Nothing helps heighten the contrast between the rest of the world and life along the “Loneliest Road” more than making a stop in Reno (pop. 250,998), “The Biggest Little City in the World,” as the bold archway over Virginia Street downtown proclaims. An ancient city by Nevada standards, dating back to pioneer days (the Donner Party camped here on their ill-fated way west), Reno first came to national prominence in the 1930s as a center for quickie divorces. It now has all the gambling of its much-larger sibling, Las Vegas, but at a pleasantly homey, settled-down scale.
Besides taking advantage of Reno’s cheap hotel rooms, cheap food deals, and 24-hour fun, car culture fans may want to visit the $10 million, 100,000-sq-ft (9,290-sq-m) National Automobile Museum (10 Lake St., 775/333-9300, daily, $12), on the south bank of the Truckee River, perhaps the best and probably the most extensive car collection in the country, assembled primarily by casino magnate William Harrah. Over 200 classic cars, including the 1949 Mercury James Dean drove in Rebel Without a Cause, are on display, and there’s a great gift shop, too.
Reno’s other national attraction is the National Bowling Stadium (300 N. Center St.), a state-of-the-art 78-lane extravaganza. The parking garage is at Center and 4th Streets.
Though the roadside east of Carson City is increasingly lined by trailer parks and convenience stores, just a half-block north of the highway sits Dayton, one of the oldest settlements in Nevada. Gold was first discovered here in 1849, and later the town’s massive stamp mills pounded the ore carried through the massive Sutro Tunnel from the fabulous Comstock Lode in the mountains above. The historic town center is little more than the two blocks of Main Street north from the traffic light on US-50; choose from a couple of combination café-saloons, including the nicely renovated J’s Old Town Bistro (30 Pike St., 775/246-4400). Formerly named the Old Corner Bar, it was the rumored hangout of John Huston, Marilyn Monroe, and Arthur Miller when they were in Dayton in 1960 during the filming of The Misfits.
Coming into Fallon, especially after crossing the Great Basin deserts of Utah and Nevada that stretch to the east, can be a shock to the system. First, relative to Nevada’s other US-50 towns, Fallon is big: upward of 8,000 residents, with all the attendant shopping malls, traffic lights, and fast-food franchises. Second, but perhaps more striking, Fallon is green: alfalfa, onions, garlic, and cantaloupe grow as far as the eye can see. Otherwise, Fallon offers ATMs, gas stations, and motels lining US-50, as well as the usual Pizza Huts and Subways, and a handy 24-hour Safeway.
Besides agriculture, Fallon’s main employer is the U.S. Navy, which has an air base and target range that is an important training center for carrier-based fighters and bombers—the “Top Guns” made famous by the Tom Cruise movie.
While it’s not an especially attractive place, Fallon does have what they accurately call “The Best Little Museum on the Loneliest Road in America,” the eclectic and engaging Churchill County Museum (1050 S. Maine St., 775/423-3677, Tues.-Sun., hours vary, free), less than a mile (1.6 km) south of US-50. Exhibits contain native Paiute basketry, clothing, and hunting gear, and the usual array of pioneer quilts and clothing. The gift shop sells a wide range of books and historical postcards. A second building contains the transportation collection of old buggies, cars, and trucks.
About 45 mi (72 km) east of Fallon, Hwy-361 heads south to the magnesium-mining company town of Gabbs. East of Gabbs lies fascinating Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park (775/964-2440), which holds an only-in-Nevada combination: a 225-million-year-old marine fossil quarry and the 100-year-old ghost town of Berlin. Camping is available year round (water Apr.-Oct.), and guided tours of the town and the fossil beds are given weekends in summer.