As we take baby steps to return to travel, here’s a way to meld social distancing with a road trip through some of the country’s least populated and most distanced towns. Dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America” 35 years ago, Highway 50 connects Carson City to Baker with five towns and a few detours in-between.
The Road Trip
You’ll traverse the same route that Native Americans, miners, and the Pony Express blazed a century (or more) before.
About 60 miles from Reno, Fallon is a perfect stop for western activities, western treats, and some interesting spirits. Be sure to try hearts o’ gold jam, made from the sweet variety of cantaloupe grown here.
Once you make your way into town, park your truck, car, or RV at Frey Ranch, a working ranch since 1918. It’s also home to Churchill Vineyards, Nevada’s only estate winery, owned and operated by Colby Frey. The vineyard grows its own grapes and produces six high-quality wines. The ranch is also the” grain-to-glass” Frey Ranch Distillery site, which utilizes the ranch’s grains for distilling, malting, and bottling gin, vodka, and bourbon.
You can tour the still, tank, and barreling rooms before pausing in the tasting room for a sample of Frey’s unusual sagebrush gin. The distillery sells only in Nevada and California, so pick up a few bottles to pack in your suitcase.
If you’ve never experienced a “fast draw” competition, it’s worth stopping at the Churchill County Fairgrounds to see this. It’s an authentic cowboy event with attendees of all ages dressed up in period attire. The “Cowboy Way” rule states, “safety first, fun second, and competition third.”
Austin (120 miles from Fallon)
Your next stop is Austin, after a drive of about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Count the cars as you go – you likely won’t see any.
Austin was born as a silver mining town, home to some of Nevada’s more colorful prospectors and silver miners. Today, mining has been replaced by outdoor activities, with mountain bikers and hikers taking advantage of the town’s expansive Toiyabe Mountain Range.
Eureka (70 miles from Austin)
After driving 1 hour and 15 minutes, you’ll arrive in Eureka, founded in the 1860s. Check into the Sundown Lodge, an unfussy remnant of the Old West, with the entertaining Owl Club bar and restaurant across the street. Knock down a shot, and call it a night.
The 1879 Eureka Sentinel Newspaper Building houses a museum that has a complete pressroom from the 1800s. There are posters printed by the Eureka Sentinel and plastered on the press room walls, original press equipment, plus artifacts from the early days of mining, including tools, historic stock certificates, ledgers, and personal effects. School and home life exhibits are also featured.
Now functioning as the town’s Cultural Arts Center, the 1880 Eureka Opera House has held historical events from the inaugural New Year’s Eve Costume Ball of 1880 to Eureka’s first silent movie, and later became the Eureka Theatre showing “talkies” and “sound” movies. The striking building received the 1994 National Preservation Honor Award.
Ely (78 miles from Eureka)
Plan for another solitary 1 hour and 20-minute drive before you reach Ely, originally a stagecoach stop along the Pony Express and later the site of a copper strike.
The glitzy four-story building in the heart of downtown Ely will give you a real taste of Nevada’s mining towns. A favorite among the Hollywood set, the landmark Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall was built in 1929 and retained its original design along with modern amenities.
Historical Big 4 Ranch
If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, a short walk from the hotel is Nevada’s oldest brothel and bar. You can have a drink at the bar, chat up the bartender, and perhaps catch a glimpse of what might be happening behind closed doors.
From brothel to casino to jail, the Wild West awaits you with a steakhouse dinner at The Cellblock. The fine-dining restaurant is all about meat and fine wines, and the atmosphere is genuinely unusual. Expect to be entertained.
Break up the driving with a ride on original Nevada Northern rail cars through the mountains outside of Ely. If it’s Halloween, book a ticket on the Haunted Ghost Train, where every turn through the mountains is filled with ghosts and goblins just itching to hitchhike along with you.
It’s yet another one-hour drive to reach Great Basin National Park, where you can tour the famous Lehman Caves. Pull out your jacket. You’ll cover .6 chilly miles of stalagmites and stalactites as you visit sections of the cave dubbed the Gothic Palace, the Music Room, the Lodge Room, Inscription Room and the Grand Palace.
It’s not officially on the Loneliest Road, but there’s one detour you should consider, especially if you’re familiar with Area 51.
Rachel is all about aliens. You’ll see signposts with photos of their eerie bug-eye faces everywhere in this 54-person town. The place to stop is the Little A’Le’Inn. The restaurant-inn is completely kitschy, and you can buy all kinds of alien-emblazoned souvenirs to take home with you, including a stuffed alien that could definitely cause nightmares.