Galloping at a tear, brave riders of the Pony Express once carried mail to the West Coast along the very course now followed by Rte. 50. Often traveling for long stretches with not another living soul in sight, their journeys led them through an inhospitable land of sand and peaks-the Great Basin. The region, however, has changed since those early times, today offering travelers friendly towns and conveniences. So when Rte. 50 is called the Loneliest Road in America, take it with a grain of salt and enjoy an area as rich in lore as the hills once were in ore.
1. Lake Tahoe
Deep blue and surrounded by evergreen forests and snowy peaks, Lake Tahoe offers one last lush treat before you set off on this trek through mostly stark terrain. The views from Rte. 50, which wends along the eastern shore, occasionally open up to reveal the vastness of the lake. Perched at an altitude of more than a mile, Tahoe has sparkling clear water, with depths of up to 1,645 feet. For a fine panorama, take a ride to the top of the mountain on the Heavenly Gondola in South Lake Tahoe — site of Nevada’s largest ski resort.
2. Carson City
With the High Sierra in the rearview mirror, the drive leads to Carson City, the state’s capital, which was named for frontiersman Kit Carson. While much of the land seems barren, looks are deceiving; the region has great biodiversity and yields a wealth of precious minerals. In fact, one of the richest veins of silver and gold ever discovered, the famed Comstock Lode, was unearthed in nearby Virginia City, luring miners by the thousands in the mid-1800s.
A small city sprang up almost overnight, and as area mines began to pay off, tycoons set about building impressive mansions. One of the earliest, the Bowers estate, still stands some 10 miles north of town; made of granite, it cost $200,000 to build and furnish in 1864, then a staggering sum.
Rte. 50 runs on one long strip to the northeast, crossing a sagebrush plateau on the way to Dayton. In earlier times the town was a Pony Express station and the site of Nevada’s first gold strike.
Virginia City, about seven miles to the north via Rte. 341, was nicknamed the Queen of the Comstock. Historical tours are available of the former boomtown, once home in the mid-1800s to some 25,000 people, including a young reporter with the pen name Mark Twain. Among the many restored buildings are mansions, churches, banks, saloons, and an opera house.