Nevada's capital offers a getaway with hospitality and the heritage of the 1860s gold and
"By and by Carson City was pointed out to us," wrote Mark Twain in Roughing It."It nestled in the edge of a great plain and was a sufficient number of miles away to look like an assemblage of mere white spots." The mountain summits overlooking it, he noted, "seemed lifted clear out of companionship and consciousness of earthly things."
Twain arrived in 1861, but Nevada’s capital still looks the same way to a visitor driving over from Lake Tahoe—a town dominated by its setting. The early morning sun lights up the great eastern scarp of the Sierra Nevada; the setting sun sets afire the Pine Nut Mountains out in the Great Basin Desert. The nights are full of stars, the air scented with sage.
Up close, Nevada’s capital has charm, hospitality, and a lively heritage of 1860s gold and silver booms. Forget that traffic on Highway 395; never mind all those outlying car dealers and strip malls. You can explore the old capitol, several museums, and a large historic district. You can soak your sinews in hot springs and walk along the river searching for wild horses and golden eagles. Or poke through antiques shops. Or play golf. And yes, you can hang in the smoky casinos, listening to lounge music while the slots suck the coins out of your jeans and the neon blinks outside.
In winter, Carson City is ideal for budget-conscious skiers and snowboarders. Several motels in town have rooms for less than $50. The cross-country trails of Spooner Summit are only 10 miles up Highway 50. A dozen miles farther are the downhill resorts on Lake Tahoe’s east side—Heavenly Valley and Diamond Peak.
Carson City’s historic downtown is readily explored on foot. The best starting point is the Nevada State Museum, housed in the old U.S. Mint, which produced almost $50 million in gold and silver coins from 1870 to 1893. Inside, you’ll learn all about the Silver State—its boom times, its ancient and native peoples, its birds and butterflies, its guns. There are exhibits on prizefighting, ethnology, the strange fishes of Pyramid Lake. Notable items: the gorgeous silver service from the World War II battleship USS Nevada; the 17,000-year-old imperial mammoth uncovered in the Black Rock Desert in 1972; and an underground walk-through hard rock mine.
Catercorner from the museum is the Carson Nugget casino; step inside to see the dazzling collection of gold nuggets. From there, bronze sidewalk medallions lead down Carson Street to the park-like Capitol Complex, the hub of Nevada’s government.
Several of the buildings in the complex are worth wandering around. The most handsome is the capitol, built in 1870, with its gleaming "silver" dome (tin, actually). Inside, portraits of past governors line the marble halls, and there’s a mural of the state’s minerals and fauna. In the old senate chambers upstairs are some fascinating exhibits on the history of the 36th state.
Behind the capitol is the state library, housing the handwritten Nevada constitution and an accompanying video, Battle Born, which tells why Abraham Lincoln was desperate for Nevada’s statehood (he needed votes to win 1864 election and to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery). The nearby Legislative Building is quiet these days—the next lawmaking session is not until 2001. But you can peek into the senate and assembly chambers upstairs. Inside the Stewart Street entrance is a shop selling Silver State souvenirs and books.
Other downtown attractions include the Brewery Arts Center, with music, dance, and drama performances and eclectic art; the Children’s Museum, with fun, interactive exhibits; and the Warren Engine Co. fire museum.
West of Carson Street, and almost hidden in the trees, is the 19th-century residential section of Carson City. The 2.5-mile Kit Carson Trail, a blue line on the sidewalks, leads past gewgaw-encrusted Victorians, prim churches, and the graceful Governor’s Mansion. The trail also passes the home of Orion Clemens, where brother Samuel Clemens stayed when he was in town. Get a trail map at local museums.
As well as being the state capital, Carson City was a major railroad town for some 80 years, when the Virginia and Truckee Railroad carried lumber up to the mines of Virginia City and ore down to the Carson River mills. Rail fans can relive those days at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, which houses beautifully restored rolling stock—big black Baldwin steam locomotives, all shining brass and red wheels—and exquisite working models. Many were once owned by Paramount Studios and appeared in such movies as The Harvey Girls, The Virginian,and Maverick.
Out Snyder Avenue is the small Stewart Indian Museum, in a stone building among the big cottonwood trees at the former Indian children’s boarding school (1890–1980). Arts and crafts are sold in the adjacent trading post.
Skiers can recover from a day on the slopes at Carson City Hot Springs on the north side of town. The outdoor swimming pool is heated to 100 degrees in winter, and the 10 private indoor baths vary from hot to scorching. There’s also a restaurant and live music on weekends.
Getting hungry? Don’t worry—there are plenty of good local eateries. At noon, government types crowd Garibaldi's for hearty Italian and continental fare. For terrific enchiladas and salsas, head to El Charro Avitia. Arguably the best hamburgers in the Great Basin can be found at Juicy’s, while Java Joe’s, housed in a former funeral parlor built in 1873, is a local latte-and-Internet hangout.
If you prefer to fine-dine with the power people—politicians and lobbyists—head for the Victorian rooms of Adele’s. Elaborate dishes of range-fed beef and fresh seafood highlight the often-changing menu, and martinis are presented with a whole tray of olive choices. Other high-end restaurants include the Station Grill and Glen Eagles.
For breakfast, Heidi’s is popular. So are the sticky pecan buns at the City Cafe Bakery. Early morning is a good time to join the joggers and wildlife watchers in Riverview Park at the east end of Fifth Street. Trails wander through the sage flats and restored wetlands and along the Carson River. You may spot yellow-headed blackbirds, ducks, herons, and the wild mustangs that come down here to graze.
Photos by Jay Aldrich
This article was first published in January 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.