The Complete Guide To: Nevada

From gambling in Las Vegas to gambolling in the desert, David Orkin strikes gold in this vast and varied US state
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The Independent Travel

WHY NEVADA?

WHY NEVADA?

High excitement this year as Las Vegas celebrates its centenary. The city was founded as a way-station for travellers heading west. Over the past century, it has become the biggest city in Nevada and the most popular urban destination in the US - with vast casino hotels constantly seeking to outdo each other in terms of opulence and imagination. Casinos pop up all over the state, even in sleepy old ghost towns that made their fortunes in the 19th century. But beyond all that glitters, the main interest is in the dramatic landscapes, which are remarkably accessible - not least along "The Loneliest Road in America" (US Highway 50). Amid vast tracts of untouched empty space, you can try adventure sports such as mountain biking, climbing - or hang-gliding or paragliding on the thermals of the Washoe Valley between Reno and Carson City.

Nevada is west of the Rockies, bordered by California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Arizona. At 484 miles from north to south and 320 miles east-west, Nevada is the seventh-largest US state, and more than twice the size of Britain. The average elevation in Nevada is a mile high, and the highest point 13,141 feet at Boundary Peak in the White Mountains on the California border. The state was previously part of the Utah territory; the name "Nevada" - "snow-capped" - was adopted in 1861, and three years later the young State of Nevada was admitted to the Union. Silver from the state helped shore up the finances of the federal government during the Civil War.

BEGIN WITH THE CAPITAL

Carson City, the state capital, is barely more than a town: it was named after the legendary Western hero Kit Carson (001 775 687 7410; www.visitcarsoncity.com). Stop briefly to visit the two best museums: the Nevada State Museum (001 775 687 4810) in the Old Mint building and the Nevada State Railroad Museum (001 775 687 6953); these share the same website as other state museums in Nevada, dmla.clan.lib. nv.us/docs/museums.

A short drive to the north, Reno (001 800 367 7366; www.visitrenotahoe.com) bills itself as "The Biggest Little City in the World". It straddles the Truckee river, and the riverside trail along this swift trout stream stretches seven miles from Idlewild Park to the neighbouring city of Sparks. This is one of the world's only cities where thrillseekers can cool off by kayaking in the downtown area - at the Truckee River Whitewater Park. Visit the fine new Nevada Museum of Art (001 775 329 3333; www.nevadaart.org), which includes works by Roy Lichtenstein, and Christo. At the Nevada Historical Society (001 775 688 1190) you can see an outstanding collection of American Indian artefacts. Or, of course, you can gamble; Reno is where northern Californians gather to try their luck, in the self-styled "little Las Vegas".

I WANT THE REAL THING

How much reality you'll find in Las Vegas is questionable, but it is no longer the city that taste forgot. Las Vegas - "the meadows" - was founded in 1905, at around the same time as a French scientist named Georges Claude identified a gas called neon. Initially it was a Mormon settlement, but by the Thirties it had reached the opposite end of the moral spectrum. Gangsters' ill-gotten cash was laundered by the million through casinos and hotels, aided by liberal laws in Nevada. If something was illegal and/or frowned upon in the rest of the US, it could usually be found in Nevada's largest city. Drinkers could slake their thirsts, gamblers could stake their shirts and lovers could make their vows. The rest is dazzling history, revealed at the excellent Nevada State Museum in Lorenzi Park, accessible from downtown Las Vegas on bus 207; call 001 702 486 5205 for more information, or visit www.nevadaculture.org.

Most of the huge casino complexes are located on Las Vegas Boulevard, universally known as The Strip. With hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms, they aren't exactly intimate, but they are in the heart of the action. You can, though, stay in conventional lodgings, such as off The Strip at the comfortable Somerset House Motel at 294 Convention Center Drive (001 702 735 4411).

Take in the view from the quarter-mile-high top of the Stratosphere Tower (001 800 998 6937; www.stratospherehotel.com; open daily 10am-1am and until 2am at weekends; adults $9.95/£5.50) or from a helicopter - USA Helicopters (001 702 736 8787; www.heliusa.com) offers thrilling rides up and down The Strip for $80 (£44). For free entertainment, walk along The Strip past the Eiffel Tower, Venice, the New York skyline or a pyrotechnic pirate ship.

All-you-can-eat buffets are very popular: the Spice Market Buffet at the Aladdin Resort & Casino (001 702 785 5555; www.aladdincasino.com) is a good choice. Find out more by contacting 01564 794999 or visiting www.visitlasvegas.co.uk.

