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Surviving US Route 50: America’s Loneliest Road Trip

The “loneliest road in America” may also be the most spectacular. Elisa Elwin set out to discover why Route 50 in Nevada is an incredible road trip for adventurous families

Loneliest Road Route 50 Nevada
The Loneliest Road in America - Nevada Route 50

We road-tested Route 50 with Highway 50 Survival Guide in hand – to discover that America’s loneliest road is an experience like no other. From hidden natural parks to quirky roadside attractions, Route 50 has something to keep kids of all ages entertained.

Why US Route 50 is worth a family road trip

US Route 50 offers a raw, unfiltered view of America. The open stretches of road, sleepy small towns and natural wonders give you plenty of space to breathe and engage in the adventure of a road trip.

This part of Nevada is rich with history—from the escapades of the Pony Express to the enduring cowboy culture. Along the way, you’ll stop at many historic mining towns, some with a ghostly past that will enthral imaginative little ones. 

Travelling through a “lonely” part of America gives time to reconnect, and explore as a family, without crowds, time pressure or rushing. The landscape appears desolate between towns, it’s all part of the beauty and magic of driving along empty roads. Enjoy the drive with wildlife spotting, discovering breathtaking natural features, and ready access to the some of America’s most awe-inspiring national parks.  

Read on to discover Route 50’s must-see attractions.

Family on the road
A family on the road in Nevada, USA

9 best stops along Nevada's Route 50

We recommend allocating five days for a journey through Nevada on Route 50. The drive could be done in two days at a push, but why rush when there is so much to explore along the way?

Don’t be afraid to venture along this scenic, historic highway at your own pace, take a detour or two to destinations outside the route, and make time to stop at the fascinating small towns that intersect the landscape.

Reno Arch RSCVA
Reno, the biggest little city in the world

Reno

Start your road trip with a night or two in Reno.  Nicknamed “The Biggest Little City in the World,” this bustling city offers plenty to keep both children and parents entertained. 

What to do: Explore the area with a Downtown Reno Riverwalk. Located just a few blocks south, you’ll find a funky and hip area known as Midtown Reno with a lively music scene, craft breweries, vintage shops and modern murals adorning the buildings.

At the Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary, you can get up close and personal with America’s wildlife, including wolves, bears, and big cats. Junior auto enthusiasts will love a visit to the National Automobile Museum, which has over 200 vintage cars on display.

Where to eat: Before hitting the road, be sure to explore some of Reno’s vibrant food scene. A fantastic lunch spot is Smith and River, a contemporary bistro with plenty of kid friendly options, set on the banks of the Truckee River.

Where to stay: Reno’s Silver Legacy at the Row, 407 N Virginia St, Reno, NV

Fly Gyser Nevada image weissdergeier
Fly Gyser Nevada. Image: weissdergeier

Gerlach

Gerlach, a town referred to as “the Centre of the Known Universe,” is only about 200km away from Reno. It is also the base town for the annual epic ‘Burning Man’ festival.

What to do: While in Gerlach, take a Fly Nature tour to check out the Fly Geyser, a man-made hot spring spectacular, where you can observe all kinds of life in the shallow pools of heated water. Visit Planet X Pottery or Guru Road’s open-air gallery to see some local creatives at work. 

Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitor Centre give you access to one of North America’s most beautiful and largest natural lakes. Pyramid Lake is a remnant of the ancient Lake Lahontan and is the only known habitat of the ancient Cui-ui fish. It’s also a poignant opportunity to learn about First Nations History, being the site of an 1860 battle between Native Americans and white settlers.

Where to eat: Grab lunch at a local favourite, Bruno’s Country Club and Motel.

Nevada State firearms museum Virginia City
Nevada State firearms museum, Virginia City

Virginia City

The drive from Reno to Virginia City takes about 30 minutes, just a short detour off Highway 50. It was our favourite stop for family activities. This historic mining town is reminiscent of Australia’s own Ballarat. In 1850, it wasn’t gold but silver ore that inspired a rush for miners and their families seeking their fortunes. Nowadays, the city invites visitors to “step back in time” with its enticing museums and historic buildings.

