The Best Road Trips in America: The Loneliest Road in America: Exploring Nevada’s Route 50
U.S. Route 50 is known as Loneliest Road in America. Its most desolate, yet perhaps most interesting, stretch is its 300-mile span in Nevada, where the road crosses the expansive Great Basin Desert and passes through several quirky small towns.
Road Trip Itinerary: Nevada's Route 50, the Loneliest Road in America
In 1986, Life magazine gave Route 50 the moniker. It spans 3,000 miles between West Sacramento, California, and Ocean City, Maryland, cutting right through the center of the United States. But it’s in the heart of Nevada where its forlorn nickname is truly showcased. After all, in that Life article, a AAA representative gave an ominous warning: “We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
But Nevada’s tourism board took it in stride, offering an official survival guide for drivers, complete with a “passport” that you can stamp in the major towns along the highway. As it turns out, the drive is not all that dangerous—just make sure to top up your gas tank every chance you get—but it does offer beautiful mountain and desert views, a taste of the historic Wild West, and a chance to visit Nevada’s only national park.
At a Glance:
Starting Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Ending Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Miles Traveled: 1600
Suggested Duration: 6 nights
States Visited: California, Nevada
Stop 1: Las Vegas to Carson City, Nevada
Stop Locations: Las Vegas, NV to Carson City, NV
Total Travel Time: 8 hours
Total Miles: 460 miles
Recommended Route: To start your road trip, take the scenic route from Las Vegas up to Carson City via California. Drive through Death Valley to get to I-395, then head north. It’s a little longer than the more direct I-95 route, but it’s also a lot more interesting.
Along the Way:
Town: Take a break for an hour or two at the halfway point, Lone Pine, a small town that’s served as a base camp for Western films since 1939, when Gunga Din was filmed in the dramatic landscapes nearby. Visit the Museum of Western Film History in town to learn all about Lone Pine’s Hollywood ties.
Eat & Drink: Drop by the Alabama Hills Cafe in Lone Pine for lunch, named for the rock formations just outside of town. Enjoy hearty dishes from all-day scrambles to burgers, and finish up your meal with a giant slice of pie.
Do: Welcome to Nevada’s state capital! Try to get to town before 5 p.m., so you can stop by the Visitors Center to grab your official Highway 50 Survival Guide. If you arrive even earlier, try to visit one of the city’s museums, like the Nevada State Railroad Museum, or simply stroll the walkable downtown and shop the boutiques.
Eat & Drink: Carson City is the largest town on your trip, and there’s a wide variety of restaurants and bars to fill your evening. We recommend dinner at Thai restaurant the Basil, followed by a round of beers at the Tap Shack, where locals hang out.
Stay: We’ll be honest—Carson City isn’t known for its hotels. There are plenty of national chains here that are perfectly serviceable, like the Hampton Inn & Suites Carson City. If you’re looking for a more boutique stay, head to Airbnb, where proprietors Jenny and Mark Lopicolo list rooms in the historic St. Charles Hotel.
Breakfast: Whether you’ve got time for a sit-down breakfast or you’re itching to get out on the road, make your first stop of the day L.A. Bakery Café and Eatery. There are café options for a leisurely meal, or you can simply grab a coffee and pastry to go.
Stop 2: Carson City to Austin, Nevada
Stop Locations: Carson City, NV to Austin, NV
Total Travel Time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Total Miles: 230 miles
Recommended Route: Today’s your first day on historic Highway 50—but we’re also going to suggest a little off-route detour to Pyramid Lake, just north of the town of Fernley, which is actually on Alternate U.S. 50 (a break-off that connects the main highway to the major cross-country interstate Route 80).
Along the Way:
Detour: Head 25 miles north of Fernley to Pyramid Lake, one of the largest natural lakes in Nevada and all that’s left of the former inland sea Lake Lahontan. The surreal scenery, including the unusual tufa rock formations, makes for a great photo op, but be sure to respect the landscape during your visit: This is sacred land to the Paiute Tribe. Visit the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitors Center to learn more about the history and significance of the lake.
Do: The former silver mining town of Austin only has a couple hundred residents today, but it was once the second-largest city in Nevada, with a population of 5,000. Visit the town’s three 150-year-old churches and ruins of Stokes Castle, the summer home of 19th-century railroad magnate Anson Phelps Stokes.
Eat & Drink: Austin is renowned as a funky stop for grub and booze. For dinner, visit the Toiyabe Cafe for classic diner fare, and whatever you do, do not skip out on the homemade soft-serve ice cream. It’s legendary. Afterward, head to the Lucky Spur Saloon, named the best bar in the middle of nowhere by Men’s Health.
Stay: In town, we recommend the quaint (read: clean, comfortable, and surprisingly modern) Cozy Mountain Motel. If you don’t mind driving a little outside town, try the quirky Paradise Ranch Castle Bed & Breakfast.
Breakfast: It’s back to Toiyabe Cafe for you—it’s the best spot in town for food.
BLM National Recreation Program Follow/Flickr
Stop 3: Austin to Baker, Nevada
Stop Locations: Austin, NV to Baker, NV
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Total Miles: 210 miles
Recommended Route: You’re driving east along Highway 50 all day today, straight through to the state line.
Along the Way:
Photo Op: Just east of Austin is the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area, where you can see ancient petroglyphs along a half-mile walking trail.
Town: Prepare to spend a bit of time in Eureka, known as “The Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road.” The former mining town is incredibly well preserved: check out the restored historic sites like the Eureka Opera House, the Eureka Courthouse, the Eureka Sentinel Museum in the former Eureka Sentinel newspaper building, the Victorian-style Carson Mansion, and the Jackson House Hotel, all of which date back to the late 19th century.