I'M LEAVING LAS VEGAS

The city is an excellent starting point from which to explore Nevada. The state has no fewer than three Red Rock Canyons, but by far the best-known is the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (001 702 515 5350; www.redrockcanyonlv.org) along the east side of the Spring Mountains - one of the ranges of hills that surround Las Vegas. Just a short drive from the city, the mountains rise to a colourful escarpment, with peaks over 8,000 feet, and including huge cliffs and ravines composed of bands of grey, white and red rock, all heavily eroded. The wide plains beneath the hills are studded with Joshua trees and other desert plants, contributing to an impressive spectacle, * * especially in the late afternoon light. Red Rock Vista affords the best overall view of the cliffs, while for closer access there is a 13-mile one-way scenic drive. Admission is $5 (£2.80) per vehicle. Wildlife includes herds of wild donkeys, descendants of the animals used by miners more than a century ago.

The massive Lake Mead National Recreation Area (001 702 293 8907; www.nps.gov/lame) was established in 1964 and lies at the interface of the Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran Deserts in one of the hottest and driest places on earth. The lake's clear waters were formed by the Hoover Dam in 1935. Camping, swimming, boating, waterskiing, fishing, scuba diving, wildlife viewing, and hiking are the leading summer activities: if you want to stay in the car follow the Lakeshore and Northshore Scenic Drives.

At more than 726 feet from bedrock to crest, the Hoover Dam (001 702 294 3517; www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam) is the highest concrete dam in the country and one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century. A lift descends 506 feet through the dam to the power plant.

Close to Lake Mead, the small town of Overton is home of the Lost City Museum of Archaeology (001 702 397 2193; www.comnett.net/~kolson) which occupies an extensive Anasazi site. The museum contains fossils, semi-precious gems and Indian artefacts. A restored pueblo rests on 1,500-year-old foundations near the museum.

ANY NATURAL LAKES?

Lovely Lake Tahoe, in the north of Nevada and shared with California. Although most of the shoreline is private property, Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park (001 775 831 0494; parks.nv.gov/lt.htm) has a sandy beach, a boat ramp, hiking trails and Sand Harbor, which hosts the annual Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival (001 775 832 1616; www.LakeTahoeShakespeare.com); it runs 14 July-21 August this year.

Guided tours of the Thunderbird Lodge (001 775 832 8750; www.thunderbirdlodge.org), an elegant lakeside mansion that was once the private estate of George Whittell, are available daily from May to October by reservation only (001 775 832 8750; www.thunderbirdlodge.org). At the north of the lake, divided by the state line (hence its name), the Cal Neva Resort (001 800 225 6382; www.calnevaresort.com) is the current name of the Cal Neva Lodge, once owned by Frank Sinatra and a favourite with celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe.

SOME LIKE IT COLD

You might not associate a state with so much desert with winter sports, but the mountains around Lake Tahoe boast more than a dozen ski areas: Heavenly (001 775 586 7000; www.skiheavenly.com) straddles the state line. On the Nevada side are the resorts of Mount Rose - Ski Tahoe (001 775 849 0704, www.mtrose.com) and Diamond Peak (001 775 832 1177; www.diamondpeak.com).

Nevada's flora includes more than just dusty sage-brush. The state has some great areas to see colourful autumn foliage: the best spots for leaf-peepers include Mount Charleston, Cave Lake State Park near Ely, the Ruby Mountains and Lamoille Canyon near Elko and Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. Each October, Carson City is adorned in golden autumn colours, which generally peak around Nevada Day, the state's birthday - this year celebrated with a three-day weekend from 27-30 October.

COWBOY LIFE?

With desert, mountain and forest scenery and all those wide open spaces, Nevada is a popular choice for those wanting to spend much of their holidays in the saddle. For example, Ranch Rider (01509 891305; www.ranchrider.com) offers one week full-board at the Cottonwoods Guest Ranch near Wells from £1,445 per person including flights and all ranch activities.

