by Lee Foster
Las Vegas is a masterpiece of illusion, built on two man-made artifices–impounded water and gaming (aka gambling) laws. There is no logical reason for Las Vegas to exist, sprawling out in the middle of the desert. Yet 42 million people visit it each year.
Both the glitter of Las Vegas and the outdoor wonders of southern Nevada first appear before the visitor as a mirage in the desert.
Las Vegas itself is a neon oasis, where robust life is possible only because of dam-stored water and the 1931 Nevada state law allowing gambling. You could gamble here and also get an easy divorce.
Without water, life would be extremely fragile here and the human population would be low, as it was when the Paiute and earlier pueblo Indians survived here. The pervasiveness of the desert impresses a visitor flying into the region. The water was first artesian water pumped from aquifers below the city. Then Colorado River water was trapped by the Hoover Dam.
Without the law legalizing gambling, there would be some farming here, but no population like the 2.1 million metro area residents.
The main natural attractions around Las Vegas also contain elements of illusion and imagination. The two major parks nearby, Red Rock Canyon to the west and the Valley of Fire to the east, exhibit a flaming red appearance, due to iron oxide in the soil. Fingers of rock reach skyward, as if on fire.
The major man-made creation in the area, Hoover Dam, is so immense and so effective in controlling the Colorado River that it ranks as one of the major engineering feats of the human animal. While floating on a houseboat on Lake Mead, which extends 105 miles behind Hoover Dam, one can’t help but feel surrounded by a mammoth body of man-controlled water, a mere mirage in the minds of all but a few visionaries until the late 1930s. It could be said that Lake Mead reduces the odds of drought and a thirsty demise here to near zero. Until Hoover Dam was built, the cycle of annual flood or drought from the river was risky, a precarious throw of nature’s dice. The city of Las Vegas now has a “straw” sucking water directly from the depths of Lake Mead. Las Vegas will never go dry.
Illusion, mirage, imagination, and artifice play on the senses of all travelers to Las Vegas. The feeling of artifice, without any pejorative connotations, is more complete in Las Vegas than in the other major Nevada city, Reno, because of two factors. First, Reno has extensive forested mountains as well as desert. Any city in a predominantly desert area is a thoroughly man-made artifact. And second, the large body of water at Reno, Lake Tahoe, is a legacy of nature, while the large body of water at Las Vegas, Lake Mead, is a man-made wonder.
Visitors to Las Vegas traditionally have fallen into two groups. Some immerse themselves in gambling and entertainment. Others commune with nature and the outdoors in the parks and on Lake Mead. Whether you fall into one group, or find parts of yourself in both, Las Vegas has much to offer.
From the beginning there was an important element of illusion and fantasy for travel to Las Vegas. The first casino on the strip, called El Rancho and done in western dude ranch motifs, used to send a stage coach to the airport to pick up deplaning passengers at the dawn of the mass air-transport era.
There is one further attraction of Las Vegas not yet mentioned. Las Vegas is a major “weather escape.” The visitor who nearly rusts to death in Portland or Seattle due to interminable winter rain longs for the bright sun that Las Vegas is selling. The Toronto or Chicago resident, suffering from a wind-chill factor, looks for relief in the assured warmth of Las Vegas in winter.
Getting To and Around Las Vegas and Southern Nevada
Conditions of travel to Las Vegas have improved measurably since Major John Wesley Powell floated his dory down the silt-laden red river, the Rio Colorado, in 1869. Nearly as precarious then was the thirsty overland route that Mormon pioneers fashioned, looking for the meadows, las vegas in Spanish, that could support livestock and crops.
Some of today’s travelers arrive by car, an easy six-hour ride from Los Angeles or 10 hours from Salt Lake City, to name just two origins. Most travelers arrive by air at the handsome, ever-expanding McCarran International Airport, a short taxi ride south of the casino-lined Strip or downtown. The rise of Las Vegas as a destination has paralleled the age of jet travel.
Within the region, travel to the natural wonders requires either a car or a tour, offered at some hotels, emphasizing Hoover Dam or the parks. A car provides maximum flexibility.
However you arrive, the month of arrival is not a casual matter here. The summer sun can burn exposed skin in minutes. Summer temperatures are so high that air conditioned transport and lodging become a necessity and are taken for granted at hotels, shops, restaurants, and rental car agencies. The other way to cool off is by immersing yourself in Lake Mead, but you would most likely do this from a rented houseboat, itself air conditioned so you can sleep at night.
Life was not always so comfortable here, of course. For $4 per day, minus $1.60 for meals and lodging, skilled workers of the 1930s spent 12-hour shifts building Hoover Dam, often in 120-degree summer temperatures, with plenty of ambulances available to take the heat-prostrated and dehydrated to the waiting hospital in Boulder City.
The shoulder seasons of April-May and September-October are among the most comfortable months here, but that is more relevant to the outdoors enthusiast than to the casino patron, who may care little about the month and even less about the hour of the day while mesmerized in front of the slots at 4 a.m.
History of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada
The earliest people here were Indians at the confluence of the Virgin and Muddy Rivers, east of Las Vegas. As early as 10,000 years ago, but predominantly from 300 B.C. to 1100 A.D., they moved gradually from subsistence hunting to farming of beans, squash, corn, and cotton, irrigating crops from the rivers.
Their story is best seen in their own petroglyphs at Valley of Fire State Park and in the elaborate range of their artifacts gathered at the Lost City Museum in Overton, east of Las Vegas. The more recent Indian groups inhabiting the area when the whites arrived were Paiute and Moapa, skilled subsistence hunters and gatherers who lived a precarious life in the desert.
Jedediah Smith passed through in the 1830s, ostensibly seeking furs, but also interested in the pure adventure of discovery. Mormon farmers moved south from Salt Lake in the 1860s and later. Prior to the building of Hoover Dam, the Colorado River was navigated by an irregular schedule of paddle wheel steamers, which reached what is now Callville Bay. Anson Call’s port was also a military establishment that qualified easily as a hardship post.
In the 20th century, the completion of Hoover Dam and the passing of a state gaming law assured Las Vegas’s prosperity.
The city didn’t actually exist until the 20th century and calls itself the largest U.S. city founded in the 20th century. The first hotels with gambling were downtown, but a resourceful developer decided that an establishment a few miles closer to Los Angeles, in an area that eventually became the Strip, would cause the weary car traveler from Los Angeles to stop. Why go farther? The dual locations of Las Vegas, Downtown and the Strip, are linked by taxi.
The advent of inexpensive air flight made it possible for masses of people to arrive. With the water shortage forever resolved, the future of Las Vegas looks assured, as long as there is sufficient fuel to transport people and their support systems, such as mounds of delicious food, to this desert neon oasis.
The major outdoors travel pleasures near Las Vegas are Lake Mead/the Colorado River, Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon Park, Valley of Fire Park, and the Lost City Museum.
Lake Mead is the mammoth aquatic playground and fishery located 45 minutes south of Las Vegas. From marinas at Callville Bay and Echo Bay you can rent houseboats for leisurely trips on the lake, which has a 550 mile shoreline. The closest rental to Las Vegas is at Callville Bay Marina. Houseboats at Callvile come equipped with two motors, which gives the novice added assurance of returning safely to port if a motor fails. The boats rent for three-days-to-a-week periods. A major provider is Forever Resorts (http://www.callvillebay.com).
