If all you know about Nevada is the razzmatazz of Las Vegas, you’re in for a surprise. The Silver State is packed with unexpected experiences. Step into its vast wilderness and you’ll find lonely deserts, eerie ghost towns and spectacular night skies. Who knows? You might even spot a UFO as you travel Nevada’s wide-open roads in search of these lesser-known lures.

Outdoor thrills

If you like adventure, you’ve come to the right state. West of Carson City, Lake Tahoe is a year-round hub of outdoor activity. Summer is ideal for hiking, cycling and water sports, while skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing take the lead in winter. Red Rock Canyon is another outdoor playground buzzing with hikers, rock climbers and wildlife-watchers. Hiking is also popular around central Austin, as is mountain biking.

Another magnificent destination is Cathedral Gorge State Park, with its soaring spires formed by millions of years of erosion; Miller Point Overlook has sweeping views, with several easy hikes into narrow slot canyons. For watery adventure, try kayaking on Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the US, created by the construction of the Hoover Dam. Prefer wheels? Go off-roading in the hilly terrain around the former mining towns of Virginia City and Dayton.

The nation’s second-deepest lake, Lake Tahoe is a pristine, pine-scented wonder - © MariuszBlach / Getty Images

Where ghosts live

Nevada is home to more than 600 ghost towns – all echoes of once-thriving communities. The queen of these is Rhyolite. Founded in 1905 and abandoned a decade later after its gold petered out, it’s an eerie and atmospheric place with decaying original buildings, including a railroad depot and The Bottle House, a house made from 50,000 beer bottles.

More intact is Berlin, within Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. This former mining town reached its height in 1908, and its tiny cabins still hold original furniture. North of Wells is Metropolis, a one-of-a-kind ghost town intended to be a wheat harvesting settlement. The unpredictable climate put those plans to rest, however, and it was deserted in the 1940s – though ruins of its school, hotel and a cemetery still remain.

Rhyolite Ghost Town, east of Death Valley - © DougLemke / Getty Images

Thirst quenchers

Nevada may be the driest state in the US, but not in terms of libations. Believe it or not, there are a few local wineries making great vino, including Pahrump Valley Winery, which hosts an annual grape stomp; Sanders Family Winery, also in Pahrump; and Churchill Vineyards, located in Fallon, where you can sample signature spirits at the adjacent Frey Ranch Estate Distillery.

Beer is also well represented across the state. The Dillinger Food and Drinkery in Boulder City serves up craft brew from the west coast, along with classic bar food, while Tonopah Brewing Company makes their own brew and barbecue – a tasty way to refuel after a long drive.

Craft beer lovers won’t go thirsty in Nevada - © blizzard_77 / Getty Images

Only the lonely

The nickname says it all: the ‘Loneliest Road in America’. Highway 50 goes on forever, crossing the north from Reno to Great Basin National Park. Miles and miles of wide open highway beckon, but there’s more than meets the eye on this grand old Western roadway. Worthy stops along the route include the Grimes Point Archaeological Area, with its ancient rock carvings, and Cold Springs Pony Express Station, built in 1860. There’s even a freaky Shoe Tree, festooned with knotted pairs of sneakers.

When you reach Eureka, you can admire its beautifully restored 1880 Opera House, which hosts an art gallery and summer concerts, and newspaper technology of yesteryear at the Eureka Sentinel Museum. If you like a challenge, the Highway 50 Survival Guide tasks you with getting a postcard stamped in five communities along the route.

Highway 50 follows the route of the nation’s first transcontinental telegraph line - © liyinuo / Getty Images

Alien encounters

Northwest of Las Vegas is the sprawling Nellis Test and Training Range. It contains the mysterious Area 51, associated with alien lifeforms by popular TV shows such as The X-Files. You can weigh up fact versus fiction at the Area 51 – Myth or Reality exhibition inside the National Atomic Testing Museum in Vegas. Afterward, don your best Men in Black suit and hit Route 375, otherwise known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. At Crystal Springs, you’ll find the Alien Research Center with its lofty statue of an otherworldly visitor, as well as ET Fresh Jerky, where you can munch on alien-themed snacks. Further on is Rachel, with its distinctive tow truck hauling a UFO in the parking lot of the Little A’Le’Inn eatery.

