Nevada is a place that evades a quick summary. At first glance, the region only has weekends of parties in Vegas, or the crystal clear waters of Lake Tahoe. However, those looking to explore the state will be rewarded with a whirlwind tour of the desert, the mountains, and everything in between.
We’ve always been down for the weirder things to do and see around Canada, so when offered the chance to take a road trip from Vegas to Reno we jumped at the opportunity. Kick things off in America’s party city, before driving through ghost towns, public art installations, and stunning scenery? Perfect.
We opted for a high/low approach to the trip, with a focus on value more than dropping the dollars just for fun. So, upon arrival in Vegas, we immediately headed east, to a town called Mesquite. There was a point to this sidebar, as it offers a wide variety of golf for those looking to swing the sticks, including one of the country’s most impressive venues- Wolf Creek.
Nestled into the harsh desert terrain, the 18-hole championship course is an oasis for skilled golfers or those who don’t mind losing a few balls. Featuring dramatic tee boxes, strategically placed fairways, and picture-perfect greens, the course doesn’t need to claim a single ‘signature hole’- you’ll find stunning views of the area around every bend. Don’t just take our word for it- it was named one of America’s best public golf courses by Golf Digest in 2021. An extra bonus? Those looking for a great home base in this area will find it at CasaBlanca Resort, which offers a variety of ‘Stay and Play’ packages.
After the round we headed back to Vegas, for maybe one of the most subdued nights the city has ever seen. Walk the strip, eat a cheap meal (Tim Ho Wan has an outpost there), and do a little people-watching, which provided more than enough entertainment until we felt the morning round take hold and send us to the comfort of the hotel beds . Not exactly what most people think of when they hear the city’s name, but hey, we had a big day to prepare for.
Waking up bright and early, we hopped in the rental car and promptly hit the road. The plans? Take the Free-Range Art Highway north to Reno, stopping in at all the sights that a state which is 80% public land has to offer us. First up- a town called Beatty, which sits at the edge of one of the harshest regions on the continent, Death Valley. Here, we were treated to a one-two punch of art and history, courtesy of the Rhyolite Ghost Town and the Goldwell Open Air Museum. We definitely preferred the Open Air Museum, which sets some partly beautiful, partly creepy installations against a gorgeous backdrop of the valley below.
Swing by Beatty for a quick lunch, then back on the open road. Drive for another hour, admiring the Joshua Trees and the ever-changing landscape along the way, and we got to Goldfield, the home of the ambitious, if maybe not most professionally executed, International Car Forest. As you might expect, the large-scale, ongoing project has seen dozens of cars, trucks, and buses buried nose down into the desert, for no other reason than to say that they’re there. Coming from quite a few articles about the best roadside attractions in Canada, we could appreciate the random devotion. What was it Camus said about absurdism? A lucid invitation to live and to create in the very midst of the desert? You get the sense that some folks around these parts took it literally, maybe without even knowing.
Enough philosophy though, because our next stop was a town laying claim to one of America’s most infamous landmarks. Tonopah may not ring any bells- the town was once-upon-a-time boom, and the Historic Mining Park offers over 100 acres of mines, tunnels, and buildings to explore. Which, by the way, we recommend shelling out the extra $5 or so to take a tour via off-road vehicle, instead of slugging through 30+ degree heat like we did, the fools we are.
That’s not the biggest draw here though, not by a long shot. You see, Tonopah is the home of none other than the Clown Motel, which is every bit as creepy as we expected. Not like ‘fun’ creepy either- built beside a cemetery, it has become progressively more ramshackle over the years. A good summation of how wacky you gotta be to book a room here is the place we actually stayed in, the over a century old Mizpah Hotel, is known as the most haunted in America. We’d still take that any day of the week over the Clown Motel, ghosts or not. Do buy some merch, though.