Summers are the hottest and busiest months, with April-May and September-October as attractive, alternative times. The water has fully warmed for swimming and the air becomes pleasantly cool in September-October. Rental houseboats sleep up to 12 people, but more than six adults is likely to strain the psychological carrying capacity of the boat unless said adults have particularly cozy feelings about each other. The houseboats come fully equipped, including linen and blankets. All you need to bring are clothes, swim suit, sun screen, fishing gear, food, and drink. An ice machine at the docks can cool down your beverage of choice. All houseboats have refrigerator-freezers and a large picnic cooler on deck.
Houseboating on Lake Mead is a special experience. No other houseboating ambiance, such as Lake Shasta or the Delta in California, approaches the size of Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the U.S. The almost endless shoreline can accommodate a large number of boaters. Terrain around the lake offers both a desert and mountainous shores with some sandy beaches. The Callville people can review a nautical map with you and propose some suitable destinations.
For example, an hour east on the lake from Callville you can turn into Hamblin Bay and relax on the sandy, protected beach, immune from winds that can appear suddenly. This bay is also popular with the grebe diving ducks that proliferate on the lake. If your goal is relaxation, this may be your chosen destination for the whole trip.
The explorer, on the other hand, may choose to boat farther east along the lake and navigate small rocky coves, such as Sidewinder or Wishing Well, and then push on to see Boulder Canyon, which was one of the preliminary dam sites (downstream Black Canyon was the final choice). Boulder Canyon, with jagged stone cliffs towering on either side, ranks among the most scenic sites on Lake Mead.
Farther east there are coves filled with driftwood for fires, such as Burro Bay. Along the way you may see wild burros or desert bighorn sheep. At the campsite, white datura flowers show prominently in spring. More ambitious travelers can venture on to Sandy Point, another good beach, where you may see tracks of foraging coyotes and mountain lions. However, this distant destination means several hours of houseboat driving and careful allotment of gas. Most visitors will prefer a closer-in cove.
Head west and south, towards Hoover Dam, and you might pull into a secluded campsite of your choice at Swallow Bay. From there, a day excursion by boat could take you all the way to Hoover Dam, where you can see the historic dam, from upstream, and the newer highway bridge below the dam, over the gorge. Post 9-11, you must observe the no-boating zone very close to the dam. You might also glimpse the paddle wheeler Desert Princess, out of Boulder City, taking day-trippers on a nostalgic narrated journey close to the dam, with plenty of food and drink on board to make the excursion pleasant and memorable
Onboard your houseboat the main pursuits are relaxing and unwinding, eating, drinking, enjoying the conviviality of your comrades, reading, perusing the flora or geology of the shore, sunning, swimming, and fishing. One special night activity here is star gazing, with the stars showing brightly against a dark sky, far from the star-obscuring urban lights that restrict the sky-watching pleasures of most people.
Prized-eating species of fish in Lake Mead are striped bass, called stripers, and largemouth bass. Fishing is legal year round and all marinas sell appropriate licenses. (Trout were also planted and were abundant for a few years, but the stripers ate the trout.) Both types of bass are introduced fish that have flourished here, feeding on a smaller introduced fish, called the threadfin shad, which in turn feeds on the zooplankton that bloom in the lake.
The bass fishing is best in summer when the warm water stimulates the stripers to move out of deep, cool water and begin their frenzied feeding on shad, causing the water to assume a boiling appearance. Stripers have an ability to herd schools of shad into a ball, then plunge through them quickly and stun the small fish with a thrashing tail. Stripers then consume the slow-moving, groggy shad. If you witness the phenomenon of stripers herding the shad, the experience and noise can be primordial. The largest striper taken from the lake with rod and reel is said to be about 52 pounds. Informed locals doubt that larger fish will be caught because the trend in the lake is to more numerous, smaller fish. Largemouth bass always remain close to shore, within 30 feet of lake bottom, but the stripers are sometimes taken in deeper, open water.
Hoover Dam is a major attraction at the west end of Lake Mead, an hour by car south from Las Vegas. As you approach the dam, stop in at the Alan Bible Visitor Center to see a 15-minute film on the construction of the dam and to peruse the area literature available. The Alan Bible Center is not a theological institution, but a park service interpretive center honoring a Nevada senator named Bible. As at other ranger stations in the area, the landscape decor, amounting to labeled local flora, is instructive.
The name for the dam is bound to cause confusion. Originally it was named by statute the Hoover Dam, after Herbert Hoover, largely for his skillful work in negotiating with the seven states in the watershed how the impounded water would be divided. Without this agreement, the dam could never have been built. This negotiation was Hoover’s most triumphant political accomplishment and occurred while he was Secretary of the Interior. However, the dam was dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt, who was no friend of Republicans in general and Hoover in particular. Roosevelt referred to the dam as the Boulder Canyon Dam. (Actually, the dam is in Black Canyon, not upstream Boulder Canyon). In 1947 a Congressional Act resolved the issue and restored the name Hoover Dam to the structure, but in local parlance both the Hoover and Boulder names continue to flourish and cause confusion to this day.
At the dam, park as close as you can in the ever-changing security issues related to 9-11, and walk around it to get views of the massive concrete structure. Then stop for the 10-minute narrated show in the Exhibit Hall. The talk spotlights different places on a topographical scale model of the 1,400-mile Colorado River Watershed. The show will enhance your knowledge of the entire drama and politics of the Colorado River, an epic story. Untamed, the Colorado oscillated between years of extreme flood and utter drought. One flood in 1905 created the Salton Sea when the river lunged out of its banks and into the California low desert for 16 months before being diverted back into its channel. Hoover Dam provides irrigation for 3/4 million acres, drinking and industrial water for 12 million people, electrical power divided 2/3 for California and 1/3 for Nevada-Arizona, and water recreation opportunities on Lake Mead.
After the Exhibit Hall, make the half-hour guided tour of the dam that takes you to the concrete innards and acquaints you with the turbines and piping so crucial to the operation. You’ll emerge with an appreciation of the dam as one of the engineering masterpieces of the modern world. Your head will be swimming in a lake of statistics, some bizarrely stated. The dam is almost as thick at the base (660 feet) as it is tall (726.4 feet). There is enough concrete in the dam to pave a highway eight inches thick from coast to coast. The water in Lake Mead would cover the state of Connecticut to 10 feet.
The Visitor Bureau at nearby Boulder City plays continuously a 28-minute movie about “The Story of Hoover Dam.” The Visitor Center is opposite the historic Boulder City Hotel, which is on the National Register. Boulder City was built as the residence town for the 5,000 dam workers who toiled here during the four-year construction period in the 1930s.
Below the dam, it is possible to do a rafting or kayaking trip to experience the Colorado up close. This is quiet, slack-water rafting on huge pontoon boats, accessible to everyone. Local adventure travel guides offer the trips. The water is chilly for swimming, but the scenery is intriguing, with waterfalls, caves, and an abundance of flora and fauna. Mountain sheep are usually seen near the water.
