Our road trip around Nevada, 2011: Ely, The Extraterrestrial Highway, Las Vegas, Beatty, Death Valley, and Reno
We were on a budget in 2011 as we were still paying off our French Polynesia honeymoon, but decided to at least take a week-long vacation by doing a classic American road trip. We figured that Las Vegas was pretty inexpensive in the right places, and what is more classic Americana than road tripping through the desert? So we set off on our way to Vegas with some sightseeing in Nevada along the way.
Nevada really feels like its own country. It is such a huge cultural difference from the Pacific Northwest and many other places in the USA. I think if you really want a picture of quirky, random and sometimes over-the-top things that you can only find in the US, Nevada is a good place to start.
So in late April 2011, we took our tax return and ran off into the desert. There is something so freeing about just getting in your car and driving. Just taking off without the hassles of an airport, lines, mass transportation, etc. Just being able to GO and change your mind about where at any given point in time. We hadn’t been on a road trip together since our first trip ever together to the California Redwoods in 2003 and we were way overdue.
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Our first day we left rainy Seattle and head to our first stop, Baker City, OR. There wasn’t anything special about Baker City, other than it is about the 8 hour point with stops for lunch and bathroom breaks and that’s about as much as we wanted to do in one day.
All maps and directions courtesy of Google Maps
While Washington is the “evergreen state,” many people are unaware of how much of the state is actually desert. Once past Cascade Mountains, there is very little greenery to be seen. The drive was very scenic and tumbleweeds could be seen going past as we got closer to the Oregon border.
It was a long day, and we decided to make it to Pendleton, OR before getting something to eat. We should have stopped for gas around Hermiston, but Paddy thought we’d make it. Soon after Hermiston our gas light came on. There weren’t any gas stations until Pendleton and I think we were coasting on fumes down the highway hill into town. We vowed to keep the gas tank as full as possible for the rest of the trip. Looking for a quick meal that wasn’t fast food, we found Cadillac Jack’s Saloon and Grill and had some burgers. We definitely got that “you folks ain’t from around here, are ye” look from some locals, but overall the service was good and the food was decent.
After that, we drove the last leg of our journey to Baker City and stayed at The Knight’s Inn, where we got a cheap room for around $40-$50. The price matched the room, with wood paneled walls and 1980’s flowery beadspreads, but overall it was very clean and comfortable. It also came with this lovely painting “Log Jam” by Walter Butts. No further comment.
The next day we got packed up and ate a big breakfast at the local diner Sumpter Junction. Classic American breakfast fare with nice crispy hashbrowns and a train that goes around the restaurant non-stop.
Our next destination was Ely, Nevada as it seemed to be a good halfway point to Vegas.
The drive to Ely was longer than the drive from Seattle to Baker City. I think we stopped for a quick fast food lunch around Twin Falls, ID, and after that we soon crossed the Nevada border on Highway 93. There was a whole lot of nothing on Highway 93, but it was a beautiful albeit a little eerie drive. We had a playlist full of Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline to keep us going.
At long last, we started seeing billboards for “Asian massage,” casinos, and “Soapy rub-downs” and knew we were getting close.
I had really wanted to get a room at the historic Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall but there was a convention of some sort booking all the rooms that day so we settled for the La Quinta. The La Quinta in Ely was pretty new and very comfortable and included free breakfast.
It was the end of April, and Ely was cold. I think it was in the teens or twenties but bright and sunny. We warmed up in the hotel and I made use of the hotel’s indoor hot tub. After a little relaxing we went out in search of dinner. We consulted Yelp and took a drive up and down the main drag, and decided on Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant. It was pretty good.
The next morning we had the free breakfast at La Quinta and checked out. We took a quick tour of Ely and the Hotel Nevada before we got on the road. The Hotel Nevada was everything I had expected it to be. An old historic mining town hotel, full of statues, knick-knacks, slot machines, and cigarette smoke, it was a true piece of Americana.
We walked around the town, which was pretty quiet in the morning.
It’s 2011, but they still love Ronald Reagan.
