Where do you go after you’ve been to hell and back?
Last month at the end of my epic Hell Hike and Raft adventure, my crew mates headed back home but I grabbed a rental car and pointed myself towards Nevada and the legendary Virginia City. The good folks at the tourism board helped me get set up to explore the city, its history, and people. And I tell you what, it invigorated me in a way few city destinations have.
Equal parts history and legend, Virginia City deftly straddles the divide between its authentic past and it’s future as a tourism destination. Having risen from the wild west as a mining town, the city has reinvented itself with a dignity many other historic places have not.
Nevada as a whole has a rugged, unforgiving reputation. Rightly deserved. It is not a welcoming environment for those looking for comfort and convenience. This is largely a place to find out what you’re made of.
As for Virginia City itself, there are luxuries to be had but they are not without the limitations of a town perched at 6,200 feet and only accessible by a few winding mountain roads. Because of the nature of the location as well as the independent spirit of its people, the residents of Virginia City don’t get their feathers ruffled if something goes awry and they don’t operate on the time-frame most of us urban-dwellers subject ourselves to.
A power outage? No complaints, just keep going about your business as best you can until it gets fixed. Operating hours? They’re sometimes more like suggestions. They are subject to change if something comes up. It’s nothing personal and not meant to be a slight if you are inconvenienced, just the reality of living in a place where those kind expectations don’t hold up. Please don’t mistake that mindset for standoffishness. The people of Virginia City were nothing but helpful, friendly, and welcoming but there are different rhythms and social conventions here.
Discovering Virginia City…
Virginia City is a visual feast of colors and textures. When I drove in at dusk on a Monday night, I was immediately impressed. Even in the failing light of the day I could tell I was going to be a very busy chick soaking it all in… but I couldn’t stop to admire it right away since my hotel hosts were waiting for me to arrive so they could go home for the night. (As you can see, that Nevadan flexibility about time goes both ways…)
I slipped into town the day after the conclusion of Virginia City’s International Camel Races. I’d only learned about this wonderfully bizarre event a few months earlier, oddly enough, thanks to one of those graphic murals on the side of a U-Haul trailer. I’d known about Virginia City and its connection to the 60s music scene but learning about the races intrigued me enough to bump it to the top of my travel priority list.
Unfortunately, this year’s camel racing festivities conflicted with the Hell Hike and Raft but I knew I had to check out Virginia City in spite of that. The decision paid off. The town was in recovery mode after such a huge event so I’m really quite thrilled with my timing. In the quiet lull of the post-camel-racing tumult, I was able to walk the streets in the early morning and evening hours with few others to encounter.
I loved the feel of this town asleep. I had to chuckle that my evening strolls came complete with the metallic creak of a sign blowing in the wind as my lone footsteps echoed across the boardwalks, something straight out of a western movie before a duel takes place.
And during the busier mid-day hours, there’s still a good vibe here. With a town like this, where tourism has become a thriving industry after a long history of pioneering and mining, there are a few things that lend a slightly tourist-y feel but it’s mixed with the authenticity of a town with a genuinely rich history. In talking with a few of the town’s residents, I got a great sense of pride and ownership. They truly love their Virginia City. By wandering off the main drag and onto the side streets, you can step into their world and get a feel for the place these folks call home.
Regardless of how you choose to explore Virginia City, by sticking to C Street or getting off the beaten path with activities like geocaching, you won’t find the ubiquitous and familiar franchises. The offerings here are as unique as the people.
Things to do in Virginia City…
My approach in visiting any new place is hit the common highlights first to get a basic understanding, then dig deeper. That’s why I’m a fan of stopping into visitor centers as a one-stop shop to sort out my plan of attack. They’re a wealth of information and Virginia City has the added bonus of the Ye Olde Virginia City app for your phone to help you as well.
Virginia City has a lot to offer in terms of different museums and tours to explore. Fortunately, it’s fairly small and highly walkable so it was no problem ditch the rental car at the motel and explore on foot.
There is certainly more to do here than my two-ish days allowed for but I did manage to pack in a lot of activity in that time:
- Silver City Cemetery: I really enjoy soaking up the history contained in cemeteries. This particular one holds no world-renowned historical figures but it does hold the story of Virginia City. On the hillside below town, beautiful wrought-iron gate surround most of the grave sites. Different sections signify the diversity of the pioneers who made the arduous trek to Nevada, seeking their fortune in the Comstock Lode.
- Silver State Peace Officer Museum: This surprise little gem wasn’t initially on my radar. What drew me to it was a geocache. I didn’t need to enter the museum to nab the cache but the host at the desk was so enthusiastic about it, I had to check it out. It proved to be a very interesting and remarkable collection of law enforcement memorobilia and artifacts. They even have a children’s corner where little ones can color and dress up in uniforms.
- The Way it Was Museum: Outwardly, this museum appears to be a cheesy tourist-trap but I was surprised to find a very nice collection of Virginia City artifacts ranging from household items to mining equipment. There’s a video to watch if you care to but the items on display alone are worth the small admission. If you want to be blown away, take the time to ponder the scale model of the mining shafts constructed to mine a portion of the Comstock Lode. Mind boggling. Trust me, that’s coming from a geologist who understands what’s involved here.
- Mark Twain Museum: This museum is housed in the basement of the original Territorial Enterprise where Mark Twain got his start. It’s filled with the printing equipment used as well as other furniture and various pieces of the time, including his original desk. And the “Mark Twain sat here” toilet? How can you resist?
- Trolley Tour: As an indy traveler, hopping into a tour trolley full of people is usually not my idea of a good time. In this case, however, I got to chat with the hugely entertaining trolley driver, Bill. And the tour was well worth it. I was able to get a quick overview of the history of Virginia City as well as a feel for the lay-of-the-land which was really helpful in figuring out what I wanted to go back to visit on foot.
- Road side historic point on Hwy 341: On the outskirts north of town, this is one of the best roadside historical markers I’ve encountered in my travels. This little stop offers some mining history as well as a very pleasant picnic stop overlooking the Silver State Cemetery.
With only a couple of days to explore Virginia City, I left a lot of museums and attractions unvisited but they include the likes of train tours, ghost tours, mine tours, more museums, and even a wild west show. As you can see, there’s plenty to keep you busy here for many days. And if Fred and George were with me for this trip, I would have counted it as a roadschooling feast. There is a good deal of unique shopping as well but since that’s not my cup-o-tea, I’ll leave that to someone else to detail for you.
Like with any place, how deeply you’d like to explore is up to you. For myself, I knew I was interested in more than a casual passing-through or day-trip that would only allow me to skim the surface of what Virginia City has to offer. My surprise was that my three-night stay wasn’t sufficient to sate my Virginia City appetite. This is a town worth repeat visits to experience various seasonal offerings of festivals and events like the International Camel and Ostrich Races, World Championship Outhouse Races, Christmas on Comstock, and wine tours.
Beyond the attractions and events within Virginia City itself that I missed on my visit, there are also nearby places I will be sure to check out next time around including outdoor destinations like Washoe and Dayton State Parks as well as the Lake Tahoe area.
I hope what you’ll take away is, not only that Virginia City is really groovy, but that Nevada is so much more than Las Vegas or Burning Man. I know, I know, I was surprised, too. Nevada wasn’t on my radar as a travel destination either until George decided he wanted to geocache the ET Highway.
If you’ve underestimated Nevada like I have, be sure to take another look and discover the surprises the Silver State and Virginia City have waiting for you. And you don’t have to simply take my word for it, check out these stunning Nevada images.
So count me in to get back soon. This Georgia girl is sold on Virginia City and Nevada. And I still want to see those camels race…