Nevada’s Best with Scott Smith

1. Nevada has a number of small towns. Is there one you’d recommend making time for?

The towns in Nevada’s interior are friendly, picturesque and full of Americana. Ely is my favorite because it packs the essence of Nevada into a convenient little package. As an amateur historian, I lose myself in Ely’s living Western nostalgia, from copper mines and the massive charcoal ovens that produced smelter fuel to the Northern Nevada Railway—it’s a museum in the guise of a working short line. The nature lover in me gets lost cavorting through burbling trout streams, wild berry bushes, and eye-popping wildflowers. And as an art buff, I can appreciate the dozens of panoramic murals and sculptures carved from mining equipment free for the viewing throughout town.

2. What golf courses should golfers not miss?

The rugged arroyos and dusty green desert vegetation make Badlands in Las Vegas the ideal desert course. Johnny Miller and Chi Chi Rodriguez designed the course to reward accuracy. Errant tee shots pinball off strewn boulders and come to rest under cacti in the Titleist graveyard that is the Badlands rough. Rapid elevation changes add to the challenge, but the service in the clubhouse and pro shop help ease the pain.

If you prefer tropical to the desert, Bali Hai’s emerald plants, ebony volcanic rocks and shallow lagoons will suit you to a “tee.” The only course on the Las Vegas Strip, Bali Hai’s long par-4s present challenges, but the course isn’t especially hairy – until you reach the 16th.

If you’re in Reno and need a reminder that golf is a four-letter word, visit Arrow Creek, and try to thread your tee shots through its needle-eye fairways.

3. What do you consider the top three sites for outdoor adventures?

With the nickname “The Alps of Nevada,” you know the vistas around the Ruby Mountains are stunning. But these towering testaments are more than just a pretty rock face. They provide the perfect backdrop for year-round adventure among the jagged cliffs, alpine lakes, and sugary snow. When you helicopter to one of the Rubies’ isolated peaks you’ll have the slopes virtually to yourself with the occasional mountain goat. Tons of trails, including the 42-mile Ruby Crest, challenge and enchant all levels of hikers. More than two dozen named lakes teem with brook and cutthroat trout. And Lamoille Canyon is so lovely it’s almost spiritual.

Surf’s up! That’s one phrase you probably never thought you’d hear in Nevada. But at Sand Harbor at Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park’s Spooner Lake, wind and current often cooperate to produce board-worthy swells. Of course, the park also offers the requisite alpine forests, rugged trails leading to nature-in-action views, and thrilling bike paths for which Nevada is famous. And on most summer weekends Sand Harbor hosts music, drama, or art festivals.

In southern Nevada, you can get a full-body workout with a paddle down Black Canyon below Hoover Dam. The canoe/kayak trip will awaken your back and shoulders, and back country and slot canyon hikes will bring your legs to the party. Even better, there’s a reward waiting at the end of the trail, where geothermic activity draws baths for weary but intrepid travelers. Ranging from tepid to I-can-barely-stand-it, the heated water and minerals soothe the aches away, preparing you for the next day’s paddle. Rainbow trout, raised at a hatchery 13 miles downstream from the dam, live here. So do the 20- to 40-pound striped bass that feast on them. So bring your fishing pole. You can camp anywhere along the shoreline. Keep your eyes peeled for cormorants and bighorn sheep on the crags above.

4. Name two historical landmarks every traveler should see.

Hoover Dam remains a wonder 75 years after its completion. Anyone who questions Americans’ ingenuity or work ethic will find their faith restored with a visit to this 726-foot-tall monolith. The dam itself is just one of the challenges engineers and contractors overcame to tame the Colorado River. Equipment to deal with the scope of the project had to be designed and manufactured on site – there would have been no way to transport machinery so large to the site. You can tour the dam’s workings and see the massive turbines that produce power for Arizona, California, and Nevada.

A bit tourist-trappy, perhaps, but Virginia City maintains its Old West charm. Experience the sweltering, claustrophobic working conditions of the Comstock miners and contrast it with the oysters-on-the-half-shell-luxury the mine barons enjoyed with the fruits of their labors. Of course, it wasn’t all dust and sweat for the miners. They earned living wages that allowed them to enjoy A-list performers at Piper’s Opera House, slake their thirsts at the Bucket of Blood Saloon, and even partake of the “entertainment” provided by Julia Bulette and her soiled-dove sisterhood. Mark Twain got his start here, and you can imagine the tall tales he dreamt up at his desk at the Territorial Enterprise museum.