We said goodbye to Ely, and got on the road. About two miles outside of Ely we passed a high security penitentiary with a gun tower, a sign telling us not to pick up hitchhikers, and a sign with an 800 number telling us to report people shooting from the highway. Because apparently in Nevada people hunting out their car windows along the highway is a regular occurrence.
Soon we were on highway 318, which was another lonely stretch of desert. Fortunately, it got a little warmer the further south we went. Our next destination: The Extraterrestrial Highway.
We stopped for gas in a tiny old mining town of Pioche, NV as there weren’t going to be many gas stations again for a long time. After a short ways, we reached the junction for highway 375, aka The Extraterrestrial Highway. The highway gets its name from being the highway next to Area 51, the most mysterious and secretive US Government test site. It’s been rumored to be a specialized weapons and experimental aircraft test site, and the high level of secrecy and security gives fodder to all kinds of theories of alien crash sites and cover ups. There were plenty of signs along the highway that warned us that if we went any further than a certain point into the area that we would be shot. We didn’t attempt any hiking.
Shortly after turning off onto highway 375, we saw a giant alien statue and a tin shed that appeared to be a gift shop that was closed. Still a great photo op.
We headed to the tiny town of Rachel, Nevada in the middle of highway 375. There is nothing in Rachel other than a tiny restaurant, giftshop, and hotel all rolled into one, The Little A’le’inn. (There is also no gas station, so fill up before you head out here). The hotel part appeared to be a collection of trailers. We saddled up to the bar for a beer and some lunch and talked to the lady who owned the place. I had the greasiest tuna melt I’ve ever had in my life served on a styrofoam plate, and the owner told us all about living in Rachel, Area 51, and aliens. After lunch, we purchased our obligatory alien souvenirs and bid the lady adieu.
We continued on our way to Vegas.
We arrived at The Orleans in Las Vegas around late afternoon, checked in, and relaxed for a bit. This was actually our second time in Vegas. We opted for The Orleans as our friend recommended it. It was a really good price for the quality, and though off the strip there was a convenient free shuttle every 15 minutes or so to the strip. Last time we had stayed at the Mirage in 2003, which was also really nice. It seems that prices in Vegas aren’t what they used to be though, and the strip these days is kind of expensive all-around.
That evening we had an underwhelming meal at the TGI Friday’s in the casino, just because we didn’t really feel like going anywhere that night. We played some games and had a few drinks and relaxed. We had our cooler with us and there was a convenience store near the hotel we could walk to, so we stocked up on beer and wine there to save a little money and used the ice from the ice machine to fill the cooler.
The next morning, our friends Stephen and Heather flew in from Seattle to join us for the Vegas portion of our trip. When they had had a little rest, we all took the shuttle to the strip and walked around a bit, and did some shopping in the Forum shops at Ceasar’s Palace. Vegas had great spring weather, warm enough to wear a tank top and shorts during the day. It was a nice change from frigid Ely. I was particularly fond of the Bettie Page store, with retro-style dresses and accessories. Since this trip, they’ve opened up a location in Seattle. I’ve been trying to keep myself away from it as I need to save money for other things….like travel.
In the afternoon I was hell-bent on seeing the mermaid show at the Silverton Casino, which is 6 miles from the strip and pretty out of the way. It’s more of a local spot, which our cab driver confirmed on the way there. We had some food and drinks in the Mermaid Lounge which had a nice atmosphere and a great view of the fish tank, but horrendous service. There was barely anyone there and we had to wait forever to get any service. I did really enjoy the jellyfish tank above the bar. The mermaid show happens in the fish tank several times throughout the day–consult website for times.
The mermaids put on a great show, even posing for pictures and interacting with the spellbound little girls pressed up against the fish tank.
After we had our fill of the mermaids, some food, and a few drinks, we caught a cab back to our hotel.
We gussied up a bit and caught another taxi to The Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge on the strip. The Peppermill has your standard diner fare, and seems to be a good spot for late night breakfast or to cure a hangover the morning after. With it’s flourescent pink lights, giant indoor fire place, and pink velvet furniture, it is everything over-the-top about Vegas that one could hope to find. We weren’t there for food, though, we were there for the cocktails in the Fireside Lounge. Particularly one cocktail–the infamous Scorpion Bowl. The Scorpion bowl is a fish-bowl sized drink with all kinds of booze and juice in it, along with your choice of 1-4 long straws to share the drink with.
