Highway 50 across Nevada is lined with brothels, tumbleweeds, and barren landscapes. It cuts across the center of the state. In 1986, Life Magazine dubbed it “The Loneliest Road in America” and warned travelers not to cross its long stretches of empty, sun bleached desert floor and steep mountain passes (17 in total, if you’re into counting mountain passes.).
Say what you will about Nevada, but the Silver State practically coined the idea of turning Haterade into Hennessy (See: Las Vegas). They took the insult like champs and had their Chamber of Commerce start marketing Highway 50 as the premier destination for people who like to drive long desolate roads for no apparent reason. I am one such person.
I drove over 300 miles through the heart of the alleged barren wasteland that is the Loneliest Road in America and while I did not get the personally signed certificate from the governor of Nevada to prove it, I did score some wisdom which I’m here to share with you should you ever decide to embark on such a voyage.
Great Basin National Park
I started my trip in Montana and took Highway 93 south, but that’s a different story with less legalized prostitution and basically the same amount of drinking and gambling. Once in Nevada, I prefaced the long trip west with a stop in Great Basin National Park. It’s not technically part of The Loneliest Road in America, but with only 90,000 visitors a year (compare that to the over 10,000 people per day who watch Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park go off) it’s lonely enough for me and it’s also close enough to Highway 50 to merit a shout out.
Someone told me that the oldest living tree in the world exists within the park boundaries, but that’s not true. The title actually goes to the awesomely named Methuselah in California. In any case, there are still plenty of extremely old Bristlecone Pines if that’s your scene. You can see them and hug them and learn about how their ages are measured through something called an increment borer, which I thought was actually kind of increment boring.
Great Basin National Park is also home to the only glacier in Nevada. It isn’t super ginormous but Nevada will take what it can get. I had a great time hiking around the ominous scree field surrounding the aforementioned glacier and though I like to consider myself the kind of baller who throws money around like it ain’t no thing, I enjoyed the fact that Great Basin National Park is one of the only parks that doesn’t charge an entrance fee.
If you visit and want to summit Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in Nevada, make sure to get an early start before the afternoon storms start rolling in. It’s like my parents always told me: Weather in the mountains is straight up crazy.
Just an hour west of Great Basin National Park is where things start to get real. Ely (not pronounced the way you’d think it’s pronounced) is a great place to lower your expectations at a dirty casino and really think about your life. Ely has a small main street with some cool old hotels like the six story Hotel Nevada, which was at one point the tallest building in the whole state. There’s also a smattering of shops that close early. I ate at a questionable Chinese restaurant which bears mentioning because legend has it that the ghosts of Chinese miners haunt Highway 50, maybe in search of General Tso’s Chicken that isn’t suspiciously lukewarm. If that sounds like a Stephen King novel it’s because it is.
Ely is also home to two brothels, one of which was right behind my motel and was billed as a VIP Spa. I’m not a VIP, so I didn’t go but I do think it’s cool that prostitution is legal in every single county in Nevada except for the ones that it would make the most sense in.
Eureka is billed as “The friendliest town on the loneliest road in America.” I think that’s kind of a lot of hype to live up to and also I’m from New England where northern hospitality (aka scowling at people on the sidewalk) is the norm, so I wasn’t looking for much. That being said, the very few people of Eureka that I did encounter seemed amiable. The town’s population is just over 1,000 and one can’t help but wonder where they are and what they do when wandering the deserted drag of Eureka’s downtown. It’s an incredibly well preserved place with beautiful old western buildings and the original courthouse from 1879 situated in the ultra fancy Diamond Mountains at an elevation of 6,481 feet.
I strolled around and took in the silence and the heat of the place, which is one of my favorite combinations. Downtown Eureka has that eerie calm before the storm feeling that lets you know that with a stiff drink and a room at the Jackson House Hotel, the night could open up doors to all kinds of mischief.
Like a lot of places in America, the Loneliest Road in America has a stop off where you can look at petroglyphs. I did this out of obligation only. Honestly, I think petroglyphs are dumb. I’m only mentioning them in case rock art is something that really gets you out of bed in the morning.
I hate them.
Not the one in Texas but kind of the one in Texas in the sense that it was named after, you guessed it, the one in Texas. Austin is a very, very small town of less than 100 folks who seem to all work exclusively as turquoise merchants. I noticed about a million turquoise stores per citizen on my way through.
This is the part of Highway 50 that does actually start to feel lonely, but one can take comfort in imagining the residents of Austin lying in beautiful turquoise beds at night counting the stars and dreaming of central Texas. Just on the outskirts of town is Stokes Castle, which was built in the late 1800’s as a summer home for a rich old mining guy. In its heyday it actually didn’t get much use, which is pretty typical of rich old mining guys.
The Shoe Tree
The shoe tree along Highway 50 was the thing I was most looking forward to seeing. I’d heard about shoe trees but had never seen one in person. This particular shoe tree is located in the most desolate part of the drive which makes the amount of shoes dangling from it even more beautiful. You really have to keep an eye out for it, but once you see it, you’ll know (and you will actually loathe yourself for the rest of your life if you miss it). It feels full of life somehow. Even more amazing is the fact that the shoe tree I’m talking about isn’t even the original one. Apparently, in 2010, some jerks decided to cut down the landmark. You’d think that in the middle of nowhere, this strangely weird and violent act would go unnoticed. Not so. People were seriously mad. And devastated. To the point that memorials were held, tears were cried and finally someone painstakingly put all of those old shoes onto what is now known as the new shoe tree. It’s a massive, sturdy tree bearing shoes as fruit. I threw my shoes at it and missed and then couldn’t get them because they fell into a ditch and there was a bunch of glass and stuff down there. I drove the rest of the way highway barefoot and didn’t care.
The whole thing was poetic and random and if that doesn’t embody the spirit of the vast Nevada desert, I don’t know what does.
Sand Mountain Recreation Area
Oh wait, but here’s something that embodies the spirit of the vast Nevada desert. Sand dunes. As if Highway 50 hasn’t blessed us all enough with its quirky little towns, roadside oddities and unspoiled vistas into the abyss, the route goes right past Sand Mountain Recreation Area. It’s right off of the highway and if you’re not sure how to find it, just look for the giant mound of sand. That should be a decent clue.
Sand Mountain Recreation Area seems to cater to off road vehicles, so keep that in mind if you don’t love getting run over. I drove my luxury Toyota Corolla to the base of it (and totally bottomed out) and reveled in the glory of the dunes. The desert is full of them, but there’s actually quite a variety of the different shapes they can take. I recommend staring at all of them, like everything on Highway 50, for hours.