Detour: Get a taste of the region’s mining history with a quick visit to Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park, located just six miles off Highway 50 at Nevada Historical Marker No. 54, which denotes the Ward Mining District. Six massive beehive charcoal kilns from the 19th century still stand, and you can take a peek inside them. (Legend has it they were used as shelter by stagecoach bandits.)
Do: This teensy town of fewer than 100 people is just the gateway to Great Basin National Park, so there’s not a ton to do here beyond eat, drink, and gamble at the slot machines at the Border Inn, a quirky motel where the rooms are on the Utah side of the border, but the office, “casino,” and restaurant are on the Nevada side. At night, remember to look up—Great Basin National Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, meaning it’s ideal for stargazing.
Stay: The aforementioned Stargazer Inn is the place to stay in Baker, or you could head to the 375-acre Hidden Canyon Retreat, a ranch just outside of town. If you’d like to overnight in Great Basin National Park itself, there are campsites open year-round.
Breakfast: There’s no better coffee and pastries in Baker than at the Magic Bean Coffee Cart.
Famartin (CC BY-SA 4.0)/WikimediaCommons
Stop 4: Baker to Ely, Nevada
Stop Locations: Baker, NV to Ely, NV
Total Travel Time: 1 hour
Total Miles: 62 miles
Recommended Route: The majority of your day should be spent at Great Basin National Park, after which you can make the short journey back west on Highway 50 to Ely.
Along the Way:
Roadside Attraction: On the road between Baker and Great Basin is the Permanent Wave Society, a collection of punny folk art installations. While a number of the sculptures were removed by the Nevada Department of Transportation in 2016, a few remain.
Nature: Great Basin National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the country, meaning you get to enjoy all of the nature and none of the crowds. Take a guided tour through the famous Lehman Caves year-round, hike to the summit of Wheeler Peak during the summer, and go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing during the winter.
Eat & Drink: The only restaurant in Great Basin is the Great Basin Café in the Lehman Caves Visitors Center, and it’s only open seasonally. If you’re visiting during the off-season, bring a to-go lunch from Baker.
Detour: Just 15 minutes north of Ely is the McGill Drugstore Museum, a former pharmacy that’s been perfectly preserved with vintage goods on its shelves, therefore serving as somewhat of a time capsule.
Do: With a population of some 4,000 people, Ely is the biggest town around this neck of the woods. Its biggest year-round attraction is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, while in the summer, the Ely Renaissance Village draws in tourists.
Eat & Drink: If you’ve had enough diner food on this trip, change it up with dinner at Jr. Street Tacos, the best food truck in Ely, or go fine dining with a side of gimmick at Jailhouse Cell Block Steak House, part of the Jailhouse Motel & Casino complex, where you can also grab after-dinner drinks at the lounge or the sports bar, as well as gamble.
Breakfast: Even if you didn’t stay at the All Aboard Café & Inn, you should visit for breakfast.
Stop 5: Ely to Fallon, Nevada
Stop Locations: Ely, NV to Fallon, NV
Total Travel Time: 5 hours 30 minutes
Total Miles: 300 miles
Recommended Route: Drive back through Austin via Highway 50, then take a detour down NV-21 to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. Rather than backtracking, take NV-844 and NV-361 to get back to Highway 50.
Along the Way:
Detour: Though it’s about 60 miles off of Highway 50, Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is a worthy detour—it has a ghost town and 225-million-year-old fossils of extinct marine reptiles (ichthyosaurs). The former mining town of Berlin was abandoned in 1911, and today its remnants can be explored by visitors to the park. As for the bones? Those weren’t discovered until 1928, but they’re now on display in the Fossil House.
Eat & Drink: When you get back to Highway 50, stop for lunch at Middlegate Station, known for its Monster Burger Challenge, in which competitors must consume four pounds of food.
Photo Op: No, that 600-foot sand dune rising up from the rocky desert isn’t a mirage: it’s Sand Mountain, part of Sand Mountain Recreation Area.
Do: Welcome back to civilization! There are two major reasons to come to Fallon, population roughly 9,000: to taste the famous Hearts of Gold cantaloupe and to drink at Frey Ranch, a distillery. You can also visit the Churchill County Museum and Archives to learn about the region’s history.
Stay: You’re pretty limited to chain hotels in Fallon, and of the handful in town, we suggest you stay at the Best Western Fallon Inn & Suites.
Breakfast: We’re salivating thinking of the Courtyard Café and Bakery. You can’t go wrong with pastries or hot dishes—they’re all delicious.
Stop 6: Fallon to Las Vegas, Nevada
Stop Locations: Fallon, NV to Las Vegas, NV
Total Travel Time: 6 hours 30 minutes
Total Miles: 410 miles
Recommended Route: It’s time to make the long trek back to Vegas: Take I-95 South all the way, making a few fun pit stops throughout the drive.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: Just shy of the halfway point is the Tonopah Brewing Company, which has a tasting room that’s perfect for lunch and a cold beer.
Roadside Attraction: About a 30-minute drive south of Tonopah along I-95 is the infamous Cottontail Ranch, a now-abandoned legal brothel reportedly frequented by Howard Hughes. It closed in 2004 and has since been boarded up, but you can still make a quick stop to snap a photo or two.
Town: While most visitors to Beatty use the town as a base camp for Death Valley National Park, it’s also a great place to stretch your legs on your drive back to Vegas. Visit the retro Atomic Inn for a photo op, marvel at the Tom Kelly Bottle House, or explore the ghost town of Rhyolite, known for outdoor art installations.