After our scorpion bowls were dry and we had a slight buzz going, we decided just to head back to the Orleans where the drinks were cheaper and play some slots and hang out.
As we had a car with us this trip, we decided to head out of Vegas and do some sightseeing in Red Rock Canyon. If you don’t have a car or want to rent one while you are in Vegas, you can easily find tour groups to Red Rock Canyon online or while in Vegas.
We weren’t really outfitted for some serious hiking, so we drove around the scenic loop stopping at the view points and did a very easy walk in Lost Creek, which has views of cliffs with old petroglyphs on them.
We got to see some of the Last Vegas suburbs on the way to Red Rock Canyon, and it was row upon row of the same house. Strip malls and cookie cutter housing complexes. I can’t say Vegas really appeals to me as a place to live.
We got back to the hotel and spent some time relaxing at the Orleans pool. It was warm enough to lay out in the sun but not super hot. There was a bar at the pool that served frozen drinks that were very refreshing. Overall, the Orleans pool isn’t one of the best pools in Vegas, but it was nice enough. After cold rainy Seattle and freezing cold Ely, we were ready for some sunbathing and swimming pools.
That evening we walked around the strip a bit. Eventually we were hungry for dinner and felt like splurging on something a little nicer. We walked around and decided on Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Las Vegas casino hotel. It was packed even at 9:00 PM but we got on the waiting list and were seated at 9:30 outside. It was a warm night and the restaurant has a nice view of the Bellagio fountain show across the strip. I don’t recall everything we had but I do remember a very nice duck leg confit and a side of garlic spinach that were very tasty. I think Paddy had steak frites. It was all very good and we would definitely go back.
When we left the restaurant, it was already 11:00 PM and we had a tour planned for the next morning, so we headed back to the Orleans for a few more cheaper drinks before calling it a night.
One of our main priorities in Vegas was visiting the Neon Boneyard. We had to make tour reservations in advance as they can only take a certain amount of people per day and you can only visit on a guided tour. The Boneyard was definitely a top highlight of our trip. It is a where all the neon signs of Vegas go to die, and an amazing walk through the ghosts of Vegas past. Our tour guide gave us an informative tour of all the old signs and Las Vegas history. I would highly recommend booking a tour here.
That afternoon I really really wanted to see an Elvis inpersonator (it’s just so classic Vegas). Unfortunately, Elvis inpersonators are not as prevalent as in days past but I managed to find one free show with Big Elvis at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon on the strip (I believe he has now moved his show to Harrah’s). We got to Bill’s and ordered some drinks, but unfortunately Big Elvis was out sick that night, so we got Chuck. Chuck looked much more like a Roy Orbison inpersonator but sang all Elvis songs. Honestly, the show would have been much better if he had just gone with a Roy Orbison routine. I was a little disappointed, but we still got a classic Vegas lounge act in and had fun.
After the show, we split off from Heather and Stephen and went to Jubilee at Bally’s, which is one of the most classic Vegas shows there is. Lots of showgirls, feathers, glitter, and synchronized dancing. It was a great show. We had purchased some of the cheaper tickets and were on the isle. Shortly after the show began, we noticed the usher picking people off the isle to go down to some open seats in the front. He hadn’t picked us, so Paddy went and asked him if there were any front seats open that we could move to, and he found some for us.
**Tip: If you need to book a cheaper seat, book an isle seat and ask the usher if it might be possible to move to open front seats if available. You might get lucky like we did.
After four nights in Las Vegas, we were ready to leave and get back on the road. Vegas is fun, but it’s definitely an “in small doses” kind of a destination. I wouldn’t recommend more than 4 nights. The slot machine clanging and cigarette smoke get to you after awhile.
Our next destination was Beatty, Nevada near the California border to see some of Death Valley National Park.