Nevada’s Area 51 is linked with UFOs by excitable conspiracy theorists - © donvictorio / Getty Images

Retro railroads

You can relive Nevada’s railroad past at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City, which preserves the Boulder Branch Line and operates weekend excursions on refurbished 1911 Pullman cars. Carson City also offers rides aboard restored cars of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, and is home to the 1875 Inyo steam locomotive that starred in many Hollywood movies.

The East Ely Railroad Depot Museum is another celebration of railroad history, with its depot restored to its 1907 appearance. Also in Ely, the Nevada Northern Railway offers rides on trains pulled by historic steam engines. Another rail gem is found in tiny southwestern Caliente. As the midpoint of the Los Angeles–Salt Lake City railroad, it received a grand Mission Revival–style depot in 1923. Trains no longer stop here, but the depot is worth a whistle-stop visit.

A steam locomotive leads a freight train near East Ely - © Mike Danneman / Getty Images

Memorable museums

There’s inspiring art and intriguing exhibits all over Nevada. Next to the ghost town of Rhyolite you’ll find the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an impressive sculpture garden with striking views. For fascinating history set inside great architecture, head to the Nevada State Museum within the former Carson City Mint. Its exhibits cover everything from nature (look out for the Great Basin rattlesnake!) to history, with examples of Native American culture and relics from the fabled Pony Express. In Reno, the Nevada Museum of Art’s building is inspired by the sandstone formations of the Black Rock Desert, and its 1500 exhibits include many inspired by the state’s landscapes. And if you feel the need for speed, Reno’s National Automobile Museum is packed with a century’s worth of wheeled wonders.

Vintage cars at the National Automobile Museum in Reno - © Victoria Lipov / Shutterstock

Desert experiences

There’s no shortage of desert landscapes in Nevada, but there is a surprising amount of variety in the terrain – from the impressive rock formations and spiky yucca plants of Red Rock Canyon to the psychedelically shaped sandstone outcroppings of Valley of Fire State Park. In the west, you can have a drink and a laugh at Beatty’s cowboy-themed bars before heading to the starkly beautiful salt flats and distinctive ridges of Death Valley National Park. To the north is the Black Rock Desert, where world land-speed records have been set on its dry, mud-cracked playas. Even steadfast Vegas-goers can hit the desert for a day: various outfitters offer short excursions in chunky off-road vehicles along challenging Mojave Desert trails.

Nature puts on a truly spectacular show in Death Valley National Park - © Matt Kazmierski / Getty Images

Yearly revelries

Nevada’s most infamous annual event is Burning Man, which takes place the week before Labor Day in the shimmering heat of the Black Rock Desert. Tens of thousands of revelers join in, forming a vibrant temporary community dedicated to creativity and self- expression, making art and forming connections with nature and each other. Not your thing? Hit Elko for its calendar of cultural events. Cowboy Poetry happens in January, when wranglers and ropers gather for a week of readings and folklore performances. For an exotic trace of Europe, there’s the National Basque Festival in July, which includes traditional music, dancing, food and crazy competitions (think granite-ball-lifting). In Reno, things heat up in early August with Hot August Nights, a seven-day celebration of hot rods and rock ‘n’ roll.

Nevada’s largest event culminates in the incineration of a large plywood structure - © KMalikoKubota / Getty Images

Look to the skies

Away from the bright lights of Las Vegas, Nevada’s skies are ideal for stargazing. One of the best locations is Tonopah, said to have the darkest night skies in the nation. There’s also local expertise to tap into – the Tonopah Astronomical Society holds a monthly public ‘star party’. To combine stargazing with the allure of Nevada’s ghost towns, book a bed at Gold Point Bed & Breakfast. From a restored miner’s cabin, you can enjoy starlit views in total solitude. Another excellent stargazing spot, with its lofty altitude, is Great Basin National Park. Each September it hosts the free Great Basin Astronomy Festival, which includes an array of workshops and viewing sessions sure to take you out of this world.

Milky Way Galaxy over Great Basin National Park - © Gromit702 / Getty Images
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