Beyond Nevada’s kitschy casinos5 min read . Updated: 07 Oct 2016, 02:24 PM IST
Alpine getaways in the middle of a desert, a brilliant car museum and a mining town rich in history
“Game on with us," cajoled my friends.
I had been having a lucky streak at the blackjack: already, my $100 (around ₹ 6,665) had become $750. But I was done. When the dealer at the table was replaced, I got out.
“No," I said to my friends, “I’m going to check out a bit of Nevada."
Most of Nevada—the western American state wedged between California and Utah—is high desert, meaning that during summer, which is when I was there, it is blazing hot. It did seem a little mental to leave the air-conditioned comfort of Las Vegas casinos and venture out into the stark vastness of the desert countryside. But I had heard of bristlecone pines in the Great Basin National Park, the only national park in Nevada, and I figured that pine trees wouldn’t survive in harsh heat like this so there was bound to be some kind of micro-climate there.
And so I pointed the nose of my rental—a shiny black BMW 3-Series, courtesy my casino winnings—north towards the little town of Ely (pronounced Eee-lee), 390km from Las Vegas.
Ely is past its prime now but still attracts tourists thanks to its Ghost Train, an authentic steam engine train that takes visitors for rides. In its time, Ely was a hard-as-nails badass western town. In fact, the best steaks in town are to be found in the old Cellblock Steakhouse, where diners actually eat behind bars. Later, in the decade after World War II and before the boom came to Las Vegas, Ely was a party stop for the swish set of Hollywood on their way from Los Angeles to Sun Valley, Idaho, 540km north of Ely. You have to get to Ely to get to the Great Basin NP, and the road that goes there, the US-50, has got a reputation; they call it the “loneliest road in America".
With temperatures peaking at 48 degrees Celsius, I wanted to hit one of the trails in the park as early as possible, so I was off at 4.30 the next morning. The doorman at the hotel cocked an eye at me, and I explained that I was headed to the Great Basin NP.
“Ah!" he said. “If you time it right, son, you’ll see a spectacular sunrise just as you head into the hills of the park."
And he was right! Just as the road started to climb away from the flat floor of the desert, the sun rose over Wheeler Peak, washing the drab and dusty desert with a warm orange light. During the last ice age, gigantic glaciers pushed carved peaks to rise over 5,000ft from what is essentially a basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains.
I parked my car at the campground parking lot at the base of Wheeler Peak and got out. I was shocked by the cold. Luckily, my fleece was in the boot, and I quickly put it on to stop shivering.
Wheeler Peak is the second highest peak in Nevada, stacking 13,064ft to the 13,147ft of the Boundary Peak, and I had already reached 9,886ft. That morning, I did a 4.4km trek that took me to two alpine lakes, called Stella and Teresa. It was fresh and cold, and I walked past pretty alpine scenery, startling the grazing deer because I was the first person on the trail. The icing on the cake was, well, the ice. The glaciers that feed the lake hadn’t yet melted completely. I could hardly believe that yesterday I’d left my sole prints on the road since the tar had started to melt from heat and today I was leaving the tread marks of my trekking boots on a glacier.
I was back in Ely by 10.30am, and the temperature had already started climbing towards the 40s. I wanted more of the winter-in-the-middle-of-the-summer and decided to check out a tip I had got from a fellow hiker. Go to Lamoille Canyon, he had said, there was more alpine scenery there, and tranquil lakes. I got on the I-80 that runs from Chicago to San Francisco, on the 19th century California trail, and headed north. I broke my journey at Elko, a dusty casino town 300km north of Ely.
The next day, I was up at 4am again and at the wheel before 5am. The town of Lamoille, which is the gateway to Lamoille Canyon, is 30km south-east of Elko. It was a straight enough drive, but I had to ease off the pace because soon there were moony looking elks crossing the road. Hit a 300kg elk at 70 kmph and it would be curtains for the car.
It is the drive from Lamoille to the Lamoille Lake trailhead through the canyon that is a highlight. The road is twisty and packed with tight as well as stretched out corners. After almost 800km of straight roads, this twisty hill road felt rejuvenating. I was even luckier with the 2-hour hike to Lamoille Lake; there were parts of the trail that were still covered in snow.
One could trek on from Lamoille Canyon towards Liberty Pass, but I had to start making my way back and I also wanted to stop in Reno. My interest in Reno was the National Automobile Museum, which has a collection of iconic cars spanning a century and a half, all in immaculate condition. But for me it was a joy to find a 1947 DeSoto there. My parents owned the very same model in the 1970s, and the first-ever road trips during the first decade of my life were in that old and comfortable, if at times cantankerous, DeSoto.
I spent a happy half-day at the museum before I tore myself away to go and visit Virginia City 41km away. An erstwhile gold and silver mining town, the wealth that came out of the ground in this city helped build San Francisco. Today, camera-toting tourists have replaced gunslingers in this preserved Wild West town. Of course, it is touristy, but the saloons look like they have come straight out of Westerns and have imaginative names, such as the Bucket of Blood Saloon and Red Dog Saloon. A certain Samuel Langhorne Clemens arrived here in 1862 and started working as a reporter for a newspaper called Territorial Enterprise. He adopted the pen name Mark Twain. Today, there is a museum dedicated to him in Virginia City.
Finally, four days after driving out of Las Vegas, I returned to find my friends done with the casinos since they had spent all their winnings. Well, so had I, but I was the richer for it.
The quickest way to get to Las Vegas is to fly into Los Angeles and hire a car. There are plenty of car- hire options available. But I found Sixt had the best deals on big brawn cars such as Dodge Chargers, Mustangs and BMWs.
It’s a great option to book a campsite at the Great Basin Park online (www.nps.gov/grba/index.htm).
There is a surprisingly good Italian restaurant called Luciano’s in Elko, en route to Lamoille. The margaritas at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City are mind-boggling.