Lonely, lovely Highway 50

Two-lane adventuring through the heart of Nevada can take 7 hours - or 3 days

Nevada highway

Lure of the open road: Highway 50 points from California to Utah across Nevada's sagebrush desert.

Sean Arbabi

historic neon signs

Neon on a historic hotel in Ely.

Sean Arbabi

phone sign

Whimsy along a lonesome highway includes a phone sign.

Sean Arbabi

Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park

Bristlecone pines and Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park.

Sean Arbabi

Out on U.S. Highway 50 in eastern Nevada, we have seen two cars in the last 20 miles. Our headlights are fading and the darkness is gaining. The rebuilt alternator that a guy with a road-killed antelope in the back of his jeep helped install for a few bucks and a couple beers is clearly not the solution to our truck's electrical problems. There's no moon to brighten the Great Basin night, and Ely is still 50 miles away.

More: Your Highway 50 travel planner

We're in the middle of the middle of nowhere, at sea in what author Stephen Trimble dubbed "the sagebrush ocean." They call Nevada's Highway 50 the loneliest road in America. Right now that's not marketing ― just the cold, existential fact of being in nothingness.

Strange to say, but this is why we're here. Not to get stranded, certainly. But to get off the highway and into historic mining towns. To visit onetime Pony Express stations and ancient Native American sites. To ride this basin and range highway's roller coaster: up thousands of feet into isolated mountains, then down into empty valleys ― over and over for nearly 400 miles across some of the nation's most remote expanses. All with the promise of Great Basin National Park at the end, where you don't have to hike up to 10,000 feet. That's where the trails begin.

A journey into the past

While Highway 50 lacks the pop stature of Route 66, it has its own identity. The Nevada stretch was part of the Lincoln Highway, the nation's first attempt at creating a transcontinental driving route. Stay on 50 all the way east from Sacramento and you'll reach Ocean City, Maryland.

While the stretch across Nevada from Carson City to the Utah border is today celebrated for its obscurity, this empty land was once central to Western history: John C. Frémont (who named the Great Basin) explored the area in 1845-46. California-bound prospectors followed portions of his route, leading to the 1859 discovery of the silver and gold Comstock Lode. The mining camp of Virginia City arose almost overnight to become one of the West's largest cities.

We start our trip in Carson City, making an easy 8-mile side trip off Highway 50 to Virginia City. While the sheer concentration of candy shops and souvenir schlock can be overwhelming, beneath the tourist veneer a classic boomtown still survives. Balustrades on the balconies and the creak of the raised wooden sidewalks recall the days when 20,000 to 40,000 people lived here and mined $400 million in ore from the local hills.

Highway 50 roughly parallels the route of the Pony Express, the legendary mail delivery system from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento. During its 18-month run starting in 1860, the Pony Express was the fastest way to deliver a message cross-country ― ten days, thanks to its relay system of riders and horses. Remnants of a few stations survive. The sky is violet and the ground a faded yellow, colored by grasses and the blooming rabbitbrush, on the trail to one of the best-preserved Pony Express stations, Cold Springs. The Desatoya Mountains rise to the east, and silence envelops all. Maybe every 10 minutes or so, a lone car hurtling down nearby Highway 50 breaks the silence: first a distant hum, then a modest roar, and finally a decisive fade to stillness.

From a distance, the station's remains blend into the earth, looking like little more than a pile of rocks. Up close, the low walls are more evident as a structure, with the gun ports still intact. Pondering these ruins, I marvel at our progress from Pony Express days, thinking, "Welcome to the information superhighway, circa 1860."

 

Mining towns to bristlecones

We arrive in Austin only to be greeted by a lineup of red neon "No Vacancy" signs hovering in the darkness, thus necessitating another 70 miles of driving to Eureka and inspiring a discussion of the deeper symbolism of America's loneliest road having too many people on it.Eureka is the most appealing of the Highway 50 towns. Its restored opera house still hosts occasional productions. The curtain displays, somewhat improbably for this most landlocked of towns, a vaguely Venetian harbor scene. The backstage is filled with performers' inscriptions, some pecked into the walls like petroglyphs. Folk musician U. Utah Phillips wrote, "Good bed, good food, good company, good hall." In other words, just about everything a troubadour could ever want.

While it's fun to explore the highway's historic towns, our real goal is the high country of Great Basin National Park. Towering above Spring Valley, 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak looms ahead, its alpine terrain unimaginable from the sagebrush flats. We spend the afternoon hiking through aspen groves to mountain lakes and stands of ancient bristlecone pines, pushing through a late-season snowstorm to the foot of Wheeler Peak's glacier. By the time we get back to the truck, the day's light is pretty much gone; unbeknownst to us, so too is the truck's electrical system.

Somewhere between Baker and Ely, we finally limp up to a rough-looking roadhouse to be greeted by a long-legged dog and a "Welcome Hunters" sign. Inside, two other dogs chase each other around, while at the bar, some Basque sheepherders and ranchers debate how many tons of rock need to be mined to extract an ounce of gold.

Waiting for our tow, we shoot pool, play slots, and talk with the bartender, a onetime truck driver from Tennessee, about the inner workings of the Chevy 350 V-8 engine. We're there for a couple hours, anything but alone on the loneliest road in America.

Next: Your Highway 50 travel planner

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