Amidst Joshua trees and ‘Adopt a Highway’ signs, jagged peaks give way to mesas and lakes. There are whistling sand dunes that rise up to 800 feet, occasional hot springs and soaring mountains.
There are signs of abandoned towns, deserted settlements that once were filled with houses, schools, saloons, hotels and general stores but were left to deteriorate amidst the tumbleweeds after the nineteenth century mineral rush.
An hour out of Las Vegas, where vast solar panels are strewn across the desert, an F16 soars overhead, breaking the silence.
Driving along the Great Basin Highway, the lonely road in the eerie wilderness looks straight out of a movie set, with mountains skirting either side of the road.
As the elevation goes up, the Joshua trees disappear and juniper shrubs are in abundance. There is barely any phone network and the few gas stations there are quickly fade into the distance.
The town of Ely, which began as a Pony Express outpost and 1900s copper mining centre, is a key juncture and where the Great Basin Highway and the so-called Loneliest Road in America (Route 50) come together.
The latter heads out west towards Reno and Lake Tahoe and is the gateway to ghost towns, historic mining communities, state parks, recreational opportunities, and a handful of authenticity-packed ‘Sagebrush Saloons’, essentially a historic watering hole and a term used only in Nevada.
You can stop off in towns like Caliente, to admire the railroads, Art Deco buildings and wildflowers or use it as a base to explore some of the nearby state parks nearby.
Between Caliente and Panacea is the distinctive Cathedral Gorge State Park, so-named owing to its mystical landscape and spectacular slot canyons. Walking past these terracotta-coloured cliffs it feels like I am on the surface of another planet.
Years of geological activity in the region led to lakeshore and land erosion where the park stands today. The rippled formations of clay visible throughout the slot canyons are layers of ash that were dispersed due to wind, sand and the volcanoes.
“You’re standing in what is a part of the Caliente Caldera Complex where many volcanoes erupted in this area millions of years ago,’ Dawn Andone, a park ranger at Cathedral Gorge tells me.
“Give these rocks a knock and you will see that they are hollow as they are formed from siltstone and not sandstone.
“We have 10 miles of trail in this park designated for hiking and mountain biking,”
Other state parks nearby such as Kershaw-Ryan and Cave Lake deserve to be high on every adventurer’s list. There are alpine trails, scenic spots for swimming and the parks are surrounded by indigenous flora.
If there’s time to explore only one state park within an hour from Las Vegas, then Valley of Fire is a good bet.
This deep red, picturesque gem has served as a backdrop for films such as Transformers, Con Air, Total Recall and Star Trek. Its fiery Aztec Sandstone façade glows when the sun is out and some of the rocks display petroglyphs that are over 2,000 years old.
I spot some of the local wildlife: antelope squirrels, lizards and rattlesnakes.
Within Great Basin National Park lies Lehman Caves with stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone formations.
As we pull out of Ely on Nevada Northern Railway’s Great Basin Star Train, it takes just a few minutes for the dark sky to unfold between the mountains. There are few nearby towns and no light pollution on this extraordinary steam train journey through rural Nevada’s rocky landscape.
The best seats are in the open-air carriage, where I sit back and enjoy the star-studded evening accompanied by commentary from a local astronomer.
This is a popular experience and tickets tend to sell out well in advance – but there are other similar evening train journeys such as the Sunset, Stars and Champagne Train that can be booked via the Nevada Northern Railway’s website.
Toughest town in the Old West
Along the Great Basin Highway, 180 miles northeast of Las Vegas and hanging on the side of a mountain in Nevada’s high desert, is the town of Pioche. There is a sign at a derelict cinema that reads ‘The Toughest Town in the Old West’ due to its past history of Wild West encounters and gunfights.
“The spirits here want everyone to know that this is their place,” says the receptionist at the Overland Hotel, which not only has a Sagebrush Saloon downstairs but also is said to be most haunted. I do not encounter anything supernatural, but other hotel guests claim they heard footsteps and saw lights in the bedroom flicker in the night.
Pioche’s Boot Hill Cemetery featuries its own ‘murderers’ row’ of outlaw graves.
Small stones encircle each grave, with their wooden slabs, worn-out leathery cowboy boots and hand-etched epitaphs. One reads: ‘Shot during dispute over dog.’
One of the biggest art projects in the world is taking shape in Nevada. Michael Heizer’s monumental work titled City began 50 years ago in the Great Basin and is still ongoing. The installations span over a mile and half and the structures are made from concrete, sand and rocks. Located an hour west of Pioche, the art exhibit opened in late 2022.
The California Gold Rush (1848) saw many Basques emigrate to the U.S. and Basque shepherds settling in the mountainous regions of Idaho, California and Nevada, developing a tradition of family style dining.
Today the Basque influence is evident in northern Nevada in restaurants in towns such as Reno, Winnemucca, Elko and Ely.
Book it with… America as you like it
An 11-day Experience Nevada fly-drive tour departing from Las Vegas includes a trip to Ely via the Loneliest Road in America and Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park. Prices start at £1,095pp. americaasyoulikeit.com