Before the railway and the telegraph, the Pony Express provided communication between St Joseph, Missouri, on the western edge of East Coast civilisation, and the goldfields of California - a route of 2,000 miles, which could be accomplished in 10 days in summer, 12 days in winter. You can still see ruined Pony Express stations without going far from Highway 50, notably at Cold Springs, 65 miles west of Austin, and Sand Springs, about 25 miles east of Fallon. Pony Express Days (001 775 289 8877) are held over the last two August weekends in Ely, the eastern Nevada commercial centre founded as a silver-mining town in 1868. The discovery of copper and the coming of the railroad at the beginning of the 20th century led to Ely's longevity. At the Nevada Northern Railway Museum (001 866 407 8326; nevadanorthernrailway.net) $4 (£2.20), you can take several authentic steam train rides including the Ghost Train of Old Ely, which goes to the ghost town of Keystone. Many ghost towns speckle the surrounding area, including Hamilton, Cherry Creek and Osceola.

A NEED FOR SPEED

On 15 October 1997, Britain's Andy Green set a new World Land Speed Record of 763mph on a strip of Nevada's Black Rock Desert Playa. His vehicle, the Thrust SSC, was owned by another Brit, Richard Noble, who held the record himself from 1983-1997 after clocking 633mph on the same Black Rock site. This site is so popular for speed trials due to the surface of the dried-up lakebed, of extremely smooth, fine clay silt.

To the rancour of the fiercely competitive Americans, Green's record still stands: but for how long? A Washington state-based team is busy converting a Lockheed F-104 jet fighter into a vehicle capable of exceeding 800mph on land. If and when North American Eagle is ready, Nevada's Black Rock Desert is where the attempt is likely to be made once again.

THIS TOWN IS LOOKING LIKE A GHOST TOWN

In 1862, rich silver reserves were uncovered in Austin, in north-east Nevada. Today it is a good example of the 19th-century mining towns that once dotted the landscape. Three fine churches remain, as does Stokes Castle, built in 1897 to resemble a Roman tower. At the east end of Austin is the restored Gridley Store, built in the early 1860s from native stone.

Pioche, population 700, is another of Nevada's living ghost towns owing its existence to the discovery of gold and silver in the 1860s. Among the town's relics are the overhead cable-car system used to haul ore, and the cemeteries where murderers and their victims are buried.

Virginia City is a classic boom-and-bust frontier town. It once boasted a population of 23,000 and more than 100 saloons, six churches and an opera house. It owed its fortune to the rich Comstock Lode - the largest silver and gold strike ever. The town has been declared a National Historic Landmark.

Virginia City has survived into the 20th century with much of its 19th-century appearance intact with (relatively) authentic boardwalks, saloons, museums and historic buildings on the steep hills of today's town. Stay at the Gold Hill Hotel (001 775 847 0111; www.goldhillhotel.net), Nevada's oldest. Doubles start at $45 (£25), room only.

The old Virginia and Truckee Railroad route (001 775 885 6833; www.steamtrain.org), which once transported Comstock ore, has been partially restored. During the summer, trains run daily from Virginia City to nearby Gold Hill.

At Berlin, you can combine a visit to this 19th-century mining ghost town with a trip around Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park (001 775 964 2440; parks.nv.gov/bi.htm), a 70-million-year-old dinosaur dig site which has yielded the largest and best examples of ichthyosaur ("fish lizard") bones ever found.

With dozens of picturesque, landmark buildings, many still in use, Eureka is central Nevada's best-preserved 19th-century mining town. Silver and lead were discovered in the area in 1864. It wasn't until 1869 (when less exotic but ultimately more profitable smelters were built to extract the ore) that the town began to boom. The money was used to build no fewer than three opera houses. Today, Eureka's essential sight is the Sentinel Museum (001 775 237 5010; www.co.eureka.nv.us). The former home of the Eureka Sentinel newspaper has a press room, complete with a linotype machine. There are mining exhibits, too, and an antiquated barber's shop.

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

I suggest starting off with two or three nights in Las Vegas, then picking up a hire car to explore the state. BMI (0870 6070222; www.flybmi.com) flies from Manchester to Las Vegas, and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies from Gatwick to Las Vegas. US airlines offer through fares to both Las Vegas and Reno with a change of plane en route. A week's fully inclusive car hire from Avis (0870 606 0100; www.avis.co.uk) costs £174.

Public transport is sparse; Greyhound buses link the main population centres. Scenic Airlines (001 702 638 3300; www.scenicairlines.com) runs intra-state flights from Reno and North Las Vegas.

MORE INFORMATION

Call 0870 523 8832 or visit www.travelnevada.co.uk. The best guidebook is Nevada by Deke Castleman, published by Moon, £15.99. The Roadside History of Nevada by Richard Moreno (Mountain Press Publishing Company, £10.99) is also good.

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