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.