Life Travel

Nevada still home to wide open spaces 0

LIZ FLEMING, Special to QMI Agency

"Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

This enticing recruitment campaign was used to secure riders for the Pony Express in 1860. Remarkably, dozens of boys signed up during the short -- but legendary -- span of the mail delivery service, and rode the 2,900 km between Sacramento, Calif., and St. Joseph, Mo., connecting the west with the east.

It was tough riding as the young men, armed only with pistols, braved attacks from angry native tribes and robbers eager to steal the mail pouch -- called a "mochila." While ambushes were a persistent hazard, the worst threat of the journey was the long stretch of high mountain desert that wound through the state of Nevada.

Today, the ghosts of Pony Express riders keep travellers company as they drive that same stretch, now known as Pony Express Territory, along Hwy. 50 aka "America's Loneliest Highway." Dotted with small towns with names like Ely, Eureka, Fernley, Dayton, Fallon and Austin, Hwy. 50 offers a variety of adventure possibilities including:

-- A tour of the Eureka Opera House built in 1879 and restored to its original glory.

-- A chance to watch TOPGUN naval fighter jets from the Fallon Navy Fighter Weapons School fly overhead.

-- A visit to historic Austin to gain an understanding of its rollicking "boom and bust" silver mining history.

-- A trip aboard the completely restored Nevada Northern Railway's Ghost Train at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in Ely.

But Hwy. 50's attractions are only the beginning of what Nevada has to offer.

Love casinos? Nevada boasts 46 of them -- more than any other state. Nearly all are housed in hotels with restaurants, pools, gift shops, spas and every other amenity necessary for happy self-indulgence while you try to win your million. You could drive from casino to casino for more than a month and never repeat a stop! Of course, if you want to hit the big-time, you'll head for the glittering lights of Reno and Las Vegas, where you'll find the fanciest hotels and the world-class shows.

Many visitors, however, prefer to find their thrills outdoors rather than on the gaming floor and, for them, Nevada offers a completely different set of vacation choices. Not only is this state home to such well-known wonders as Lake Tahoe and the Hoover Dam, but with more than 100 highly ranked courses, it's also a hugely popular destination for golfers.

Hikers and mountain bikers can choose from thousands of kilometres of trails that run along cool mountain pathways, across dry expanses of desert, through gently sloping valleys and beside isolated rivers and lakes. A few to include on your must-see list: The Tahoe Rim Trail, the Mount Rose Wilderness Area, Great Basin National Park and the Mount Moriah Wilderness -- home to Table Mountain, Nevada's fifth-highest peak.

For those who like to mix history with hiking, the petroglyphs on the Mouse's Tank trail at Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada are not to be missed.

Best of all, Nevada is renowned for its many natural hot springs -- 312 of them to be exact.

Rogers Warm Spring -- about one hour outside of Las Vegas in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area -- is a particularly great spot to enjoy one of these natural hot tubs, and it's free. That's one of the best things about the place -- so many great outdoor treats don't cost a thing.

Nevada is one of the few states where a huge proportion of the land is publicly owned -- and therefore available for all to use. While you'll be asked to pay at state parks and privately owned campgrounds, which offer the usual water and electrical hook-ups, many self-sufficient campers are happy to stay for free on undeveloped land and enjoy the state's hospitality. With thousands of hectares of open space simply waiting to be used, you'll never find yourself short of a campsite.

That delightfully welcoming approach may explain why the world-famous Burning Man event is held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Each year a complete city, created entirely by volunteers and housing more than 50,000 people, spontaneously appears in a dry lake bed -- a city complete with large-scale art installations, restaurants, shows, shops and a spirit of community cooperation that lasts for nearly a month.

At the finale, a gigantic effigy of the "man" is burned in a fiery, '60s-style statement against the restrictions of formalized society. Afterwards, the last vestiges of the insta-city are carefully removed, leaving no trace on the desert floor.

It's very strange, very creative and oh so very Nevada.

NEED TO KNOW

For a wealth of information on exploring Nevada, see travelnevada.com. There is a list of free camping areas at freecampsites.net, and a lineup of hot springs athotspringsenthusiast.com/Nevada.asp.


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