‘There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it.’
The 287-mile stretch of U.S. 50 running from Ely to
Fernley, Nev., passes nine towns, two abandoned
mining camps, a few gas pumps and the occasional coyote.
‘We warn all motorists not to drive there,’ says the AAA rep,‘unless they’re confident of their survival skills.’
-Quote from Life Magazine, as printed in the "Highway 50 Survival Guide"
How Highway 50 got its name
|Welcome to "The Loneliest Highway in America"|
Its called, "The Loneliest Highway in America" and it sure does live up to its reputation. It has all the thrills of Route 66; scenery, little towns build for the highway, and just an all around great ride. Highway 50 itself crosses the country, beginning in Ocean City, Maryland and ending in my quaint little hometown of Sacramento, California. It is a unique ride. Unlike Interstates 80, 90, 10 and other cross country routes, it is designed to be scenic, not necessarily the easiest and most direct route. While I've driven interstates 80, 40, 10 and others significantly, Highway 50 is a much more interesting route, especially through Nevada.
"The Loneliest Highway in America" refers specifically to the section of Highway 50 that cuts straight across the great desert of Central Nevada. It gets this name from an article produced in Life Magazine that portrayed this highway as a rugged one which penetrates the most uncivilized parts of the country. Originally, it was meant as a serious warning to the wayfaring motorist but it since has attracted the attention of many road tripping adventure seekers. This is how I was able to drive it and why I recommend you do the same!
The Grand Tour
I drove Highway 50 in the spring of this year and loved every minute of it. I will give you the tour, from west to east. I drove it the other way but "traditionally" it is traveled in an easterly direction. Starting in beautiful Lake Tahoe, Highway 50 winds its way down from the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada into the incredibly different high desert of the Great Basin. In a matter of miles you will instantly see the effect of the Sierra Nevada's rain shadow on Nevada's desert.
Carson City, the capital of The Silver State, marks the last real city you will see on the route. I actually had an extra two gallons of gas with me just in case; there are parts of the highway that go 100 miles or more without gas. Carson City itself is an interesting city; it somewhat feels like an old western town, but there are better things to see on the highway.
Leaving Carson City, you start getting deeper into the Great Basin and notice a marked difference in trees and shrubs. Despite the colder temperatures, it is a desert and rarely rains or snows. It isn't a stereotypical cactus filled desert but those who are environmentally inclined will appreciate the rugged beauty of this area. Plants have adapted to desert conditions while also adapting to extreme cold temperatures and wild winds that make the area such a harsh place to grow.
|A real open road!|
As you head eastwards, you will pass through several very small mining towns. These are mostly remnants of the Mining boom of Nevada and are now just road stops on Highway 50. Most of Nevada is grazing land these days and you may see some wild horses that still inhabit the vast stretches of government owned open land. A couple points of interest on the first section is "Sand Mountain", a large sand dune off the road which has since become a major spot for strange adventure sports... like "sandboarding". Also, you will certainly pass by the famous "Shoe Tree"! It is a massive cottonwood tree with perhaps 10,000 pairs of shoes tossed upon its boughs. Its quite the sight to see; here, in the middle of the desert, is a massive tree covered in shoes. There also an interesting history to the tree which I will certainly post about later.
As you move through the middle of the state, you begin to realize Nevada's rather unique topography. See, Nevada has the most number individual mountain ranges in the United States. This makes the ride like an old time wooden roller coaster. One moment you're climbing up an 10,000ft mountain pass, the next you're in a deep valley and the whole thing starts over again. Each mountain range is like a "sky island". Due to their height, these ranges attract the little moisture that moves through the area. Therefore, there is an abundance of life in the higher regions of the mountain, which is rather ironic compared to most other mountains. What's even more interesting is that each valley is essentially a barrier to life migrating between ranges. So, life in each range is literally isolated although they may only be 30-40 miles apart.
|"Sky Islands" attract the little moisture of the desert|
Austin, Nevada is near the center of the state and is actually a mountain biking destination. If I ever do this drive again, I will remember to bring a mountain bike and hit one of the many trails that lie just outside of town.
Towards the eastern part of the state, you will drive through the town of Ely, Nevada and then come to my absolute favorite site- Great Basin National Park. Yes, there is a national park all the way out here and it is perhaps the most isolated park outside of Alaska. Great Basin National Park is another "sky island" and one of the state's highest points. Wheeler Peak is 13,026ft tall and it is a very rugged mountain to climb, even in the summer. I did a winter ascent of this mountain and was proud to say that I had the entire 77,000 acres of the park all to myself. I don't believe I have ever been to a more remote location.
|Great Basin National Park|
Beyond viewing the wild environment of the Great Basin, the national park also has the Lehman Caves. This is a massive limestone cave and is very accessible. The Lehman caves have some rather alien-like structures and has some that are found nowhere else on Earth. Tours are offered by the park for very reasonable prices. Great Basin National Park is perhaps the highlight of Highway 50
|The Lehman Caves|
Road Tripping is certainly one of America's favorite pastimes. Seeing large areas of the country all in one trip helps develop an appreciation for the diverse environments of our country. I certainly hope that you make the wildest road trip you can and drive "The Loneliest Highway in America"
Read. Plan. Get Out There!