The drive to Beatty was only about an hour and a half from Las Vegas. We got into town and were ready for some lunch. Beatty is a tiny town so we just picked a spot on the main drag, KC’s Outpost Saloon and Sandwich Shop. We had some sandwiches at the bar and talked to the owners, who were very friendly. After that we were ready to check into our room.
We had reserved a room for the night at The Atomic Inn. The Atomic Inn was originally built to accommodate defense contractor and military personnel working at Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. The new owners went with the atomic idea and renovated the place with a 1950’s atomic theme, complete with fake atomic bombs sticking out of the cactus garden out front and framed 1950’s and 1960’s magazine ads and paintings in the room. The guy at the front desk was very laid back and friendly. We had booked a standard room for $50.00 a night but were upgraded to a deluxe room at no extra charge. Our room had a fridge, coffee maker, microwave and a comfortable queen bed. There was also a selection of 1950’s B movies at the front desk that we could check out if we wanted.
The only negative thing about the room is that the walls are very thin, and the next morning we were awakened early by some very loud Russians in the room next door. The fact that we could figure out that they were speaking Russian should be a testament to how thin the walls are. It wasn’t a huge deal though, and I don’t know that the owners could really do anything to fix it.
After checking in and getting settled, it was time to go see some of Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is huge, and I’d love to see more of it from the west side on a California road trip someday. As it was, we had only one afternoon to explore from Beatty so we only made a few stops.
First we visited Rhyolite Ghost Town. This is the ghost town of an old mining settlement that was established in 1906 and was abandoned in 1916. It is technically outside of the park on the Nevada side, about 10 minutes from Beatty. In addition to the remains of the town, there is also a really awesome sculpture garden out in the middle of the desert in Rhyolite that is definitely worth a visit. Especially appropriate are the statues of ghosts, the larger ghost sculpture is supposed to be “The Last Supper.” The one with the bicycle was my favorite.
Next, we drove into the park and headed to the visitor center. There is a gas station here for people who make poor planning decisions, at about $6.00 a gallon. I would suggest filling up before you come. There wasn’t a checkpoint at the border like there is in many national parks, just a pay kiosk where we could pull over and get a visitor pass. We drove 40 minutes into the valley before reaching the visitor center. We talked to the rangers, and decided that the salt flats were a good destination and that we wouldn’t have a lot of time left to see much else. We continued another 40 minutes into the park to reach the salt flats in Badwater Basin.
The salt flats in Badwater Basin are 282 feet BELOW sea level. Here we truly felt like we were in Death Valley. Nothing for miles but white salt and rock, and it was 120 degrees. We parked and ventured into the salt flats a ways with lots of water and sunscreen. We didn’t make it too far though before the heat made us turn around back to the parking lot. I had to pee, and I can report that the Badwater Basin salt flats outhouse is the hottest, smelliest outhouse I’ve ever been in. An unventilated pit toilet baking in 120 degree heat. It was a lovely experience.
After the salt flats, it was getting close to evening so we made the long drive back to Beatty to see what we could find for dinner.
Prior to going on this trip, we had watched the HBO reality series Cathouse, about the professional lives of the workers at the Moonlite BunnyRanch brothel near Carson City, Nevada, owned by Dennis Hof. We decided on getting some BBQ at the Sourdough Saloon, and walked in the front door of the saloon to see Dennis Hof and one of his bunnies waiting on some BBQ takeout. He was wearing a BunnyRanch shirt and his bunny was in a classy outfit of a hot pink leopard print string bikini top over large fake boobs with sweatpants. Beatty is about 5 hours from the BunnyRanch so I can only guess that they were on their way back from Vegas or something. It was an unexpected and entertaining surprise.
The BBQ at the Sourdough Saloon was good and so was the local color. After food and a few beers, we headed back to the room to relax and watch a movie.
After the loud Russians next door woke us up through the thin walls, we packed up and got ready to get back on the road. On our way out of town we stopped at the Stagecoach Hotel and Casino for a classic diner breakfast, with the ambiance of clanging slot machines and stale cigarette smoke. The hash browns were nice and crispy.
Our next destination: Reno.
