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Las Vegas, Nevada's desert jewel, is a mecca for hedonists and fortune-seekers alike, but venture beyond the glitz and out into the great American West and you’ll find a dust-kicking marvel of a destination.
The best jumping off point for your Wild West adventure is Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO) with seven daily hour-long flights from Vegas and multiple car rental companies offering everything from vintage Mustangs to more practical SUVs.
The Week Portfolio landed in Reno and headed straight out from the airport in search of cowboys, counter-culture and open roads.
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Straddling the California–Nevada state line, shimmering Tahoe is the nation’s largest alpine lake, held in a bowl of granite mountain peaks. You can drive round the 72-mile lake in half a day but if you don’t have time the north shore is peaceful and upmarket, (think gaucho-chic cabins and paddle board yoga classes), the east quiet and undeveloped, the south full of kitsch casinos and motels, and the craggy west home to historic miners' outposts, log cottages and museums.
The best way to immerse yourself in the vastness of the lake is the simplest - with a pair of oars. We clambered into kayaks on Sand Harbor State Beach and headed for nearby Thunderbird Lodge, the 40,000 acre estate of the late George Whittell, Jr. Referred to as a “king-sized playboy with tassels” by his contemporaries, the reclusive Whittell inherited a fortune equivalent to $49 billion today and barrelled through life with eccentric aplomb. Whittell shared his abode with Mingo (a 600-pound Sumatran elephant), and Bill, an African lion who rode shotgun in his luxury Duesenberg (and left territorial claw marks in the door).
We can thank Whittell for Lake Tahoe’s pristine east side - he owned all 27 miles of it. Moor at Thunderbird Lodge and head inside for a guided tour followed by lunch before kayaking back - the three-story Tudor Revival stone manse is worth it. The house and gardens are open for public guided tours from May to October and private group tours are available year round.
Lake Tahoe’s serenity extends to its magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range, where the air is “the same the angels breathe,” according to Mark Twain. The best way to drink it in is how the early pioneers did - by hoof.
Zephyr Cove Stables is half an hour from Sand Harbor State Beach and offers guided rides daily during the summer. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Nevada native Carly Eller who has been riding since she was three and will help you plot anything from a first-time jaunt to a more extensive equine expedition. Saddle up, explore the undulating plains of the Great Basin and enjoy the kinship with your Sierra steed as you clop over unfurling carpets of sagebrush dotted with soaring Ponderosa and Sugar pines.
Stretching from the southern shore of Lake Tahoe and bordered by the Sierra Nevada and the Pine Nut Mountains, the Carson Valley region encompasses Minden, Gardnerville, Genoa and Topaz Lake. Named after 19th-century frontier legend Kit Carson, this is the quintessential Great American West, where high alpine meets high desert, old-fashioned hospitality and fresh-air fun. Think soaring bald eagles, snow-capped mountain peaks, rushing streams and wild horses galloping through tan-coloured landscapes.
We stopped off in Genoa, a charming village at the base of the Carson Range about half an hour from South Lake Tahoe. First settled by Mormon traders from Salt Lake City in 1851, it’s pronounced Juh-NO-ah” not “JEN-o-wah”, as any of the district’s 225 residents will proudly tell you. A walking tour with part-time Western actress and historical re-enactor Kim Harris introduced us to figures such as Snowshoe Thompson - “Mailman of the Sierra”, as well as the Mormon settlers and riders of the Pony Express.
As she told us over a piquant Bloody Mary in the local saloon, it’s “the ghosts who tell the stories here”. The Genoa Bar and Saloon is “Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor” and everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Clark Gable has sat at the weathered, creviced wooden counter. Raquel Welch even left her black leopard print bra here, now pinned above the flamboyant bar. Afterwards, stroll across the street for an outstanding charcuterie lunch at the Pink House and you might catch owner Lois Wray, who restored this heritage-listed home to its original Gothic Revival splendour in 2015.
A ten minute drive from Genoa brought us to the small town of Gardnerville, renowned for its rich Basque history. Basques, who hail from the Pyrenees between Spain and France, made their way to the Silver State in the 1800s to work as sheep herders.
