Red Rock Canyon
The startling contrast between Las Vegas' artificial neon glow and the awesome natural forces in this national conservation area can't be exaggerated. Created about 65 million years ago, the canyon is more like a valley, with a steep, rugged red rock escarpment rising 3000ft on its western edge, dramatic evidence of tectonic-plate collisions.
Past Alamo and Ash Springs, US Hwy 93 leads to a junction, where you turn east through some desolate countryside to Caliente, a former railroad town with a Mission-style 1923 railway depot that makes for a cool photo op. Locals rave about Pioneer Pizza, though competition might not be so fierce: it's the only pizza within 100 miles.
Couples in love who want to leave a piece of their romance in Nevada would be advised to stop by the quiet town of Lovelock, a 90-minute drive northeast of Reno. Behind the Pershing County Courthouse, inspired by Rome's pantheon, you can symbolically lock your passion on a chain for all eternity in Love Lock Plaza.
Although it looks pretty interesting after hours of uninterrupted basin-and-range driving, there's not much to this mid-19th-century boomtown – really, just a few frontier churches and atmospherically decrepit buildings along the short main street. What most people come to Austin for is to play outdoors.
This pretty village at the edge of Carson Valley, beneath the Sierra Nevada mountains, was the first European settlement at the western edge of the former Utah Territory. The Genoa Saloon claims to be the oldest bar in the state (since 1863), and it certainly looks the part. The Genoa Courthouse Museum contains the original jail and a collection of woven Washo baskets.
From Las Vegas, it's one hour and forty-five minutes to broken-down Beatty, the northeastern gateway to Death Valley National Park. The chamber of commerce is downtown. Four miles west of town, off NV Hwy 374, is the mining ghost town of Rhyolite, where you can see a 1906 'bottle house' and the skeletal remains of a three-story bank.
Eureka! In the late 19th century, $40 million worth of silver was extracted from the hills around Eureka. Pride of place goes to the county courthouse, with its handsome pressed-tin ceilings and walk-in vaults, and the beautifully restored opera house, also dating from 1880, which hosts an art gallery and summer folk-music concerts.
The desert surrounding Hawthorne is oddly dotted with concrete bunkers storing millions of tons of explosives from a WWII-era military ammunition depot bizarrely turned into a golf course. Heading north, Hwy 95 traces the shrinking shoreline of Walker Lake State Recreation Area, a popular picnicking, swimming, boating, camping and fishing spot that's evaporating fast.
Up in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the Spring Mountains form the western boundary of the Las Vegas valley, with higher rainfall, lower temperatures and fragrant pine, juniper and mountain mahogany forests. Just past the NV Hwy 158 turn-off and campground, the information station has free trail guides, brochures and outdoor activity information.
Goldfield & Tonopah
Another hour's drive further north, Goldfield became Nevada's biggest boomtown after gold was struck here in 1902. A few precious historic structures survive today, including the Goldfield Hotel, a restored firehouse (now a museum) and the county courthouse, with its Tiffany lamps. Another survivor, the rough-and-tumble Santa Fe Saloon, is a hoary watering hole.
Black Rock Desert
North of Pyramid Lake, NV Hwy 447 continues straight as an arrow for about 60 miles to the dusty railway town of Gerlach, with a gas station, a motel, a cafe and a few bars. Its motto is 'Where the pavement ends, the West begins.' Bruno's Country Club is famous for its meaty ravioli in cheese sauce.
Crossing into Nevada, the neon starts to flash and old-school gambling palaces pant after your hard-earned cash. Though closed at research time for a multimillion-dollar remodel, historic Cal-Neva Resort literally straddles the California–Nevada border and has a colorful history involving ghosts, mobsters and Frank Sinatra, who once owned the joint.