First Stop: Virginia City - Side Trip to the Old West
I invite you to travel with me as we journey down Highway 395 from Reno to Lone Pine, what some would call the prettiest avenue ever seen. Along the way discover quaint towns, extreme geologic forces, tourist destinations, sweeping vistas and a few great food discoveries. Perhaps you will be inspired to plan a grand adventure of your own down this remarkable and historic highway.
To help you plan your trip, spend some time researching travel websites and bring along a good map, even if you have a navigation system. I had good fortune using www.TripAdvisor.Com to learn about restaurants, places to stay and points of interest along the way. Additionally, I strongly recommend having good maps such as those provided by AAA or “Hwy 395, Carson City to Lone Pine,” available from Amazon.com.
Although there are a number of high Sierra passes that will connect you with Hwy 395, they are often closed in winter (Hwy 89 Monitor Pass, Hwy 108 Sonora Pass or the Hwy 120 Tioga Pass). I recommend you begin in Reno. The Eastern Sierra is rugged country; roads demand you plan for extremes in weather, environment and altitude. Bring water, sunscreen, snacks, warm clothing (even in summer), strong shoes, well-running vehicles with top notch brakes and transmissions and, most importantly, awareness of your health concerns as altitude gains are sometimes rapid and sunshine at 9,000 feet is very unforgiving. It is important to note that cell towers are few and far between, so cell phone coverage can be unreliable.
Let's begin the journey just outside of Reno, Nevada, in one of the area's most charming tourist destinations. From Hwy 395 south bound, take highway 341 to venerable Virginia City, the grand dame of late 1800's silver mining and Mark Twain tales. The curvy road quickly ascends above Reno. As you ascend, take a moment at the overlook pullout to appreciate the climb and vista of the Reno valley. Virginia City is perched on a hill; the streets above cascade down in steps, each level a new lettered street. Aside from a few modern homes clinging to the hillsides, the view quickly changes from suburban chic to 19th century antique. Homes with a modicum of frill and fancy, leaning walls and sagging decks and tired but proud storefronts, confront one another face to face in an endless duel to survive the modern world.
“C” Street is your entry point into town. At the north end and below are the cemeteries, placeholders of memory that offer respectful visitors a chance to glimpse the history of people who called the area home. If time permits, take a walk through the Masonic and adjoining grounds; from here you will get an idea of how people lived, whether they were rich, poor, or positioned and had family or not. The view from the cemetery hillside will give you a good sense of the town's spread, the surrounding geography, vegetation and mining way of life. Reservations are highly recommended for motels and B&B's, especially on weekends and popular travel months.
A quiet, early morning stroll into town before the crowds arrive adds to the ambience and character of the place. Along the way you find many buildings built in the latter 1800's, still in character and lovingly preserved “the way it was.” This walk into town is a lesson in Victorian architecture, filigree ornamentation and “whatever works.” Collapsed stone walls, uneven plank boardwalks, tall window and doorframes and sagging wood structures echo Virginia City's past-its-prime look and feel. Good family attractions include the mine tour, gold panning experience, a ride on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad and costumed western-theme photo shops. Slow down, sashay or saunter down the boardwalk while you imagine jingling spurs, gingham dresses and a stagecoach pulling into town. Though only a few blocks long, the town is full of interesting, entertaining storefronts and historic sites best enjoyed at a slow pace.
For dinner, locals referred us to the Cafe Del Rio (south end of town); the continental menu, specials of fish, steak, chicken and Mexican plates were beautifully prepared and priced fairly. The next morning, we ate at the Virginia City Coffee House and enjoyed our breakfast sandwiches and good coffee outside so we could absorb the panoramic view of the Washoe Valley and parade of horses walking loose down the main street. Stand on the edge of “C” street, look east, and contemplate the rugged, never-quite-finished look of the town: the spire from the Catholic Church piercing the skyline, the barely visible painted signs on the walls of old buildings, the windswept barren hills, and the sense that there are ghosts still roaming the area, not quite able to give up on the dream that was Virginia City.
When you leave, I recommend the drive south out of town to Highway 50 and then west to reconnect to southbound 395.
Next month, Bodie- ghost town extraordinaire...
View more of Christopher’s photos at www.VardasPhotography.com.