Back in 1986 whilst scraping the barrel for a story, Life magazine published an article about Interstate 50, a long, desolate road stretching right the way across Nevada with seemingly nothing but a sprinkle of towns some 100 miles apart. The article was scathing, and ultimately dubbed the 400mile road the ‘Loneliest road in America’. Suddenly, I-50 was brought to national attention and the State of Nevada was not about to miss a marketing opportunity.
The thing is, most of the I-50 follows a historic corridor that was (amongst other things) once the Pony Express Trail, which was a trail used in the 1800’s to deliver mail across the United States. Once Interstates came about, the I-50 was incorporated and cut right across the north of Nevada.
Generally, the road runs through a basin, then over a pass then through another basin, taking in a total of 17 mountain passes and 400 miles in distance. We hopped on the I-50 in Fallon, just outside Carson City, Nevada and drove right the way to Delta, Utah before heading north to Salt Lake city.
Leaving Fallon the road becomes one lane, straight, long and other vehicles on the road soon thin out. After around 25 minutes Abi burst to life and enthusiastically screeched ‘whoa dad, what is that’! I looked at where she was gesturing and saw a random, 600ft sand dune in the middle of no where. We of course went and attempted to climb it, but it became dangerous as the sand was so steep and began avalanching. Back to the car and away we went.
The first town you come to is Austin, which is a blink and miss it place with not much to offer. There were a few historic buildings, but the kids really couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm, we stopped briefly before heading off again. The kids did spot a few fighter jets crossing the skies at low altitude, turns out there is an air force training base nearby. I had Abi and Jack research the history of Austin and as I drive the now monotonous continual asphalt after asphalt, I was informed that Austin was a town built on silver. It was once one of the largest cities in Nevada boasting some 8,000 people in the 1860’s. Folks thought the silver would never run out and made it home, unfortunately it dried up after around 20 years and mass unemployment ensued. Driving on from Austin we saw signs for some hot springs and some carvings in stones, but we unanimously agreed to keep going as we were getting hungry and the kids were on a hotdog promise in the next town.
Next stop is Eureka, a quaint town that is full of character. The kids tell me that in searching for Silver, prospectors from Austin ended up finding lead and setting up home. Other than looking at the historical buildings, there is little to confirm, or indeed deny Eureka’s self-imposed moniker ‘friendliest city on the loneliest road’, the hotdogs were good though! Other than a few stops which apparently offered specific historical views over what looked like absolutely nothing at all, there was very little between the next town.
Pulling into Ely I had made ground much quicker than anticipated, partly due to there being not many other cars on the road, and mainly due to the fact you can sit comfortably at whatever speed you like, though State suggestions by way of law are that you drive no faster than 70mph. Just before entering Ely we had a bit of a mini hike along a railroad, and sensed that something very touristy was coming – We were right. Complete with a couple of Casinos, museums and a McDonald’s, Ely is every bit as tourist central as I had expected. It does retain some of its historical character, and the mining history of the copper boom a century past are still there, but realistically, it is just too big and modern to hold off the fact that huge hotel signs and fast food restaurants prevail.
Moving on from Ely we headed towards the Great Basin National Park, home to Wheeler Peak the highest mountain in Nevada and the world renowned Lehman Caves. Entrance to the park is free and Lehman caves (despite being the worst managed attraction in any national Park we have ever been to) costs relatively little to explore the underworld of Nevada. The issue lies in the fact that reservations are needed for cave tours, the problem is that it is physically impossible to make a reservation. With no online way, and a phone line which never gets answered you literally must rock up and take your chance. As we did, and we could get on a tour, but it meant hanging around for 5 hours. It wasn’t an option for us, so we looked through a couple of telescopes that saw nothing and headed off towards the Utah border to fill up with gas and get ripped off with the most expensive tube of pringles ever sold anywhere on earth.
Once at the final town of Delta we split and headed through hardcore country villages to head north to Salt Lake City. Our crossing of the I-50 took 2 days and I don’t really get the whole lonely side of things. You could literally stop every 30 miles or so to shoot off and see something. There were ghost towns, lakes, archeological sites, places of interest and wildlife viewing points. Generally we passed a car every half an hour and Ely and Delta are really quite modern. Driving the I-50 was definitely worth it as it served up a unique slice of historical Nevada and indeed the US, the kids enjoyed our stop offs along the way and we all agree that it was an enjoyable, classic mini Western US road trip.