Red Rock Canyon Park
The two major parks near Las Vegas are exhilarating places to visit, but be forewarned that the heat of summer makes them enjoyable after mid-day only from an air-conditioned vehicle. Early morning hikes are a worthy strategy, especially in the heat of summer.
Red Rock Canyon, a half-hour west of Las Vegas on Charleston Road, is a remarkable series of rock formations colored by the red iron oxide in the sandstone. The red oxide not only colors the stone; it also binds the stone together. Stop at the Visitor Center to see the interpretive exhibits and then drive the 13-mile one-way road that loops through the park. The most attractive view is at the stop called Calico Hills.
All along the route, in spring, there are excellent places to see wildflowers, such as white yucca, blue indigo, and red mallow. Hiking in the area reminds you of what life must have been like for the Indians and early whites who lived here in the era before roads. Occasional springs, such as at Willow Springs, bubble up life-sustaining water. Willow Springs is a good picnic stop, resting place, and hiking option. Rock scrambling and climbing are popular. After you make the loop drive, a panoramic vista turnoff on the main highway synopsizes the experience. Be sure to carry an ample supply of drinking water on your person at all times in the deserts of the CA/Southwest.
Valley of Fire Park
Valley of Fire State Park, an hour-and-a-half east of Las Vegas, offers similar but more extensive red rock and grey limestone formations, plus Indian petroglyphs and petrified wood.
The valley does indeed look as if it were on fire if you see the rocks in a certain light. Stop in at the Visitor Center to orient yourself to the park, which offers extensive spring flowering of desert plants, such as prickly pear cactus, brittlebush, and creosote bush. In the coolness of spring and autumn, the campsites here, set amidst the rock, are attractive, but the summer is searing. Day-use picnic areas make good lunch or rest stops.
As you tour the park, four interesting stops are Mouse’s Tank, Atlatl Rock, the Beehives, and Petrified Rock Turnoff.
Mouse’s Tank consists of a half-mile walk down a canyon to a rock depression, called a tank, that collected precious run-off water. Paiute hunters who lived in this area were able to survive because of their knowledge of these water sources. One such Indian, nicknamed Mouse, fought back against white encroachment in the late 19th century, eluding his pursuers in this rocky area. At the head of the trail, pick up the excellent self-guiding trail brochure describing the flora and the petroglyphs that you’ll see. The Mouse’s Tank trail passes many well-preserved Indian petroglyphs. The petroglyphs are scratchings done through a black manganese-iron oxide coating that forms on the red rock, over time, as water evaporates from the rock. Lichens may assist in making the black oxides endure. Colloquially, the oxides are called “desert varnish.”
You gaze at the symbols of mountain sheep and the sun. There are other deciphered marks representing a family. As you study what the archaeological detectives have discerned, you may be overcome with emotion at the thought of human beings leaving their personal records here from times long past. The petroglyphs may be from only a few hundred to thousands of years old. Some experts believe they were made by a group called the Anasazi, the early basket weaver culture, and are approximately 900 years old. Some evidence among the petroglyphs suggests an earlier era dated by pictures of throwing spears with a stick, called an atlatl, a technique that predated the bow and arrow.
Why the Indians carved petroglyphs is not accurately understood. Perhaps they were hunters whiling away their time during the heat of the day.
Beyond the road to Mouse’s Tank is a promontory called Rainbow Vista, one of the most appealing views in the area because of the miles of multicolored rock.
Atlatl Point offers another interesting collection of petroglyphs. Tragically, the park service has allowed the petroglyphs to be destroyed in a misguided effort to introduce them to the public. On a large rock with many petroglyphs at Atlatl Point, the park service has built an extensive steel stairway that passes within a couple feet of the petroglyphs. This is excellent for viewing the art objects. But it has also allowed the uncivilized among us to scratch their initials and make other defacements on these major archaeological treasures. Few greater errors of poor but well-intentioned judgment in the annals of park service management of archaeological sites come immediately to mind.
The Beehives is another named stop, referring to red stone sculpted by water and wind into shapes that look like round European reed beehives.
Petrified Rock Turnoff displays four specimens of the ossified trees, now mercifully protected from misguided collectors by steel fences. The fallen trees are from ancient forests of the region whose trunk cells were gradually replaced with silica until the entire organism became one large stone.
The Lost City Museum
To complement your trip to Valley of Fire State Park, continue on to the Lake Mead road and turn north to Overton, a Mormon farming community. At Overton, visit the Lost City Museum, a major collection of artifacts from southern Nevada Indians. The museum celebrates an extensive pueblo culture, called the Basketmakers by archaeologists, which originated where the Virgin and Muddy Rivers empty into the Colorado. Indians flourished here from 300 B.C. to 1150 A.D. before abandoning the area for reasons not yet clearly understood. The peak period of this culture was around 800 A.D. when about 5,000 Indians lived here. The museum itself is built directly over one of the archaeological digs.
The Indian culture gradually evolved as they learned how to farm corn, beans, squash, and cotton by irrigating the crops with river water. Their diet included the earlier staples of large and small game, fish, and seeds. The museum displays extensive collections of the Indian pottery, basketry, arrowheads, food, trade goods, and ornamental artifacts. Some of these artifacts were recovered from lands now inundated by the rising Lake Mead.
Beyond this more recent period, the museum also displays evidence of man here for the last 10,000 years. One of the fascinating discoveries was well-preserved skin and hair from giant ground sloths that populated the area as the Ice Age receded. It is probable that the sloths were a major food supply for the earliest human residents. The museum is housed in an adobe structure built by the Conservation Corp in the 1930s.
If you venture beyond the urban attractions of Las Vegas, the possible outdoor adventures are of jackpot quality.
Las Vegas: If You Go
For overall tourism information on Las Vegas, the source is the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Bureau, www.visitlasvegas.com.
For an overview of the state as a travel destination, see the Nevada Commission on Tourism site at www.travelnevada.com.
By Lee Foster
High stakes gambling in Las Vegas isn’t limited to the casino tables. Bets are constantly being taken on the future of the city itself. What vision will prevail?
While gaming was the rationale for an earlier Las Vegas, investors in the new century wagered that entertainment, gourmet dining, upscale lodging, designer shopping, spas, clubbing, and fine art would be the tourism magnets of the future.
Some resorts in Las Vegas don’t even have a casino on their premises. It is said that about 70 percent of total resort revenue is from non-gaming activities.
One entrepreneur closely associated with this transformation is Steve Wynn, who has owned and sold some celebrated hotels, such as Bellagio, Mirage, and Treasure Island. Wynn’s own name adorns one current property.
Wynn was also a force encouraging more elaborate entertainments in Las Vegas, such as the Cirque du Soleil, with shows such as Zarkana, O, Zumanity, and Mystere.
Cirque, which now operates eight ongoing shows, replaced earlier attractions, such as the Siegfried and Roy magic-and-animal performances. Roy met a cruel fate in the jaws of one of his own prized tigers, so the Siegfried and Roy era has ended, except that some of the splendid cats are in a menagerie on display, the Secret Garden environment at the Mirage.