Beatty to Reno was about a five hour drive. On the way we stopped for a photo op at the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada (super creepy, but I would totally stay there had it fit into our trip plans). Next to it was an old pioneer graveyard….even creepier. We also drove by the 5th and final brothel sighted on our road trip, the Shady Lady Ranch. We were notified of its pending appearance on our journey by a hand-painted plywood sign letting us know we would reach it in one mile. We looked out for it and got a photo. It was literally a collection of small trailers in the middle of the desert. Ew.
I had made us a reservation at the most over-the-top casino hotel in Reno, the Peppermill. Yes, this is of relation to the Peppermill Las Vegas and also has a Fireside Lounge. It has an older wing (Peppermill Tower) and a newer wing (Tuscany Tower). We booked the cheesiest room they had, a Spa Suite in the Peppermill Tower. It was 1980’s chic, with a giant four-poster bed, a mini-bar, mirrors on the walls, a two-person jacuzzi tub in the bedroom area, and a steam shower in the bathroom. It was ridiculous, and like all classic casinos–not that expensive as they hope you’ll give them all your money downstairs gambling.
After a rest in our ridiculous room, we walked around the casino a bit and then caught a taxi downtown for dinner and drinks. (The Peppermill is a little far from downtown to walk, FYI). It was Cinco de Mayo, and a good friend of ours who grew up in Reno recommended Bertha Miranda’s. However, as it was Cinco de Mayo, the place was packed with no table available in site and a long wait. We were hungry, so we decided to venture into the main drag in search of quicker sustenance.
We found ourselves in the El Dorado Casino Hotel and stumbled into The Brew Brothers for some burgers and beers. It was good.
After walking around a little more, we decided we liked the small-town vibe of Reno vs. Las Vegas. We looked at our options for the next day and made a plan to go on a day trip to the old west town of Virginia City as we were staying another night in Reno. We caught a cab back to the Peppermill for some more drinks and slot machines.
The next morning we woke up in the most comfortable bed we’ve ever slept in in our entire lives. We also realized that this was our last full day of vacation before two long driving days home and then back to work. Our day trip to Virginia City seemed less enticing and we decided to spend the day being lazy at the casino. We slept in, ordered room service, and then spent some time at the pool. It was a little chillier than Vegas so we didn’t swim too much. It was a very nice pool on the newer Tuscany Tower side.
That evening we had some drinks in the Tuscany Tower and did a little light gaming.
There are a lot of restaurant options at the Peppermill, but we had to eat at Oceano. Because….well….look at it:
Jellyfish lights?!! Neon blue lighting as far as the eye can see? Where else have you seen a restaurant that looked like this? Exactly.
The food was sub-par, (obviously a seafood menu) but expecting good seafood at a mid-range casino restaurant in the desert is a tall order. It was worth it because of the jellyfish lights, which I totally want to install in a house I own someday.
Overall, the bang for your buck is big at the Peppermill in Reno. Even though it is a little far from downtown, there is a lot to see, do, and eat right there in the casino itself and a cab is not expensive into downtown. We still think about that amazingly comfortable cloud bed to this day. I think we’ll be back.
We packed up the next morning, left Nevada behind, and headed to Eugene to visit our good friend Curtis and his dog Larry. By this point, I was craving greenery and fresh vegetables like nobody’s business. As soon as we began seeing evergreen trees again in northern California, we began to feel back at home.
We pulled into Eugene exhausted after a grueling 8 hour drive with minimal stops. Curtis welcomed us with a comfy guest room and a dinner of fresh salmon he’d caught himself in the Columbia River, organic romaine salad grilled on the BBQ, some fresh bread, and an organic heirloom tomato sliced with salt. I was getting really sick of diner salads with iceberg lettuce and one tomato wedge in the desert, and it was the perfect meal and exactly what I’d been craving. We had a great evening catching up with Curtis over some drinks and getting to know Larry.
After a healthy breakfast of fresh strawberries and yogurt, we said goodbye to Curtis and Larry and started on the home stretch to Seattle.
Nevada was an interesting place and a great road trip. I think we’re kind of over Vegas but we’ll be back to Reno, Virginia City, and Lake Tahoe someday.