When we first heard about driving the Loneliest Road in America—otherwise known as U.S. Highway 50—that crosses the barren hinterlands of central Nevada, we were intrigued. In a 1986 article for Life Magazine, the American Automobile Association had this to day about it:
“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.”
Yikes! They make the road sound like something from a Hank Williams song. Well, once we heard that, we just had to see for ourselves if their description was true . . . or perhaps prove it wrong.
Historic road through mountain passes
Decades before the Interstate Highway System was built, two-lane U.S. 50 was the primary route across Nevada, linking its Utah and California borders. It’s also an historic road: it was once part of the Lincoln Highway—America’s first transcontinental route—that was proposed in 1913 to connect New York and San Francisco. Fifty years earlier the Pony Express also crisscrossed this path.
We started out at the Utah/Nevada border, at what may well be the “Loneliest Gas Station in America,” and, like all good pioneers, headed west. We were tracing the path of the early settlers who passed in Conestoga wagons without the benefit of power steering, GPS or extra horsepower under the hood. Tumbleweeds and the remnants of scattered vegetation provided some color as we set off into the Great Basin Desert.
Unexpectedly we started climbing over a 7,000-foot elevation mountain pass in what became a pattern on this roller coaster drive. Upon reaching the peak the straight, two-lane road swooped down into a vast prairie before disappearing into the next mountain range 30 miles down the road. In total the drive undulates through seven high desert valleys, providing an array of earth tones and sage greens that form a soft contrast to the vivid blue Nevada sky dotted with stark white cumulus clouds.
The Lincoln Highway joins Highway 50 in the former railroad hub of Ely, 65 miles west of the Utah state line. You can still see remnants of that historic route in the form of concrete signposts marked with an “L”; the Boy Scouts of America placed them there in 1928 to guide motorists while commemorating the road’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln. However, with the vast desert stretching to the horizon on either side of the road, it would take one very confused driver to get lost here.
Old trains, vintage opera houses and mid-century neon
Ely hosts one of the biggest attractions along Highway 50: the Nevada Northern Railroad Museum. The 56-acre historic train yard and depot have been restored to how they looked in 1907, when local copper mines filled the burgeoning need for telephone and electrical lines in America. Visitors can even ride on a train powered by a circa 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive that was built in Philadelphia.
An elderly gentleman clad in striped denim overalls, sporting a glorious white beard and hoisting a giant monkey wrench mentioned he was one of the campers at the museum. Somewhat confused, we found out the museum offers its own version of a “fantasy camp”: a weeklong session where adult train geeks can tinker on actual equipment.
77 miles farther west, the silver-and-lead mining town of Eureka bills itself as the “Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road.” In the 1880s, when the smelters were cranking out at full speed, it was named “The Pittsburgh of the West.” With an ornate circa 1879 opera house and museum in the former offices of one of Nevada’s oldest newspapers, The Eureka Sentinel, which was founded in 1870 during the mining boom, Eureka could easily serve as a Western movie set.
Ghost towns and ancient stones
Lovers of ghost towns—and all things abandoned—will love this drive. All along the Loneliest Road, just over the hill to the north or south intrepid souls will find the vestiges of life once lived with gusto. Two miles outside of Eureka, the former mining hamlet of Ruby Hill lies abandoned to the elements. Some of the corrugated tin-roofed buildings scattered along a small gully still house the furniture of prior residents–a sobering reminder of why these are called ghost towns. Among the silvery juniper bushes and piñon trees, cactus flowers blooming in bright fuchsia provide vivid splashes of color.
Midway across the state, Route 50 shakes hands a few times with the path of the old Pony Express. A handful of crumbling stations are still hunched over by the roadside. This area is desolate even now, imagine the plight of the lonely mail rider galloping through during the service’s brief life?
On the eastern outskirts of Fallon, the desert yields an archaeological surprise close to the road. At Grimes Point, a quarter-mile walking trail reveals rust-colored basalt boulders marked by geometric petroglyphs of circles and wavy lines, some of which were struck almost 3,000 years ago by indigenous peoples. Even more remarkable considering the parched desert environs, going back 12 millennia this spot was 400 feet below the surface of a lake.
F-18s and freedom ringing
The town of Fallon is perched at the western terminus of the “lonely” portion of highway that Life magazine referred to in 1986. Known as the oasis of Nevada (which admittedly isn’t saying much), Fallon boasts a rare patch of green in the state and is famous for its luscious cantaloupes and as the home of Fallon Naval Air Station, where the pilots made famous in the movie Top Gun now train; it’s not unusual to see (or rather hear) a pair of F-18 Hornets roaring overhead.
Nearing the California state line, motorists will note an incongruous sight in the capital of Carson City. In front of the Nevada State Museum there’s a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell. In 1950 one was given to each state as part of a U.S. Savings Bond drive. But why does the bell look so much different than the original that is displayed in Philadelphia? This one lacks the famous crack.
At this point, we were ready to let freedom ring ourselves. We had driven the length of The Loneliest Road and lived to tell the tale. Though there were indeed some desolate stretches, there’s a particular beauty in the landscape along with haunting sights of a bygone era. It’s well worth the journey.
Note: Rather than grouse at the slur on their character, the towns that form the bone-dry vertebrae along the spine of the Loneliest Road chose to make the best of it. They created a passport-like “Official Highway 50 Survival Guide” that highlights points of interest on the route. Intrepid travelers who have it stamped at stations along the way qualify for an “I Survived Highway 50” certificate and souvenir upon completion. Now what could be better than that?