Stark. Desolate. Bizarrely beautiful. This is what it’s like to drive Nevada’s US 50, the “Loneliest Road in America.”
Just east of Reno is a stretch of highway so empty, so devoid of anything, a Life magazine article dubbed it the “Loneliest Road in America.” If you’ve ever wondered what this roughly 5 hour drive across Nevada is like, we’re here to tell you.
First, the backstory… In the late 1980s, Life magazine ran an article giving this stretch of US 50 a not-so-flattering nickname, “the Loneliest Road.” To make matters worse, someone from AAA gave this even less-flattering quote:
It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.
In perhaps the most impressive spin-job ever accomplished by a tourism department, the White Pine County Chamber of Commerce (serving the little town of Ely) suggested taking the bad nickname even further. The loneliest road became the “Loneliest Road in America,” and Nevada tourism officials also jumped onboard to give the road its very own brand, even creating “Loneliest Road Survival Kits,” available along the route.
What the folks at Life magazine didn’t realize (but Nevada wisely did) is some people like the freedom of a 300 mile, two lane stretch of road without a chain restaurant or tourist trap as far as the eye can see. Yeah, we’re some of those people. This story tells the tale of our last trip across this unforgiving stretch of US 50.
Picking up US 50 just east of Reno, we were blasting across the state en route to Colorado, and as you can see, the road has a beauty all its own. You can set your cruise, throw on your favorite road trip playlist (like this Open Roads playlist we created for just such a road) and go for miles without tapping the brakes or even seeing another car in the distance.
That’s not to say there aren’t places to stop along the way… Take Middlegate Station, for example. On the western edge of Nevada’s stretch of US 50, Middlegate Station proved to be the perfect place to grab a quick breakfast and snap some pretty stellar pictures.
If you’re in a pinch, they do have gas. In fact, as we were eating breakfast, a group of firefighters even stopped in to pay their tab for the gas they bought while the store was closed. Apparently, they run on an IOU system after closing time.
In addition to the perfectly rural Middlegate Station, the Loneliest Road in America actually has a handful of towns along its 300+ mile march through Nevada, mainly Fernley, Fallon, Austin, Eureka, and Ely.
We *tried* to spend a little time in each town, and aside from Ely, each felt more like a ghost town at midday. While each main street was dotted with bars, motels, and other staples of the small town, none seemed to really have much open to explore except a few cafes and gas stations.
TIP: Get gas anytime you can. Seriously, we almost ran out of gas. If the gas is available, top the tank off. You really, really don’t want to play the “can we make it” game out here. AAA was right about that.
Ely, however, was bustling by the time we arrived in mid afternoon. A small number of casinos offer gambling and steaks the size of your head and whatnot, but the real gem of Ely is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.
A living and working museum to the state’s rich mining and railroad history, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is full of old locomotives and beautiful antique railcars. You can even spend the night in a caboose if it suits your fancy. (More on the Nevada Northern Railway on Two Lane America)
Also along the Loneliest Road in America, just past Middlegate Station (if you’re headed east), is the infamous “Shoe Tree.” Well, the new shoe tree. Apparently the old one is no more, but this new shoe tree is just as popular with shoes hanging from every branch.
If you have the time, you should make one last stop along US 50 before it crosses into Utah: Great Basin National Park.
From the National Park Service:
“In the shadow of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, 5,000 year old bristlecone pine trees grow on rocky glacial moraines. Come to Great Basin National Park to experience the solitude of the desert, the smell of sagebrush after a thunderstorm, the darkest of night skies, and the beauty of Lehman Caves. Far from a wasteland, the Great Basin is a diverse region that awaits your discovery.”
The biggest misconception most have about the Loneliest Road in America is its scenery, and while most of it is flat, with the road barely curving for miles and miles, the route does meander up and down mountains as high as 11,000 ft. The contrast of low, flat desert valleys and snow-capped mountains is truly remarkable. There’s just no other way to say it.
When all is said and done, no one sums up the Loneliest Road in America quite like The Pony Express Territory:
Deep blue skies and jagged stone tower above the bone white desert floor. The hypnotic rhythm of telephone poles march single file, a solemn procession beside the road.The Loneliest Road in America, Highway 50 is really one of the most beautiful and interesting drives you’ll ever take.
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