I’m going to be completely honest … we didn’t have great expectations for the state of Nevada. We didn’t really know anything about the state, except that this is the home of Las Vegas and Reno (baby Vegas). If you are not into gambling, neon lights and super expensive stage shows, as we are not, then what would draw you to this state?
But, the map that is stuck on our motorhome door still showed a dozen western states that we had not visited, and Nevada was one of them. May as well use this opportunity to investigate. There is, after all, some allure to a place that counts the Extraterrestrial Highway and The Loneliest Road in America among it’s claims to fame. So, we headed into Nevada to see what we could find out.
Valley of Fire
Our first stop was a state park an hour east of Las Vegas called Valley of Fire. We’ve said before that so many state parks have proven even more beautiful than the National parks, and Valley of Fire is no exception! The park was so named because of the bright red rocks that seem to glow with the dark brown Muddy Mountains behind them. Of course, this geologic work of art was achieved over the course of millions of years. It’s no wonder Nevada dedicated this 40,000 acre marvel as it’s first state park in 1935.
One of the best parts of our visit here was meeting Richard and Elke, new friends who we really ‘clicked’ with. We’re glad that we extended our stay from two nights to four or we wouldn’t have met them!
From Valley of Fire, we headed north past huge installations of solar panels, through tiny desert towns with the ultimate destination being the tiny hamlet of Rachel, Nevada. Rachel’s claim to fame is that it is the location of the entrance gate to Area 51 and the back entrance to the Nevada Proving Grounds, 680 square miles of top secret federal land where nuclear bombs were tested during the Cold War and where, in 1947, a flying saucer was said to have crashed. Thus, the road that runs through this part of Nevada is known as The Extraterrestrial Highway. In reality, Area 51 is home to the nation’s overhead surveillance program and most likely where future generations of military aircraft are designed, built and tested. We were lucky to have seen two low-flying military jets whiz past, followed about 10 minutes later by a sonic boom … one flyboy’s lucky day to break the sound barrier!
Rachel, Nevada, turned out to be one of the most interesting places we’ve visited in recent months. The town consists of a few prefab homes and travel trailers surrounding the one business, the Little A’le’inn, with a cafe, gift shop, and a few motel rooms. It’s difficult to determine the population of this town, as it seems to be constantly fluctuating. The internet claims it to be somewhere around 50 people, but since nobody responded to the 2020 census, who knows?!
We parked in the huge, empty gravel lot across the street and went into the cafe for supper. We learned from our friend Ledge Clayton that the best place to sit if you really want to talk to locals is the counter, so we took two seats there. Bob immediately started a conversation with a young man who was sitting a few stools down from us, asking if he’s from Rachel. He said that he lives there now, but didn’t grow up there. Bob asked how he came to live in Rachel, and he replied, “I was traveling around the country and stopped here for supper. They asked me if I wanted a job. I said, “sure.” That was a year-and-a-half ago.” When we mentioned that we are traveling across the country, he quipped, “And you’re here for supper. Want a job? You’re almost living here now.”
Moments later, we were joined by Smitty. He traveled through Rachel 14 years ago, stopped and spent a couple of months. That was the beginning of his love affair with Rachel, as he now travels back and forth between Washington state in summer and Arizona in winter, and he always stops in Rachel for about a month twice a year.
It takes a certain kind of fortitude to live in a place like Rachel, Nevada. The nearest gas station is 33 miles away. That is also the location of the nearest “grocery store,” which I put in quotation marks as it’s more like a very large convenience store (I shopped there). The nearest large store for groceries and staple supplies is the Walmart 99 miles away.
We had a fantastic time visiting Rachel, sitting outside with the locals for a while, enjoying a beer and trading stories. We may have to find a way to visit again on our way back to Texas.
Hickison Petroglyphs was our next stop. This was a tiny free campground with no services on Highway 50. These are some of the oldest petroglyphs in the country, thought to be some 10,000 years old. Unfortunately, the area went unprotected for so long that it was apparently a hangout for partying kids who scratched so much graffiti into the rocks that it’s pretty hard to tell what’s real and what’s vandalism. It was still a beautiful, quiet place to camp and hike for a couple of nights.
The Loneliest Road in America
In 1986, Life magazine went in search of the place in America that had the fewest points of interest and services. They found U.S. Highway 50 in Nevada. “It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills,” the July issue of Life quoted an unnamed AAA counselor as saying about Highway 50. They crowned it “The Loneliest Road in America.”
Nevada, being the quirky place that we have, by now, discovered it to be, did not take offense. On the contrary, they grabbed those words like the mane of a wild mustang and rode them straight to the tourism department. They issued a challenge to vacationers to try their luck at surviving “The Loneliest Road in America.”