What to do: Make the Visitor Centre your first stop for information about things to see and do with the kids. Enjoyable options include the Virginia & Truckee Railroad or lunch and a Ghost Tour at the Washoe Club, a reportedly haunted saloon bar featured on the popular paranormal TV show Ghost Hunters. We went on the tour, and didn’t manage to spot a ghost, but had a load of spine-tingling fun.

If your kids are missing school – does that ever happen? – they might be interested in stopping at Fourth Ward School. Built in 1875, it accommodated 1000 students in 14 classrooms. Another historic delight is the Way It Was Museum, which features a small but fascinating collection of memorabilia from days gone by. 

Where to eat: If your family is up for it, head into one of the bars for a cream soda, honky tonk and the real experience of the Wild West.

Kayak on Lake Tahoe image Susan Mowers
Kayak on Lake Tahoe. Image: Susan Mowers

Lake Tahoe

We chose to detour off Highway 50 to the magnificent Lake Tahoe, just a short drive away, famous for outdoor activities such as hiking, boating, and terrific skiing in the winter.

What to do: Hire e-bikes and pedal along the Tahoe East Shore Trail, a 4.8km paved trail with spectacular views of the vibrant blue Lake Tahoe. Take a two-hour guided hike to Monkey Rock with the expert team at the activities’ desk. The views are sensational.

Kayak on the azure blue waters of the Lake. Jump in the pool and spa at the Hyatt to relax after all the adventures. Sit around the family fire pit in the evening, sharing your day! Don’t forget to pick up a s’more kit from Tahoe Provisions for a fun family dessert after dinner.

Where to eat: Cutthroat’s Saloon offers hearty pub fare with a good children’s menu and colouring books.

Where to stay: Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino, 111 Country Club Drive, Incline Village NV

The famous shoe tree at Middlegate Station, Fallon
The famous shoe tree at Middlegate Station, Fallon

Fallon

Head east on Route 50, with a stop to stretch in Genoa. Explore the Genoa Historic District, Nevada’s oldest permanent settlement. The next stop is  Fallon, a small town with a surprising number of things to do. 

What to do: Discover the Navy’s Top Gun Training program’s former home, Naval Air Station Fallon. Fallon’s Sand Mountain Recreation Area, a massive sand dune, offers hours of family fun. Visit the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge for bird and wildlife spotting Grimes Point Archaeological Area, with its ancient petroglyphs, is another must-see. 

Have you seen the Shoe Tree? This magnificent wayside relic, just a short drive from Middlegate, will inspire them. Involve your kids by adding your own old shoes to the tree, continuing a beloved tradition.

Where to eat: You must stop at Middlegate Station, an old west eatery, with charm and crazy signage, from the Pony Express days, The portions are huge! You might even share the mighty Monster Burger.

Little Bluebird mine Austin
Little Bluebird mine, Austin

Austin

About halfway along the Highway 50 journey is Austin, another attractive town with plenty of mining history. The local shops and eateries provide a cosy, small-town atmosphere.

What to do: Just before reaching Austin, take a detour to the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area to see ancient rock carvings. The short interpretive trail provides a fun and educational stop for everyone.

Stop by the Stokes Castle, a unique three-story stone tower built in 1897, or explore the remains of the town’s mining past. Austin is also a gateway to the Toiyabe Range, offering excellent hiking opportunities with trails that range from easy walks to challenging climbs.

The newly opened Magnolia Inn and Gallery is a perfect place to browse or pick up some local art that recalls the quiet charm of the area.

Where to eat: Visit Grandma’s for dinner while you are here.

Where to stay: Cozy Mountain Motel, 40 Main St, Austin, NV

Eureka Opera House
Eureka Opera House

Eureka

After Austin, another great mining town is the aptly named Eureka. It’s filled with dozens of original historic buildings that you can explore on a self-guided walking tour before tucking into hearty American fare at a local eatery. 

