Some of Nevada’s most interesting art isn’t kept in a museum. With a set of wheels and a working GPS, you can see art too bold — and big — for galleries, like an automotive take on jungle wilderness, and eco-sculptures that are essentially giant colorful mountain piles plopped in the desert.
Your route starts in Goldfield, a former mining town that’s now home to ghosts — and a couple hundred living residents — as well as an outsider art project that’s the quirky destination for no small number of modern pilgrimages.
The International Car Forest of the Last Church uses the landscape as its canvas for dozens of buses and sedans planted — many nose down — in the Nevada dirt. This place styles itself the world’s largest “national junk car forest,” and while they might not have much competition, the colorful graffiti-style murals painted on each of the “exhibits” makes for a dystopian-yet-whimsical effect that’s definitely worth checking out.
Wander and commune with the rusty vehicles, pose for pics with cars that look they came crashing down to earth from an alternate universe, then get back into your own (working) vehicle and head south on US 95 toward Beatty.
Just beyond the town of Beatty, you’ll find the Goldwell Open Air Museum, a 15-acre sculpture park open 24/7 (and free!). The Museum was created in the ’80s by Belgian artists looking for an expansive landscape to work on their weirdly awesome masterpieces.
It’s home to an odd-but-cool selection of massive sculptures like “The Last Supper,” a rendering of Christ’s final meal with huge ghostly shrouded figures; and “Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada,” a towering, pixelated 3-D nude that looks a bit like an enormous Lego sculpture.
While you’re in the neighborhood, stop by the ghost town of Rhyolite and check out one of the only buildings left — Tom Kelly’s bottle house. It was built back in 1905 from adobe mud and tens of thousands of beer bottles — but this wasn’t a college-dorm-style project of keeping all your freshman empties. With limited natural supplies, Kelly asked the 50 bars in town to save their bottles, and voila…a home that lasted a century.
Your next stop is 90 minutes north of Las Vegas, off I-15, where you’ll find Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative,” a ’70s era earthwork carved into the desert. Heizer described it like this: “There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture.” Mind. blown.
When you’ve had your fill of staring into Heizer’s artistic void, your final stop is a recent addition to the Nevada wilderness: “Seven Magic Mountains,” an installation by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. Basically, it’s seven stacks of neon-painted boulders, but the piece — scheduled for display for two years — is also a comment on the human impact on the environment. And it’s a splash of colorful energy amid the scrub, a great spot for an impromptu photo shoot.
They come in peace — that is, the thousands of visitors who flock to this desolate stretch of road, also known as Route 375, 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
You’ll probably want a full day to cruise the Extraterrestrial Highway. It’s about two and a half hours each way from Vegas, but even if you aren’t waylaid by aliens, the area is open range, meaning you might be delayed by…cows.
Your first stop is ET Fresh Jerky in Hiko, where you can stock up on flavors like Turkey Terrestrial Teriyaki and Hell Hole Hot for the road ahead. Turn left onto Route 318 out of town, and keep an eye out for the landmark Extraterrestrial Highway sign, the first true photo opp and the official start of the alien expressway.
Inside a nearby bunker — and guarded by a towering visitor from another planet — is the Alien Research Center, a gift shop full of quirky ET and pop-culture novelties that, despite the name, conducts no actual alien research.
You’ve come for the real deal, and that means Area 51, the top-secret Air Force base where the government may or may not be studying big-headed green guys. After you drive over a hill you’ll see the turnoff on your left for Groom Lake Road, the unpaved route to Area 51’s “front gate.”
Don’t expect any barbed wire, though. The “gate” is just a set of sharply-worded signs that mark the beginning of the military zone where visitors are certainly not welcome. Cross the line and you’ll be greeted by the “camo dudes” who patrol the base’s border and a $600 trespassing ticket. When you’ve sufficiently imagined what’s going on beyond the scrubby hills, head back to the main road, and continue on to Rachel.
Rachel is a tiny speck of a town where scenes from Independence Day were filmed — and where you can grab a bite and chat up the locals at the Little A’Le’Inn (earthlings welcome).
If you’re up for one more brush with the mysterious before you head on, take a drive down Back Gate Road just south of Rachel, which leads to — you guessed it! — Area 51’s back gate, complete with guards and an actual road block. Just be sure to keep your distance. Who knows what lies beyond.
It’s been 30 years since LIFE Magazine and an anonymous rep from AAA dubbed the stretch of Highway 50 that slices through Nevada “The Loneliest Road in America.” Today, the moniker lives on — and despite its fame, it’s still lonely. Drivers find an isolated river of asphalt set in a landscape of open desert and white-capped mountains with few towns breaking the emptiness.
And that’s exactly the point. A drive on the Loneliest Road is one of solitude, but when you need to puncture the meditation, there are plenty of detours and landmarks worth visiting along the way.
Drive east out of Carson City until you reach Fallon. Just on the other side of town, the Grimes Point Archaeological Area is home to boulders etched with petroglyphs that date back more than 6,000 years. Try to decipher the meanings of the drawings scratched into one of the biggest rock art sites in the U.S., then continue 20 minutes down the road for entertainment that doesn’t stay the same for even a minute.
At Sand Mountain Recreation Area, you can watch off-roaders fly over the massive dunes on ATVs, motorcycles, and dune buggies, or just marvel at the 600-foot-high Sand Mountain, created by grains carried on the wind.
