a boat for a day and you’ll find all kinds of caves and coves, be able to float your way across state lines, and see the dam from a vantage point that underscores its true size.
10. Carson City
The state capital is where I imagine all the state’s history hiding (that, and of course George Ferris, inventor of the Ferris wheel). It’s right there by Lake Tahoe, which is the woodsier version of Lake Mead.
Oh, and did I mention it’s named after Kit Carson…mountain-man Kit Carson? Carson City exists not only to provide evidence that there were, in fact, mountain men, but that one of them could rise above the others, distinguish himself, and have a state’s capital named after him. Badass.
They may never love me like I love them, but damn I love lizards, and they’re everywhere in Nevada. Head out for a camping trip? Lizards. Walk through a drainage ditch? Lizards. Move a big-ass rock in your backyard? Fucking lizards, lizards everywhere. Not only are they fun to catch, they’re fun to observe. Watch them bask in the sun with sleepy eyes slowly recharging their hindlegs, watch them do their bizarre pushups and then dart across canyon floors, hopping and springing in and out of holes in the ground or rocks.
12. Great Basin National Park
As you probably know by now, if it’s a national park, it’s going to be incredible. Great Basin National Park is like that quintessential Bob Ross painting. There’s some mountains, some water, some snow, and happy little trees. It’s also home to over 320 species of wildlife, including 238 species of birds alone. All that, and the oldest living trees on Earth.
13. Lehman Caves
Yes, Lehman Caves are located in Great Basin National Park, but they’re too cool not to have their own section. These miles of marble caverns, consisting of a variety of geological formations, were discovered by Absalom Lehman in 1885 and are home to over 300 rare shield formations. The caves also served as a burial site for Native Americans for generations before Lehman arrived.
Ever in flux, several of the rooms have been closed to the public due to the rocks’ moving and shifting, and, y’know, the whole cave system is supporting a mountain.
14. Valley of Fire
First and foremost, it’s called the Valley of Fire. It looks like Mars, and the Grand Canyon, and funnily enough, like my last mushroom trip. It’s beautiful and exactly the “reds” I talk about when I talk about missing Nevada. There are petroglyphs, hiking trails, wildlife, and the ever-present sense of nature’s internal struggle, wearing away the rock and creating the most interesting and bizarre formations you can conceive of. Plus you get to tell everyone you spent your weekend in the “Valley of Fire.” What’s not to love?