An example of the new mega-resort is Aria. The Aria restaurant, Sage, started with a James Beard Award-winning chef, epitomizes the fine dining emphasis of 21st century Las Vegas. Aria is like a modern reflection of Bellagio, a trend-changing establishment, whose Circo restaurant helped mark the celebrity-chef restaurant as a replacement for inexpensive buffet dining. The Crystals at City Center shops at Aria parallel the Via Bellagio as examples of upscale shopping, with a cluster of exclusive designer names. The Spa at Aria is also an industry leader in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas now has 155,000 hotel rooms, a number that few other destinations in the world can match. Anyone flying into McCarran International Airport, which is huge but well organized, may wonder if this is an underestimate. A Terminal 3 opened to host international flights from numerous countries. Despite the occasionally precarious economic times, Las Vegas has edged up to 42 million visitors a year.
In more detail, here is what awaits you in the new Las Vegas.
The Emphasis on Entertainment
The Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, such as Zarkana, Ka, Zumanity, O, and Mystere, are in a class by themselves. One is tempted to suggest that they embody the genius of American showmanship, but that would be incorrect. The Cirque du Soleil originated in Montreal, so this new art form epitomizes the genius of North American collaboration. The imaginative energy of Cirque and the entertainment resources of Las Vegas have united in a spectacular way.
The genius of Cirque fits well into the Las Vegas mind set. Gymnastic feats, extravagant sets, inventiveness, and originality all epitomize the tradition of Las Vegas showmanship. It is amazing that, day after day, year after year, these Cirque shows continue to pack in the audiences. Mystere has been playing to packed audiences for an incredible record of 22 years as of 2015. It helps to have an audience of 42 million arriving in town each year.
Each staging becomes a signature part of the property hosting it. O plays at a theatre adjacent to the Bellagio resort. The venue was designed precisely for O, as it would have to be, because the performance takes place in a huge onstage pool that can be instantly filled with water or covered to become a stage.
Some Cirque performances are lyrical and difficult to describe. The nature of O is not easy to decipher. The word or letter O is a play on the French word for water, l’eau. The concept of infinity, the circle of life, and the elegance of pure form are said to be parts of the explanation. O is part circus acrobatics, part aquatic synchronized swimming, and part new age song and dance. What is the subject? The mystery of life, the joy and anxiety of existence? The official description suggests that O is a “celebration of life, love, and death.” Franco Dragone, creator of O, believes that “in theatre humanity tries to understand itself.”
Adding to these blockbuster entertainments is the enduring multi-year performance records of individual superstars. Celine Dion is an example. She has her own style, emphasizing intimate songs and an accompanying dance troupe. Celine Dion attracts legions of fans over several years. Such superstars will come and go, as exhaustion and burnout competes with the attentive energy required for a daily performance.
As another strategy to attract the masses, Wynn judged that a select collection of world-famous art could become a major tourist attraction in Las Vegas, which had never been known for this kind of interest. So he set out to acquire notable paintings, emphasizing popular 19th and 20th century masters, investing some $300 million. His Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art displayed some choice works, such as Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar, Paul Gaugin’s Bathers, and Vincent Van Gogh’s Peasant Woman against a Background of Wheat. Later, the collection changed, as paintings were bought and sold. But the public, awed by the amount of money paid for these treasures, lined up eagerly and paid an entrance fee to see them. Before Bellagio, cultural art in Las Vegas meant the Liberace Museum, now permanently closed, featuring the glitzy pianist’s outfits and instruments. While the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art could be said to have “purchased” high culture, shows such as Ka, O, and Mystere are original modern high-culture creations that reflect the sensibility of Las Vegas.
The “downtown” casinos along Fremont Street eyed the competing “strip” casinos and all their growing attractions with much concern. To spruce up Fremont Street, the movers and shakers decided to transform it into a pedestrian mall and install a massive vaulted and electrified canopy overhead. This Fremont Street Experience canopy shows six-minute light shows at the top of the hour each evening. The 2.1 million lights in the canopy can be programmed with any possible color in a computer-generated tour de force. Fremont Street is a lively bar scene, while the Strip is more of a club scene. Fremont Street emphasizes value rather than ultra luxury. One lively aspect of Fremont Street is its First Friday street celebration of visual and performing artists.
A zipline on Fremont Street now allows celebrants to fly like screaming raptors down the full length of the the canopied street. Off Fremont, at 300 Stewart, an attraction known as the Mob Museum highlights the grip on America that the mob achieved. The era of Prohibition saw a rise in mob activities, with criminals providing many Americans with the alcoholic beverages they desired. At the Mob Museum, you can pose in a simulated police lineup and blast away with a tommy gun at your perceived enemies. Mug shots of famous mobsters and paraphernalia of their craft adorn the museum. Be sure to take in the Mob Museum, which is located where it should be, in Las Vegas. Also known as the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement, the museum is housed in the former federal courthouse, scene of famous 1950-1951 hearings to expose organized crime in America.
Fremont Street and downtown is a balance to the Strip and a lively place to encounter. On the Strip, each major resort is a world unto itself, but Fremont Street downtown is a more egalitarian street-party atmosphere, open to all. Free live bands pulsate on three stages. Street entertainers perform their stunts and are ready to pose for photos, asking for tips. Bars along the street provide go-cups as participants dance or watch spray-paint artists create their drawings, which are for sale. Partying folks with their go-cups walk down the street, high fiving policemen wheeling by on bicycles.
Revitalization of the downtown has been the theme of recent years. The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, located in Symphony Park, provides the city with performance spaces exceeding anything in the past. Check to see what’s playing during your visit. Many of the downtown properties have been renovated, such as the Plaza Hotel. Restaurants have been revitalized or created anew, such as Oscar’s Steakhouse.
As mentioned earlier, if shopping can be considered a form of entertainment, then Las Vegas could be said to outdo California’s Rodeo Drive in that category. A stroll around Crystals at City Center adjacent to Aria or down Via Bellagio at Bellagio takes the visitor past boutiques of Giorgio Armani, Prada, Channel, Tiffany & Company, Moschino, Hermes, Fred Leighton, and Gucci. The Shopping Mall, a runway celebration with ongoing fashion shows adjacent to dozens of major retailers, continues this 24/7/365 vision of upscale merchandising in Las Vegas.
Beyond Downtown Fremont and the Strip there are some further Vegas cultural stops to consider, but an insider perspective can be useful. The services of longtime Vegas residents, Babs Daitch, who was Frank Sinatra’s social secretary, and Richard Hooker, are available at http://lasvegaspopculturetours.com. Ask them to take you to three stops. First is the Neon Museum, aka the Boneyard, a repository of the neon sign technology that illuminated Las Vegas from 1928 to the present. As casinos and resorts desired ever greater signs, some fans gathered the discarded remnants, which are a treasure of earlier glitz. Second is The Nevada State Museum, which has expected natural history presentations of geology and fossils. But the only-in-Vegas element at the museum is a new collection of an 8,000-piece wardrobe from the closed Folies Bergere show, a sartorial record of the showgirl and showboy culture during the 50-year run at the Hotel Tropicana in Las Vegas. Finally, ask them to stop by the museum/house of Antonio Morelli, the band leader at the Sands Hotel, where Frank Sinatra flourished. Morelli’s midcentury-modern house was one place where the Rat Pack, including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior, hung out and rehearsed.
