Most kids learn about the historic Pony Express in school and many travelers have heard mention of the “Loneliest Road in America,” but chances are good that your family has never driven the portion of Highway 50 that stretches out from Carson City, Nevada east towards Great Basin National Park. In 1986, Life Magazine named this section of the Lincoln Highway “The Loneliest Road in America.” After driving most of this route in May with my mom and kids, I can confirm that almost thirty years later, the label is still accurate. It should be noted that while this road is remote, it is also quite scenic as it crosses a series of mountain passes and valleys.
Passports and Playgrounds
The options for roadside attractions along The Loneliest Road range from the quirky Shoe Tree, located near the intersection of Hwy 50 and Hwy 361, to searching for gemstones at Garnet Hill outside of the town of Ely. A unique passport program gives families extra motivation to make a pit-stop in each town. The Highway 50 Survival Guide, downloadable from the State of Nevada’s website, has eight stops at each of the towns along the route: Carson City, Dayton, Fernley, Fallon, Austin, Eureka, Ely, and Baker. The Opera House in the historic mining town of Eureka might be most impressive stop along the route, but the Survival Guide includes at least two or three points of interest for each town. Families who receive at least five passport stamps can send in their booklet back to the State of Nevada in exchange for a pin and a certificate signed by the state governor declaring that they survived Highway 50.
When we traveled this route, my kids were a bit young to appreciate most of the roadside attractions, and we were on a mission to make it as far as we could on our first day of day of cross-country travel. Thus, we appreciated what we could from the car and chose to stop only at playgrounds forgoing the interesting, but time-consuming, passport program. Parents of small children will be relieved to know that we found two amazing playgrounds with restrooms on our drive, Oats Park in Fallon and Bert T Gandolfo Park in Austin.
Ultimately, we found that there was much to see without ever getting out of the car. Just east of Fallon, it’s impossible to miss Sand Mountain, a two-mile long, 600-foot-high sand dune. Also, Fallon is home to United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program, the inspiration for the 1980’s movie, “Top Gun.” Reportedly, airplanes can often be seen practicing over the desert basin. Markers for the historic Pony Express can be found between Fallon and Austin at Cold Springs and Middlegate. And, at sunset, our family even spotted some antelope roaming the range near Great Basin National Park.
Great Basin National Park
Snow-capped Wheeler Peak is an amazing sight rising out of the Great Basin, and the National Park is the true gem on this remote road-trip. The two main highlights of the park are the drive up Wheeler Peak and Lehman Caves. Near the end of the breathtaking drive up Wheeler Peak is the trailhead to the Bristlecone pine trees, home to some of the oldest living organisms on earth. Unfortunately, the road was not fully open when we visited in May despite low snowfall and drought conditions; don’t count on it being open till June. We were able to enjoy the trip down into Lehman Caves, distinctive for its large number of shield formations throughout the cave. Great Basin National Park makes nearly every list published on the least visited National Parks in America; so, families can enjoy nature in relative seclusion here at almost any time of the year.
Road Trip the American West
Most travelers include Great Basin National Park and Highway 50 through Nevada as part of a much larger road trip; it is the perfect opportunity to get off the interstate and get a break from the congested roadways of America. To the west, Highway 50 continues to Carson City, home of the Nevada State Railroad Museum and South Lake Tahoe. As the Loneliest Road meanders east into Utah, there are several more remote, scenic miles of highway before reaching Interstate 15 which travels north to Salt Lake City and south to Zion National Park, the perfect place to begin a tour of Utah’s five spectacular National Parks.
Where to Stay
There are few choices for lodging along Highway 50 in Nevada. We chose to stay at the Border Inn just outside of Great Basin National Park on the Nevada-Utah border. The accommodations there are very basic, but it’s a convenient base for exploring the national park, especially if your family is driving in from the East. If you’re driving in from the West, I would recommend checking into one of the chain hotels in Ely about an hour west of the park.
The Road Less Traveled
Personally, I’d rather drive a deserted two lane highway over a crowded interstate any day. So, when given the choice of driving the remote Highway 50 or Interstate 80 across the state of Nevada, I found the idea of driving Highway 50 very intriguing. However, traveling with my mother, four-year-old son, and five-year-old daughter, I was a bit concerned about safety. I did an exhaustive search for any information that I could find on Highway 50 trying to determine how lonely the Loneliest Road actually would be on a Saturday in May. How often would we see another car? Was there cell phone service? Would we be able to get help if we broke down? I found few answers. Yet, my adventurous spirit won out, and I decided to make the drive anyways.
I’m so glad that I chose the road less traveled! There was just enough traffic to assure me that we wouldn’t be spending the night stuck on the side of the road even if we were to break down; every five minutes or so we’d encounter a car coming the opposite direction. Yet, there were still plenty of opportunities to view the wide open road stretching out to the horizon without another car in sight. While cell phone reception was spotty, it wasn’t completely non-existent.
Read more on Trekaroo about our Ultimate Guide to Road Trips with Kids.
The Lincoln Highway
A few months after our cross-county military move was complete, I realized how appropriate it was that we began the first leg of adventure driving Highway 50 across Nevada on the transcontinental Lincoln Highway. One summer day when I was driving along Constitution Avenue in Washington DC past the White House, I glanced up to see a Route 50 sign. The road on which we started our journey east was also the road that ultimately took us into the Nation’s Capital, my husband’s new duty station.