Tight-knit communities lived in boarding-style houses, eating hearty meals communally around large tables with wine and Picon Punch followed by games of cards (mus) or handball (pelota). Basque food today is more of a cultural experience than a meal, and you can’t leave without dining with hosts J.B. and Marie at their J.T. Basque Bar and Restaurant in downtown Gardnerville.
Plates heaped with lamb shoulder, sweetbreads and steak are passed down the table alongside raucous stories, laughter and bottomless red wine in tumblers. If you’re feeling brave, try the famed Picon Punch - an eye-watering Basque cocktail made with grenadine, bitter orange liqueur, club soda, a splash of brandy and a twist of lemon.
The Biggest Little City in the World lies on the alpine-fed Truckee River at the foot of the Sierra Nevada range in north-west Nevada, about an hour from Lake Tahoe. Established in 1859 as a trading station, gambling put Reno on the map when it was legalised here in 1931.
There’s still a clutch of glittering casinos downtown but thanks to free-thinking Burning Man attendees in one season and adventurous snowboarders the next, todays Reno has an outdoorsy, hipster vibe all of its own. There are plenty of activities to choose from that don’t include neon signs and slot machines, from white-water rafting down the Truckee and hanging off the world’s largest outdoor climbing wall on the side of the Whitney Peak hotel.
There’s also a vibrant foodie scene - we walked down to Food Truck Friday, on throughout May to September in Idlewild Park from 4-9pm every Friday. At least 4,000 people rock up weekly for live music and a no-cutlery supper from more than 30 trucks with everything from poké tostadas, kalua pork plates, vegan seitan burritos and craft desserts. Turn up hungry, try the iced Margheritas and drop by the Codfather for the best shrimp tacos and corn fritters of your life. Slater's Ding-a-Wing (wings and tenders with sauces and fries) also shouldn’t be missed.
Twenty-five miles south of Reno, Virginia City was a isolated mining camp until 1859 when silver prospectors struck it rich and the legendary Comstock Lode was born. From Reno, we drove along the historic Geiger Grade route, a scenic wagon road connecting Reno to Virginia City since 1862 when it transported silver from the mines. The twisting mountain route cuts through a rocky pumpkin-coloured landscape studded with scraggly juniper trees and slender Washoe pines. Watch out for wild horses as you snake south over the mountains into historic Virginia City.
Much of San Fransisco was built with the treasure struck here and as the mines roared to life, so did the lawless land above, yielding hundreds of millions of dollars (more than the entire California Gold Rush a decade before). Almost overnight an empty swathe of desert transformed into a rip-roaring 30,000-strong boomtown, spilling over with saloons, brothels, dance halls and gambling parlours.
Today, around 1,000 people live in this curiously well-preserved historic town, stalking down wooden sidewalks in tasselled boots and leathers with pistols on their hips. Enjoy 100-mile views across the mountains and high desert, tour mansions and mines, pick up a pair of bonafide cowboy boots or jump aboard a vintage steam-train. Although somewhat of a frontier theme park, a day trip to Virginia City from Reno offers a unique glimpse into the past (and some cracking, no-filter-needed Instagram shots).
Road trips are the heart of the Nevada experience, and the spirit of discovery runs deep as you motor along the vast network of open roads and breathtaking scenic byways. The Reno-Tahoe region of Nevada is fairly compact and easily explored by car, yet boasts a hugely diverse lineup of adventures that unfurl as soon as you arrive in each destination. Any one trip could include frontier towns, mountain peaks, horseback riding, ghost towns, hiking, kayaking or even skiing at one of Lake Tahoe’s 15 ski resorts. Whether you’re drawn to the adrenalin-packed northwest or the pioneering spirit and laidback simplicity of the Old West, Nevada is tailor-made for cowboys, trailblazers, dreamers and doers.
Netflights.com is offering return flights for a seven night stay in Nevada from London Heathrow to Las Vegas with Aeromexico for just £679pp. Based on selected dates in September 2018. Book by the 20 September 2018; netflights.com, 020 7001 4377
For more, visit travelnevada.com
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