The next day was a doozy, being more or less a straight shot from Tonopah to Reno. However, we got up early enough to be able to have some fun with it. On the way up we went by Walker Lake, which provided some excellent opportunities to see some Bighorn Sheep and wild horses, which only elicited a ‘meh’ from the locals when we brought them up- apparently they’re in such abundance that it’s akin to see squirrels in Canada. Like, of course they’re there, what did you expect?
From there we could have driven straight through Fallon (an oddity in itself, as the home of the actual Top Gun School and a major filming location for Top Gun: Maverick) to Reno, but we felt Lake Tahoe’s draw in a big way. And when a scenic drive on the eastern side of the lake only added like an hour to the trip, we knew we had to stop. We got lucky, since visiting on a Monday meant one of the few precious parking spots was available, and a short but steep 15-minute walk gave us the opportunity for a quick dip.
It should be noted that if you’ve got a little more time on your hands, and you like to golf, South Lake Tahoe offers a great contrast to the desert beauty of Mesquite. There, you’ll find Edgewood Tahoe Resort, which offers the only waterfront golfing on all of Lake Tahoe, and is in its own right a bucket list course. Maybe next time we won’t buy so much from the Clown Motel and actually have the cash to check it out. Whoops.
Either way, the lake was well worth the detour, and gave us the energy needed to make the final, 45-minute push to Reno. Which, as we soon found out, more than lives up to the moniker of the ‘Biggest Little City in the World’. It’s a whole lot more than the little sibling of Vegas, and is way more accessible to boot.
Arriving at the Whitney Peak Hotel, we were surprised to see that it had ditched the whole ‘cigarettes and slot machines’ vibe of the vast majority of lodgings in the state. Instead, the hotel opts for a health-forward approach, even going as far as implementing a full-scale climbing gym for all skill levels. Not that we used it, but hey, we have friends that would jump on that in a heartbeat.
The downtown area is easily the most ‘the way we were’ area of the city. With multiple casino resorts in one strip, we got the feeling that it would have been very fun in like the 80s. After all, Circus Circus Reno got some love in the recent FX-series Under the Banner of Heaven.
Luckily, the city is more resilient than its core, and the surrounding neighborhoods have become hotbeds for arts, culture, and dining opportunities. Within a short walk from the hotel, you’ll find one of the world’s best collections of rare and historic cars, the only accredited art museum in the state (and the one behind the famous Seven Magic Mountains) and great shopping opportunities. Fun fact- you know those famous giant rings on Vancouver’s Sunset Beach? The Nevada Museum of Art has a sister installation out front.
And while Reno does have some great diner options, we found a food and drink scene that was far more, uh, evolved than chicken-fried steak. For lunch, we suggest checking out Noble Pie Parlor, which is arguably one of the frontrunners in the evolution of the city’s culinary explosion. It’s no wonder the spot has been featured (quite lovingly, we might add) on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Want to eat like Guy Fieri? Order the T-Pane pizza, and don’t forget to grab some meatballs on the side.
The final meal of the trip proved to be the best, though. Pignic Pub & Patio, located in a restored 1916 manor, was the epitome of the high/low quality that was the focus of our trip. Here, you’ll find elevated takes on the classics, like hot wings that sub Tabasco for gochujang, or a Cuban sandwich that’ll have you feeling like Jon Favreau in Chef.
The drinks were even better. Thanks to owner Trevor Leppek’s unabashed enthusiasm for (and longtime involvement in) the community, the menu ranges from tiki-style slushies, to perfectly crafted Old Fashioneds, and everything in between. Seriously, we’ve never been to a place where you can grab a glass of local beer for well under $10, and follow that up with a little bit of Old Rip Van Winkle. The passion overflows, and all it takes to find that perfect option is a quick convo with the staff.
Overall, this road trip through Nevada blew our expectations away. From the glamor of Vegas, to the stunning scenery, to the off-the-beaten-path roadside stops, we’ll be looking for excuses to come back for years to come.
The author of this article was hosted by Travel Nevada during their stay.