Will Las Vegas Continue to Flourish?
Will the well-to-do traveler choose Las Vegas because of the upscale entertainment, hotels, shopping, and fine dining?
The titillating appeal of potential sin in Las Vegas continues to allure, capsulized in the marketing motto, “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.” This implicit marketing mantra appeals to a large class of travelers, women and men, who would like to get lucky at something other than slots.
Las Vegas is innovative in the boy-meets-girl aspect of travel. The club scene thrives in the nightlife world, such as in the 1 Oak Club at the Mirage. However, Las Vegas has also evolved a “daylife” as well as “nightlife” style of club, taking advantage of its year-around warm weather and outdoor pool settings. Club Liquid at Aria is an example of this “daylife” fun. The club is for adults only, with a cover charge, and emphasizes pulsating music, drinks, and a party atmosphere, where everyone at the party is wearing only a bathing suit.
Doomsayers continue to predict that the Las Vegas bubble will burst, that too many new hotels have been built and they’ll never be paid off. The prediction of doom for Las Vegas requires constant revision as the destination shows resilience, adjusting to economic downturns, but avoiding any apocalyptic collapse.
Who knows when the next winning or losing card will be dealt? Big bets have been placed.
Las Vegas: If You Go
For overall tourism information on Las Vegas, the source is the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Bureau at www.lasvegas.com.
One dominant player on the scene, MGM Resorts, owns many of the landmark properties, from Aria to Bellagio. Details are at www.mgmresorts.com.
For an overview of the state of Nevada as a travel destination, see www.travelnevada.com.
by Lee Foster
Reno emerges like a shimmering mirage as your plane approaches or after you drive east from the Donner Pass in the Sierra, California to Nevada.
The apparition comes into focus in the dry landscape of sparse vegetation on the east side of the mountain peaks.
When you see Reno, you witness a thoroughly man-made creation, neon against the pastel colors of the desert. There is no natural or organic reason for the city’s existence.
Out amidst the hostile scrub brush and the pinyon pines stands a thriving city, complete with skyscrapers.
Reno existed first only because of the arbitrary decision of the railroads to create a town here. The small town thrived because of the good fortune of silver seekers striking it rich near here in the 1860s. During the 20th century Reno boomed because of Nevada’s legalization of gambling in 1931.
To blend in with the natives, forget your Spanish, as in Sierra Nevada, with a soft “a.” Nevada is pronounced here with a long “a,” as in Basque.
There’s action aplenty to occupy your attention in Reno if you happen to be a gambler, especially at the newer resorts, such as Silver Legacy, where a huge silver mining rig rests under a 120-foot enclosed dome. The dome features a seven-color laser light show every hour on the hour.
However, non-gamblers will also find many activities. One major pleasure is Circus Circus, the casino with a carnival atmosphere.
Like other gambling destinations, notably Las Vegas, Reno now emphasizes its non-gaming fine dining, and the Southwest cuisine restaurant in Circus Circus, known as Art Gecko’s Southwest Grill, is an example. Basque food is authentic and terrific at local restaurants, as well as at new upscale places, such as Orozko, the Basque restaurant in the John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino in the town of Sparks, adjacent to Reno.
The National Automobile Museum, the outdoor sports of skiing in winter and hiking in summer, the beauty of nearby Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake, Nevada’s silver mining history at Virginia City, and the nearby state capital in Carson City are all part of the Reno allure.
GETTING TO RENO AND NORTHERN NEVADA
For the fly-in traveler, several major airlines serve Reno with daily flights from both California and from the east, landing at Reno-Cannon International Airport.
The immediate Reno area is relatively compact, so taxis can get you around. Shuttle buses in winter can take you from casino lodgings to the ski resorts along the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. However, for extensive exploring, rent a car.
If you drive to Reno from California, heed the suggestion that the northerly Interstate 80 is the smoother and faster route than twisty Highway 50 to the southern edge of Lake Tahoe. For a circular trip, consider going up to Reno on 80 and back on 50.
Another possible Reno travel option is the Amtrak train, starting each morning in Oakland, then winding east across the Sierra to Reno.
Part of the train route can be seen from Highway 80, complete with the avalanche protection sheds that cover miles of track. The view of the Sierra from the train is stunning, especially when looking at Donner Lake from the train’s high vantage point.
HISTORY OF RENO AND NORTHERN NEVADA
Until the silver strikes of the 1860s, Reno was a place people passed through rather than stayed. Mormon pioneers homesteaded a few permanent settlements south of Reno. In 1868 Reno was founded, as a stop on the railroad, and named by the railroad after a Civil War general. The town went on to describe itself with the motto “Biggest Little City in the World.”
The first prospectors who came here were searching for gold. They found some gold, but cursed the bluish mud mixed with the gold. Only later did prospectors realize that the bluish mud was high grade silver ore. The main mining strikes were at Virginia City, southeast of Reno. Be sure to visit Virginia City (see below under Nearby Trips). Reno, on a rail line, prospered as the closest supply town for Virginia City.
Two legal maneuvers guaranteed Reno’s prosperity in the 20th century. A 1931 Nevada state law authorizing gambling gave Reno, in the north, and Las Vegas, in the south, major resort status as playgrounds close to northern and southern California residents interested in gambling. With the coming of the airplane, Reno became a destination for a nation intrigued with gambling. A 1927 Nevada law made Reno an easy place for a quick divorce, creating a divorce tourism boom.
A further legal nicety has to do with California’s and Nevada’s inventory tax laws. California charged an inventory tax, but Nevada didn’t. So the large warehouses in the Reno-Sparks area of Nevada house goods waiting for shipment. California book publishers, for example, who must carry a book title as inventory for several years, sometimes ship from Reno-Sparks to avoid the tax.
MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF RENO AND NORTHERN NEVADA
Silvery Legacy is a huge casino with a signature 1890s silver mining rig under an immense 120-foot dome, complete with computer manipulations of the sky. At the Silver Legacy the sun sets every hour. The decor of this $310 million casino has become a must-see item for the Reno traveler.
For the gambler there are ubiquitous slot machines and occasional hallucinogenic bell rings announcing a jackpot, plus the various games, such as craps, 21, and roulette. For the non-gambler, the gamblers can be a fascinating study of the human animal at play, passing time, somewhat addicted.
Circus Circus, among the casinos, has attractions for gamblers and non-gamblers alike, including children. For all who enter the casino, Circus Circus offers a thorough circus and carnival motif, with circus acts every hour on the hour. Throughout the day and evening you can watch a medley of carnival acts, such as trapeze artists, bicycle riders, jugglers, and trained dogs. Surrounding this circus ring is an arcade featuring games of skill, such as ring tosses, dart throws, baseball tosses, and shooting galleries, with stuffed animals as the prizes. This is the one casino with an ambiance for children.
