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.