5. What’s the best way to get a glimpse into Nevada’s prehistoric past?

Central Nevada, all the way from its western elbow at Lake Tahoe to Great Basin National Park near the Utah state line bears the scars, fossils, and living relics of the state’s primordial past. Lake Tahoe itself is the product of hundreds of millions of years of geologic upheaval. Experience its transformation from volcano incubator to pristine alpine forest at the Nevada State Museum’s Changing Earth exhibit in Carson City. The museum also displays fine specimens of Ichthyosaurs and Columbian mammoths, the top dogs (or rather, marine lizards and hairy elephants) around these parts during the Jurassic and Pleistocene eras, respectively. At Great Basin National Park, you can see the earth’s oldest living organism, the bristlecone pine, as well as some of the most striking stalactites and stalagmites at Lehman Cave. The park is also home to perhaps the southernmost glacier in the country. Take the 4 ½-mile Bristlecone/Glacier Trail to the foot of the glacier. The hike to 11,000 feet is breathtaking, but not as breathtaking as the view of the glacier in its protective cirque.

6. What’s the best time of year to visit?

Early spring is perfect for visiting the major tourist destinations of Las Vegas and Reno/Tahoe. Lake Tahoe’s resorts are still blanketed in the white stuff, but the nip has left the air. You can walk the Las Vegas Strip without risking heat stroke. Wait till later in the year (May through August) if you’re looking to bike or hike Rubies or Sierra Nevada. Unless you’re hunting bargains or intent on ogling bikinis or beefcake at resort pools, give Las Vegas a miss in summer. Same goes for Lake Tahoe in winter; prices are high, and if you don’t ski, it’s not worth it.

7. Vegas has a burgeoning art scene. Name some of the city’s top art exhibits/museums.

The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art rivals anything outside New York City, displaying modern geniuses such as Warhol and Lichtenstein to the grand masters. Not only are masterpieces by Monet and Chagall on display daily, but the rotating collections mean visitors can view Alexander Calder’s mobiles and the fabled Faberge eggs. More avant-garde treasures await as well. For pieces you can hang in your home, from various points of view on Las Vegas history and culture to functional crafts and explorations of unusual media, hit downtown’s eclectic arts district. Dozens of up-and-coming artists host small studios and galleries, all showcased during First Friday celebrations. The Donna Beam gallery at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas brings in ever-changing contemporary exhibits built around specific artists or themes.

8. Looking beyond the strip, where should Vegas visitors go to relax and pamper themselves?

The Resort on Mt. Charleston is perfectly located for skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Its full-service spa (not to mention the well-stocked bar) awaits your return from the trails to soothe away tired muscles. On crisp winter nights you can snuggle up with your honey on an authentic sleigh ride, and then curl up in front of the fireplace with a book and a mug of hot chocolate to dream away the outside world. Or you can relive the antebellum romance of the paddlewheel era with a scenic tour of Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. The sternwheeler Desert Princess plies the lake’s tranquil waters, giving passengers a view of the backside of the dam not seen by other tourists. Make the day extra special with a brunch, dinner, or wedding cruise.

9. What are Nevada’s best-kept secrets?

Nevada most often evokes images of fast-paced Las Vegas or grand scale Lake Tahoe ski resorts. But the real charm of Nevada lies in the small pleasures it presents to those who take the time to seek them out. In stark contrast to the Las Vegas neon jungle, Tonopah is graced by perhaps the darkest skies in the country, and perfect for stargazing. Just about every Nevada town has a claim to Western fame and makes the most of it with celebrations and festivals as quaint and sweet as funnel cake. Stop in at Goldfield Days, Austin’s Gridley Days or the other ubiquitous heritage festivals, rodeos, and fairs that spring up throughout the summer and you’ll swear the hands on your watch are standing still. Heck, when you bite into the barbecue, witness the gunslinger showdowns, and stock up at the craft and antique shows where you might feel like you’ve actually stepped back in time.

10. What would travelers be surprised to learn about Nevada?

Nevada sometimes is accused of having no sense of history or culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state celebrates its role in some of the most important events in American history; more importantly, it pays homage to the diverse cultures that shaped that history. From Basque sheepherders to Chinese railroad workers; from Mexican vaqueros to Native American activists and prophets, Nevada is a true melting pot of philosophies and customs that have left their mark on the state’s food, art, and outlook.

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