Other major casinos include John Ascuaga’s Nugget, Reno Hilton, and Harrah’s. The Nugget, typically, offers an elaborate pool and fitness center, a sign of the times, as travelers emphasize fitness. The Eldorado, Peppermill, Hilton, Boomtown, and Atlantis are all thriving. The Atlantis has as its full name Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, and each word is well chosen. In the spa you can get specialty treatments, such as massages with herbs in sachets. The Brew Brothers at the Eldorado is a popular spot featuring micro-brews, live music, and fun.
Reno is also noted for several annual events. Hot August Nights amounts to a celebration of America’s love affair with the automobile, along with 50s and 60s music. More than 4,000 classic cars are on display. The Reno National Championship Air Races in September present speed trials in four fixed-wing classes of aircraft. At this event the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off features a competition for rib cookers around the world. There’s plenty of finger-lickin fun, entertainment, and an arts and crafts fair. Also in September, on the same weekend, the Great Reno Balloon Race (with America’s top 150 balloonists) and the Virginia City Camel Races draw the curious. Annual events includes camel, ostrich, and water buffalo races.
Downtown Reno offers an ever-growing cluster of places to explore, especially as the walkways along the Truckee River mature. Start a downtown walk at the center of everything here, the Washoe County Courthouse, at Court and Virginia. Look over at the adjacent Riverside Hotel, which was a divorce tourism center after the 1927 law allowing speedy divorce. Now the Riverside hosts artist lofts.
Then walk over to the Truckee River and amble along Wingfield Park, the park along the river, enjoying the kayakers maneuvering in the water. The green riverbank vegetation softens the appearance on the city. Walk along the river and then cross and re-cross it to end up at the corner of Arlington and Court. This is a lovely residential area of the city known as “Mansions on the Bluff.” At the corner of Arlington and Court stands the McCarron Mansion, recalling Pat McCarron, a mover and shaker in the Reno scene. Walk down the streets here along the river to enjoy more of the mansion scene, which is a sharp contrast to the casinos downtown.
Another place to visit is the famous arch over the road at Fourth Street. The arch was dedicated in 1926 to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental highway. Highway US 40 was known as The Lincoln Highway. A contest was held to determine what would be the permanent slogan on the arch. The winning entry was, “Reno, The Biggest Little City in the World.”
A relatively new amenity in the scene is the Nevada Museum of Art, 160 West Liberty. This museum has a striking architectural look and some inventive sculptures out front. It gives Reno a major show space for traveling exhibits, such as a 2010 retrospective on a noted Colombian artist, titled “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero.”
Basque food is one of the special culinary pleasures of Reno. The Basques have been present in Nevada since the 1880s, first as sheep ranchers. Conservationist John Muir wrote some caustic words about sheep in the Sierras, calling them “hooved locusts,” who could decimate a meadow in no time. However, sheep have been a suitable livestock animal on the sparse grasslands of Nevada. Two good Basque restaurants in Reno are Louis’ Basque Corner and the Santa Fe Hotel. My meal at Louis’ typifies the experience. You enter the restaurant to find a cluster of people cocktailing around the bar. Beyond the bar is the restaurant, a plain but comfortable room with long tables. You are ushered to a table and sit next to whomever happens to arrive in sequence. This amounts to an interesting forced meeting with your friendly, fellow diners. The only decision to be made at dinner is about the entre, which, typically, during my recent visit, was roast lamb vs grilled fish.
The parade of the meal slowly unfolded. First, there was a soup course, clam chowder. Then came a tossed salad with a vinaigrette dressing. All the servings were from big bowls, family style, and the portions were ample. There followed a traditional baked bean dish, another Basque standby. Then the specialty course arrived, which happened to be mussels and rice, a meal in itself. The main course, a delicious roast leg of lamb, with mint, followed and proved to be a high pleasure. The red snapper fish, fried in garlic, was equally tasty, though the lamb was more special for this region. Mashed potatoes were served with the entre. A glass of wine came with the meal. You may want to order an extra bottle of the house wine. Dessert of ice cream, followed by coffee, completed the meal.
Aside from Basque dining, the casino buffets in Reno are tempting, with Harrahs as a good choice. Harrah’s Fresh Market Square was a recent recipient of Reno’s “best buffet” award. Casinos price food and lodging deliberately low to lure gamblers to the tables or slot machines, where the casinos make their fortunes. However, the upscale dining now possible at casinos, both here and in Las Vegas, supplants the casino buffet as the main news story. At La Strada restaurant in the El Dorado you’ll swear you’re in Italy. The chef is from Milan. The Silver Legacy has Sterling’s Seafood Steakhouse and provides top sirloin in an elegant setting.
A major attraction in the area is the William F. Harrah Foundation National Automobile Museum, a distinguished icon in the museum world in the West. The museum captures the place of the automobile in American culture, something of interest to everyone, even those who hate cars. This is an assemblage of interpretive Americana not to miss. Bill Harrah’s vision was to locate, purchase, and restore to mint condition all the classics of automotive history. He amassed here one of the largest collections of antique motor vehicles. The number and kinds of cars to see, with detailed emphasis on their effect on our culture, is intriguing. Aside from the collection itself there is a 15-minute interpretive film about the effect of the car on American life. As you look at these early models, their sturdiness, design-consciousness, and the modest price will impress you. Elegance of bygone eras comes flooding back as you gaze at a 1939 Mercedes Benz or a 1912 Stutz Bearcat.
Another resource to enjoy in Reno is the University of Nevada. At the University, three stops are of interest to the traveler.
The planetarium, called the Fleischmann Planetarium, presents competent and entertaining shows on the celestial realm, including activities from space travel to telescope viewing. Called the Space Place because of an interest in all aspects of space, such as viewing the earth from space, the Planetarium develops informative shows.
The Lawlor Events Center books itinerant speakers and performers to thicken the texture of cultural life in Reno. Also, find out if the local Reno Symphony, Opera, or Theater may be staging performances. The large numbers of show people in the region bring a reservoir of talent for community performances.
The Nevada Historical Society Museum on the campus houses the famous basket collection created by Washoe Indian Dot-So-La-Lee. Photos and memorabilia chart the rise of Reno as a railroad, cattle, and mining supply town.
During winter, skiing is a major activity in the Reno area. Lake Tahoe has the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America. You can ski a different resort every day for two weeks and still not ski them all. Along with the nearby California ski areas, you’ll find two major ski places on this side of the state line. From Reno, take Highway 395 south and then turn west at Highway 27. Gradually you climb out of the brush-filled valleys and onto the snow-covered, forested slopes of the Toyabee National Forest. After passing a few minor slopes where snowmobiling and beginner skiing are featured, you arrive at Mt. Rose. Rose is the major full-service ski resort nearest Reno, with rentals, lessons, all-day children’s lessons, beginner slopes, advanced slopes, cafeteria and apres ski lounge, but no lodging. Most of the interest here is in downhill, though beyond Mt. Rose, at Shepherd’s Meadow, there is also cross country.
Continuing on Highway 27 across the mountains, you arrive at Diamond Peak This is the second major ski area close to Reno, with a full range of downhill slopes, cross-country-trails, rentals, lessons, and much condominium lodging nearby. The Bee lift at Diamond Peak is a good place to take children on their first lift experiences.