What to do: This historic town offers a range of attractions, including the beautifully restored Eureka Opera House. The Eureka Sentinel Museum, located in an old newspaper office, offers a fascinating look at the history of the town and the region.

Want some Haunted Nevada? Explore the historic maze of subterranean tunnels learning about the history and searching for ghosts. For more history, head to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in the town of Ely, around an hour from Eureka. Nearby Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park is also worth visiting to see the curious (and very photogenic) beehive-shaped charcoal ovens.

Where to eat: Take a break to recharge at Sugar, Salt and Malt in Eureka.

Great Basin national park
Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park is one of America’s least visited national parks and one of its best kept secrets – because there’s so much to explore!

What to do: Seek out the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine tree, the longest-living organism on our planet, and venture underground with a Lehman Caves tour. Kids will be fascinated by the intricate speleothems (or rock formations) and tales of cave-dwelling critters. 

For a challenging hike, take in the breathtaking views from Wheeler Peak. When nighttime falls, don’t forget to look up – the skies out here are particularly spectacular due to the minimal light pollution.

Where to stay: Stargazer Inn, 115 Baker Ave, Baker, NV

Kids Las Vegas
Famous Las Vegas sign

Las Vegas

Although it’s not located along Route 50, it’s hard to imagine visiting Nevada without seeing Las Vegas! The famous Strip may have once had a reputation, but the city has changed a lot since its decadent heyday.

What to do: Older kids and teens might be interested in catching a show, but families will find that Las Vegas has plenty of excitement for kids of all ages. Popular family attractions include Caliente (Nevada’s ‘City of Roses’), Kershaw-Ryan State Park for a short hike or the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge at Alamo. Another favourite family destination just out of central Las Vegas is the Discovery Children’s Museum– it’s such an educational and well-designed spot that even popular kids TV star Blippi has even visited!

Where to eat: If you’re feeling brave enough to be out and about in the evening, the Excalibur Casino has a Tournament of Kings, complete with a medieval feast, wizards and jousting knights. Family dining is also available at Stanton Social Prime, in Caesars Palace.

NEVADA SIGN Image Credit SHANE BOOCOCK
Nevada sign. Image: Shane Boocock

What to know about 'The Loneliest Road in America'

Where is US Route 50? 

With a total distance of just under 4,950km, Route 50 meanders its way through Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. The stretch considered the “loneliest road in America” is the section that spans Nevada, some 800km distance across the remote northern part of the state.

When is the best time to drive Route 50?

Nevada is the driest state in the USA, but stick to spring and autumn to avoid storms or sweltering heat.

How to get to Reno, Nevada

There are many airlines with flights into Reno and Las Vegas from primary hubs in the USA. You can hire a car at Reno Airport or even start your journey from Sacramento, California, a two-hour drive from Reno.

Middlegate burger
Mighty Monster Burger at Middlegate Station

Top tips for tackling Route 50

Plan your fuel stops

Plan where to fill your car with petrol (or gas, as it’s called in the States). Gas stations and towns can be hundreds of miles away, and you don’t want to get stuck because you thought you had enough in the tank! There are apps designed to make this easier so download and plan before you drive each day. If you’re hiring an electric car, note these Route 50 electric charging stations

Pack plenty of food and water

Carry plenty of water, especially during the summer months when the temperature can soar. While there are some dining options along the way, having your own stash of snacks can be handy to keep rumbling tummies happy. On the longer drive days, plan meal and toilet stops along the way.

Book your stays in advance  

Book your accommodation before you set out. Many of the smaller towns have few properties and rooms available. Making a reservation in advance ensures you won’t be arriving with nowhere to sleep!

Bring some road trip entertainment

While the scenic beauty is captivating, having some form of entertainment for kids during long stretches can keep everyone happy. You may even want to print out our family road trip survival tips (and while you’re at it, consider these life-saving car accessories for long drives).

More information 

Travel Nevada has extensive information to make planning easy, including maps, places of interest, restaurants and lodging options.

The writer was a delighted guest of Travel Nevada

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