Next up is Austin, a so-called “living ghost town” where you can visit Stokes Castle, the crumbling remains of a long-deserted “summer home” of a wealthy banker from the late nineteenth century.
Getting road weary? Soak in Spencer Hot Springs, naturally steamy baths where trunks are definitely optional. To truly experience the Loneliest Road, though, you still have to spend some time just driving.
It’s two and a half hours straight to the town of Ely and the Nevada Northern Railway. Climb aboard a vintage train that’s been riding the rails for more than a century, or book one of the railway’s special trips and take in the night skies with a national park ranger, or get your hands on the throttle and learn to be an engineer yourself.
From there, it’s just an hour (by car) to the Utah state line and the end of your experiment in lonely road-tripping.
A rugged counterpoint to Southern Nevada’s flashiness, Northern Nevada is where you head for fresh powder, stunning views, and even a bit of whitewater. Here’s where to find it all.
Your journey starts on the northeast tip of Lake Tahoe. In winter, slopes on both sides of the state line beckon, but when temperatures rise, the area around Incline Village becomes a destination for other outdoor pursuits — like racing a dummy attached to a snowboard down the slopes, for instance. Or, you know, making a snowman.
In the summer, rent a stand-up paddle board from Action Watersports and get out on the lake for a couple hours, then dry off, and prepare to pick up the pace.
On even-numbered days, the portion of the Tahoe Rim Trail from Tahoe Meadows to Tunnel Creek Road is open to mountain bikers, and that means 9.2 miles of adrenaline-pumping single track best suited to experienced riders. But humans can’t sightsee via bike alone — not at these speeds, anyway. Just 15 minutes up Mt. Rose Highway you’ll find the Mt. Rose Trail. Spend a few hours hiking to a spectacular waterfall (5 miles round trip) or make a day of it and go for the summit (10 miles round trip) for the panoramic views of Lake Tahoe below.
Then it’s on to Reno, where recovery goes best with a plate of moules frites and a Red Headed Stranger ale from local brewpub Brasserie Saint James. Most cities have public parks; Reno outdoes them all with the Truckee River Whitewater Park, an engineered stretch of class II and III rapids in the heart of downtown that’s perfect for kayakers testing their skills or inner tubers looking for an exhilarating float.
Okay, time to dry off and hit the road again.
It’s four hours east on I-80 to Elko, your jumping-off point to explore the Ruby Mountains. Jagged peaks, glacier-carved valleys, and alpine lakes make for brilliant hiking during the summer season, and winter brings heli-skiing adventures where all your tracks are fresh.
Finally, continue one more hour on the 80 to Wells and saddle up for a stay at Cottonwood Guest Ranch, a working ranch where you can ride with the crew to check on the cattle or join one of their seasonal horse drives. With six generations of family-run ranching under their belts and no shortage of antlers on the walls, this is probably the Wild West experience you’ve only seen in movies.
Want to really go for it? They rent out teepees so you can sleep under the stars — fireside cowboy tales not included. But when you’re surrounded by stark landscapes and thundering herds of horses, you should have no shortage of your own.
Nevada might be known for indulging (and encouraging) our vices, but far more of the state is made up of uninhabited federal land than flashing and dinging casino floor. A drive on Great Basin Highway (Route 93) stretches from the Arizona border all the way to Idaho (and on to Canada!) and encompasses both extremes, from the excesses of Las Vegas to the excesses of stars and wilderness of Great Basin National Park.
You’ll start on the Arizona border at the Hoover Dam, the Depression-era construction project that created Lake Mead. Take a tour of the dam or just stroll across and check out the bathtub rings that make it pretty obvious how much drought has affected the reservoir in recent years. To see the dam from a different angle, rent a boat and spend a few hours cruising the water.
Ready for a snack? Boulder City calls.
The quaint, gaming-free town of Boulder City — one of only two no-gambling towns in the state — was created to house dam workers, but today it offers a hearty breakfast at The Coffee Cup or a tasty meal at Milo’s to prepare you for your four-wheeled odyssey.
When you’ve had your fill, get ready to drive; it’s nearly 500 miles to Idaho. But you can’t pass Las Vegas without at least stopping for a pit stop.
Hop off the highway at Las Vegas Boulevard and check out the revitalized Downtown and Fremont East corridor, where empty storefronts have been replaced by gastropubs, cocktail bars, and a shopping center created out of shipping-container-style units.
There’s far more to do in this city than could ever fit in a road trip guide. When you’re finally ready, leave Vegas in the rearview and head north, past Nellis Air Force Base, past the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and into the desert.
It’s 86 miles to the spring-fed Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, a verdant contrast to the surrounding scrub where you can spot thousands of birds during spring and fall migrations. Continue 90 minutes farther north and you’ll find another natural wonder: Cathedral Gorge State Park, a landscape of stone spires and caves that make for great wandering — and striking photos.
Next up, the centerpiece of your trip is right on the Utah border and a short detour off Route 93.
Welcome to Great Basin National Park. Here you can commune with 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines; tour the stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites of the Lehman Caves; and take in some of the darkest skies in the nation.
Spend the night, then make for the Idaho border. If you need to stretch your legs, pull off in Wells and check out Nevada’s most ironic ghost town, Metropolis. It’s a decaying monument to the water issues that still plague the West today and a fitting bookend to this road trip on the Great Basin Highway.