While in this area, the drive down to see Lake Tahoe makes a lovely outing, winter or summer. The blue of the lake is famous. Along the Nevada shore, if you travel south on Highway 28, the Lake Tahoe State Park affords an interesting turnoff for a picnic or lake viewing. In winter the low areas in this park are a favorite cross-country ski area. You can turn east again at Highway 50 to visit the capital of Carson City or the historic silver mining town at Virginia City.
The other major outdoor region near Reno is at Pyramid Lake, 32 miles northeast of Reno. This high desert lake, a remnant of the larger, prehistoric Lake Lahontan, is a popular summertime destination, offering swimming, trophy trout fishing, and boating. Soft red and brown sandstone mountains surround the lake. The pyramid shape of Anahoe Island inspired John Fremont to call the lake Pyramid Lake when he came through here in 1844. The lake lies within Paiute Indian reservation lands. An approach road takes you through attractive desert country.
NEARBY TRIPS FROM RENO
Silver mining at the biggest boom site in U.S. history is the lure of the major nearby trip from Reno. Drive south and east to peruse the historic silver town of Virginia City. Then swing west to view the state capital at Carson City.
To reach Virginia City, drive south of Reno on Highway 395 and then turn east at Highway 341. You wind past the crest of a low series of mountains before dropping into Virginia City. While on the crest, at the top of the Geiger Grade, stop to enjoy a striking view of the Sierras directly to the west and the Reno basin to the north. The turnout at the crest, complete with a marker, honors Dr. D. M. Geiger, roadbuilder and pioneer.
As you drive into Virginia City, it is impressive how barren the territory is. Only a prospector with a firm vision of precious metal would venture into this arid territory. Virginia City has a quirky and notable place in U.S. western history. It might be considered the first truly industrial city in the west, because mining was a major capitalized industry and occurred primarily underground.
Virginia City is worth several hours of exploring. Orient yourself to the setting at the Visitors Bureau on C Street, which has a free 15-minute film explaining the historic story of silver here. Managers of the Chamber can also tell you which of the three main mansions in town–Savage, Castle, and Mackay–are currently open to the public.
While exploring, be sure to stop in at The Way It Was Museum to see a scale model of the awesome 700 miles of mine shafts that burrow through the ground immediately below the city.
At the Ponderosa Mine, which you enter through a storefront building on C Street, the main street, you can enter the shafts.
In summer the Chollar Mine is also open, giving you a glimpse at mining history. The Chollar Mine tour is a 40-minute underground walk into the deepest mine in the lode, running 3,200 feet into the mountain on 20 levels.
All the mines in Virginia City produced an estimated billion and a quarter uninflated dollars in gold and silver.
When the miners weren’t digging, they were in saloons. The Bucket of Blood Saloon is a favorite watering hole. Another, the Silver Queen, has an unusual drawing of a woman, called the Silver Queen, with 3,261 silver dollars and 28 gold pieces embedded in the picture. Aside from this 15-foot-high expression of barroom elegance, the wooden bar and mirrored mantle at the Silver Queen is a monument to the carver’s art, appreciated by those who have spent hours polishing the brass rail.
Up and down C Street there are several small museums and bookstores in the storefront buildings. The most ambitious is the Mark Twain Book Store. Fortunately for literature, Twain failed as a miner and went to work for $25 a week as a fledgling journalist for the Territorial Enterprise. Several other small museums, such as the Wild West Museum, feature mining, gun, and Indian artifacts.
The extensive wealth from the mines helped build San Francisco, but some of the money stayed in Virginia City. Virginia City, in its boom period, was the biggest metropolis between Denver and San Francisco. Today the relics of opulence are a few splendid Victorian structures.
Procure a walking map from the Chamber of Commerce, 131 South C Street, located in an old rail car once used to haul silver ore. Be sure to take in the Castle, a striking home which is open for viewing. The Castle was built in 1868 for Robert Graves, superintendent of the Empire mine.
The Mackay Museum is another opulent home, now a monument to the past and open for tours. John Mackay was one of the few early mine owners who emerged with his fortune intact.
The Savage Mansion was once the headquarters of the Savage Mining Company, whose shafts enter the ground immediately opposite the house. In 1879, ex-President U. S. Grant was entertained at the Savage Mansion and delivered a speech thanking the miners for all the millions of dollars in bullion that had helped finance the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln pushed through admittance of Nevada as a state because Nevada’s money could help the war effort and two more northern votes would be lined up against the secessionists in any parliamentary showdowns. Today the Savage Mansion is an office building.
B street has two architecturally interesting buildings, the Storey County Courthouse and the Piper Opera House. The Courthouse is an opulent stone structure. The Piper Opera House was the cultural center of the region, hosting traveling Shakespearean performers such as Edwin Booth and singers such as Lily Langtree.
For a sobering legacy of what life amounted to here, in 1861, for some 38,000 souls, including 2,000 Chinese, go to the graveyards at the north end of town and wander among the stone or wood markers. This is one of the few graveyards in the west that has become a tourist attraction. An impressive diversity of nationalities gathered after Hosea and Ethan Allen Grosch made the definitive discovery, in 1857, that Mt. Davidson was riddled with silver ore. The Groshes died without the discovery becoming widely known. Two Irishmen, Peter O’Reiley and Patrick McLaughlin, took over the claims in 1859. At these diggings, which were taken over by Henry T. Paige Comstock, there was plenty of “black stuff” or “blue stuff” with the gold.
“Worse’n useless,” said Comstock, at first. He was looking for gold nuggets and didn’t realize the value of the silver and gold mud. “If it wasn’t for that damned bogus stuff, my diggings might amount to something.”
However, Comstock changed his opinion when he sent a sample of the bogus stuff to California and found that it assayed out as a rich silver sulfide worth $3,000 a ton in silver and $800 a ton in gold. Comstock’s name became associated with the lode, and the rush to Virginia City began.
In summer you can make a 35-minute train ride on the Virginia & Truckee Railroad out to the mining town of Gold Hill, one of the mining districts. In 2010 the train expanded to make 16-mile, 75-minute runs May-October all the way from Carson City up to Virginia City and back, compete with spirited re-enactors to entertain passengers. Take the train one way or round trip. You will likely see wild horses and several mining districts along the way. This lovely train is sometimes called “The Queen of the Shortlines.” The train originally took out silver ore and returned with wood beams to shore up the underground shafts below the city.
The busiest time in Virginia City nowadays is the September weekend of the annual Camel Races.
After looking at Virginia City, drive Highway 342 south and then Highway 50 west to Carson City, the capital. The drive down from Virginia City takes you past some mines and the shafts of many abandoned mines, including the Gold Hill, Silver Hill, and Devil’s Gate mining districts.
Extensive tailings from the mines give you a sense of the massive scale of the mining operations.
When you reach Carson City, stop at the Chamber of Commerce (1911 S. Carson Street) and ask for a driving tour of the town’s government buildings and Victorian mansions.
Then proceed to the State Capitol Building. This elegant but restrained stone structure, from 1871, built of sandstone from the mines of city-founder Abe Curry, can be viewed from without and within. Inside you’ll note handsome floors and walls made of Alaskan marble. The woodworking is impressive. As expected, portraits of the past governors of the state adorn the walls. A frieze extols the litany of metals that put Nevada, quite literally, on the map. Carson City, as a name, replaced Eagle Station, the name when the area was a Mormon stop on the Emigrant Trail.