We expected desolate, barren land from this highway … brown and harsh with signs warning, “Last Gas for 300 Miles.” What we found was a truly magnificent slice of Americana!
We drove 161 miles west on Highway 50 from Hickison Petroglyphs to the town of Fernley outside of Reno. Our first surprise was the long, winding climb up the beautiful Toiyabe mountain range and down the other side through the mountainside town of Austin, Nevada, population 101. It seemed to me that many of the buildings looked darn authentic, all connected with mis-matched covered porches. Austin was the first town we came to, and it was 25 miles from our campground.
We continued west through the monstrous Reese River Valley, a 65-mile long stretch of open range grazing land interrupted by the occasional salt flat (dried up lake beds). The valley winds it’s way around small mountain ranges that making for a very picturesque drive. The vastness of flat, straight roadway surrounded by open range simply can’t be communicated with photographs. After leaving the town of Austin, we didn’t see another homestead for 34 miles.
We drove for miles and miles, and every now and again, we’d get a surprise treat, like the old, narrow dirt road that crossed the highway with a short sign that read “Pony Express Trail 1860-1861.” Wow! Imagine that!
Another surprise was the “shoe tree.” Passing by a small stand of cottonwood trees, I noticed that there was something unusual growing on the largest tree. I turned around to have a look and found that the tree was covered with old sneakers! There was no sign explaining what the significance was, but the website Travel Nevada gave me the answer:
“Many decades ago, a newlywed couple was returning home, traveling eastbound on Highway 50 after being married at a Reno wedding chapel. While traveling this lonely highway, the couple got into their very first argument and pulled over on the side of the road… next to an outcropping of trees. In protest, the hot-tempered woman proclaimed that she would rather walk home. The man retorted with telling her that if she wanted to walk home, she could do it barefoot – then proceeded to grab her shoes and toss them up on the nearest tree. The man angrily jumped in his car and blasted off down the highway, leaving his new bride alongside the road to follow through with her threat of walking home. He pulled over at the first bar he encountered, and began drowning his sorrows. Lucky for him [and his new wife] an upstanding bartender convinced him to return to her in an attempt to make up. He did just that, they managed to work out their sorrows, and lived happily ever after. From that point on, the couple returned to the tree on their anniversary each year, tossing a celebratory pair of shoes around the same exact tree as an emblem of their unwavering love for each other.”
Bonneville Salt Flats
We would be remiss in visiting this part of the country without stopping at the Bonneville Salt Flats and Speedway. Since 1935, there have been 38 land speed records set here using a variety of cars, motorcycles and specialized vehicles. What surprised me most was learning that 39% of those records have been set by women!
What makes the Bonneville Salt Flats ideal for setting speed records? At 12 miles long and 5 miles wide, Bonneville’s long, thick stretches of salt-encrusted earth are perfect for driving at high speed. The area was formed during the last Ice Age, when a huge lake dried up, leaving behind mineral deposits. Every summer the flats’ salt crust hardens again after the winter rains, leaving a perfect speedway of salt that sits 5 feet thick at it’s center. The terrain is ideal for racing: The moisture in the surface prevents tires from overheating at high speeds; plus, it’s barren and flat, allowing cars to drive straight without obstacles for miles on end.
Bonneville Salt Flats are used for more than racing, however. If you ever see an advertisement showing a scantily-clad model standing on snow, those photos were probably shot here. From car commercials to alien movies, the salt flats are a popular spot. The day we visited, there were trucks loading up the equipment they had just used for a commercial shoot for the clothing company Buckle.
While we were there, we met four women who met while traveling solo to Glacier National Park several years ago. They hit it off and have been meeting up in different parts of the country once or twice a year ever since. They were so excited to learn that we are full-time RVers and even more excited that we have this travel blog. We didn’t get their names, but here’s a shout-out to the ladies … keep in touch and let us know if you have any questions about this lifestyle!
Anyone who knows me well knows that I love data. I found Nevada to be such a fascinating state that I had to investigate the statistics.
At 110,572 square miles, Nevada is the 7th largest state in the country. For the folks back in New England, you could fit almost TWENTY Connecticut’s into Nevada. The Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise metropolitan area is actually larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. With 2.3 million residents, that metro area holds 74% of the state’s population. This leaves less than 8 people per square mile residing in the rest of Nevada!
We drove for miles without seeing a homestead or town. Sometimes we’d pass a sign pointing out that if you turn here, you’ll reach a town. Many of them are now ghost towns, but a few, like the town of Middlegate, may have a cluster of a half dozen mailboxes at the corner. (Middlegate’s population is approximately 17.)
What we expected to be a very boring part of our journey ended up being unexpectedly fascinating! We’re new fans of Nevada!