Continue exploring here with a stop at the Nevada State Museum (600 North Carson St, in the historic U. S. Mint Building). The displays depict both the natural history and the human drama of Nevada, including all the coins minted here. This is a good place to learn of the Paiute Indians who were the original residents. In the basement a replica of a silver mine gives you a feel of what underground mining was like.
Then drive down Robinson Street to look at two of the mansions for which Carson City is famous. Near the end of Robinson Street, the Greek-column structure is the governor’s mansion. Across from the Governor’s mansion, lumber baron D. L. Bliss built a mansion, at 710 W. Robinson Street. The Bliss Mansion is a 21-room affair that bears a resemblance to San Francisco Victorians of the same 1870s period.
For all its gaming and non-gaming attractions, Reno and its nearby mining district of Virginia City/Carson City enjoy a distinguished place on the tourism map.
RENO, NEVADA: IF YOU GO
For Reno information, call 800/367-7366, web site www.visitrenotahoe.com.
For an overview of the state of Nevada as a travel destination, write the Nevada Commission on Tourism, Capitol Complex, Carson City, NV 89710, 800/638-2328, web site www.travelnevada.com.
by Lee Foster
Like all major travel destinations in North America, Reno, Nevada, struggles to survive and prosper in the ever-changing travel scene.
Reno existed first only because of the arbitrary decision of the railroads to create a town here. The small town thrived because of the good fortune of silver seekers striking it rich immediately south of Reno in the 1860s.
During the 20th century Reno boomed because of Nevada’s legalization of gambling in 1931. The locals like to use the word gaming, not gambling, in Reno.
Reno now must deal with two new challenges.
Las Vegas, to the south, far surpasses this poor cousin in the entertainment, dining, and ambiance quality of its casinos. Why go to gamble at Reno if you can go to Las Vegas? Reno’s gambling parlors, however, do offer more of a small-town intimacy than Las Vegas.
And California’s March 2000 law, allowing extensive gambling on Indian lands, poses a major threat. If an Indian gambling establishment in Auburn is well managed and beautifully appointed, why drive over the mountains from California to Reno to gamble?
The Silver Legacy, the newest casino in Reno, is the place to sample if you want to gamble. The Silver Legacy is flourishing and is the Reno establishment on a par with Las Vegas. A huge mining apparatus, with a sound-and-light show every hour, is the theme attraction at the Silver Legacy.
Wisely, Reno has begun to understand that it will thrive only if it emphasizes its beyond-gambling resources, which are several.
Reno has some intriguing architecture and downtown amenities, which can be observed in a walking tour of Virginia Street and the River Walk along the Truckee River. I particularly enjoyed the Art Deco Post Office on Virginia, adjacent to the river. The Post Office has outgrown the structure. New tenants now occupy this lovely green stone building with its cast aluminum interior details.
Across the street, the Riverside Hotel has undergone a transformation. Originally created as a lodging for unhappy wives who needed to live here three weeks to establish residency and qualify for a divorce, the Riverside Hotel has been altered into 35 artist lofts.
Adjacent is the Truckee River, with a lovely waterfront walk to the east, past Wingfield Park, scene of many outdoor festivities. I walked a mile of so beyond Wingfield to savor the mature trees and the river, used by rafters and kayakers.
Reno also boasts a world-class automotive museum, known as the National Automobile Museum, William F. Harrah Collection. Bill Harrah’s vision was to locate, purchase, and restore to mint condition all the classics of automotive history. He amassed one of the largest collections of antique motor vehicles in the world. I particularly enjoyed the 1907 Thomas Flyer that participated in a 1917 around-the-world race. A street devoted to the 1930s shows a 1932 Lincoln in front of a movie theatre with a marquee of the era.
Antique cars are part of a Hot August Nights annual celebration in Reno. There is a major Rodeo in June. July is devoted to an Arts Town festival, with events every day. A Great Balloon Race on the weekend after Labor Day attracts over 130 balloons. The Air Races in September demonstrate vintage airplanes. Reno now creates many annual theme events to attract visitors.
Wild horses can also be seen near Reno. If you drive south of Reno to Virginia City and turn off on Lousetown Road, it is likely that you will see wild horses. There are an estimated 40,000 wild horses in Nevada, and some are taken off the range near Reno occasionally so that their increasing population will not lead to starvation due to sparse forage in the desert terrain. The Bureau of Land Management has an active adoption program. I was surprised that I was able to get within fifty yards of a wild horse herd.
Virginia City is one of the most intriguing historic cities in America. Silver was discovered here in the 1860s, creating a cornucopia of wealth in the Comstock Lode. Today you can see several historic structures–the Piper Opera House, The Castle, Fourth Ward School House, and Mackay Mansion. The latter three are museums open to the public. A drive down the hill to see the Sandy Bowers mansion in Carson City completes a brief historic architecture tour of the region. Bowers built the granite mansion in the 1860s from the fabulous profits of his Gold Hill Mine near Virginia City.
Cowboy poetry is a treat to hear in Reno, so check whether there are any performances during your visit. At the Rafter 7 Bar M Ranch near Virginia City I was able to listen to the talented cowboy poet Larry Maurice recite some of his work, including a moving poem titled “Cowboy’s Hands,” in which the scars and wear-and-tear of the cowboy’s hands tell the history of his life. The big annual festival for cowboy poetry is east of Reno, in Elko, each January.
What Reno offers, and what Las Vegas or Auburn lack, is Lake Tahoe. When you add the marvelous range of year-round outdoor sports possible at the lake, Reno jumps to the front ranks of travel destinations. I hiked a section of the Tahoe Rim Trail. The Tahoe Rim Trail is one of the most glorious hikes on the planet, circling the lake, letting you gaze at where you’ve been. I savored the views near Martis Summit at the north end of the lake, recalling Mark Twain’s comment that “Lake Tahoe is the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Twain certainly knew how to turn a phrase. He went on to say, speaking of Tahoe, “The water is purer than the air, and the air is the air that angels breathe.” This will surely be the sentiment of anyone who hikes even a small segment of the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Beyond tourism, Reno flourishes because of its central location for distributing products and because the state has no inventory tax. From Reno you can distribute a product efficiently throughout the west, from Denver to San Francisco, Seattle to Los Angeles, by rail, truck, or air. And you don’t have to pay an inventory tax each spring, as you would in California. Barnes & Noble has built a huge 600,000-square-foot warehouse for its book business. Many businesses distribute from Reno.
Reno’s famous motto, emblazoned in neon on an arch over Virginia Street, is “Biggest Little City in the World.” The movers and shakers of Reno now emphasize its many beyond-gambling resources so that Reno will never become a ghost town.
RENO, NEVADA: IF YOU GO
For Reno information, contact the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority, PO Box 837, Reno, NV 89504, 800/367-7366, website www.visitrenotahoe.com.
For an overview of the state of Nevada as a travel destination, write the Nevada Commission on Tourism, 401 North Carson Street, Carson City, NV 89710, 800/638-2328, website www.travelnevada.com.