Combine the Sierra’s epic mountain roads, a wild west flavor and the spicy history of Nevada’s Virginia City for a great loop starting from South Shore Lake Tahoe east on Highway 50 which follows the shoreline. You’ll pass Zephyr Cove (a great summer beach spot), which climbs up and offers one of the area’s most spectacular views, so feel free to pull off into Sand Harbor and just absorb the beauty Lake Tahoe has to offer. The route I propose takes 3 1/2 hours according to Google, but with the twisties, the viewpoints, and the meanders around historic Gold Country towns, it is a pleasant all-day jaunt back through history, literary, and pop culture.
Start in South Lake Tahoe
Keep to the shoreline following Highway 50 and then Highway 28 through Incline Village where you’ll zig-zag north through town on Highway 431, nicknamed the Mount Rose Highway, toward Reno. The road winds up and crests the Sierras and, always a sucker for great views, I pull out take a last glimpse of Lake Tahoe before heading down past Mt. Rose Ski resort.
In Reno you will cross Highway 395, still staying on Highway 341 before climbing again through some twisties to the top of Geiger Grade, elevation 6,700. (Warning: In mid-July there’s bike racing up there, so the grade may be closed to other traffic.) If you’re a daring off-road rider, you can take the old grade, but most of us will stick to the new paved road. From there you will descend into Virginia City, where our history lesson begins.
A Tour of Historic Virginia City
Virginia City is a for-real silver mine from the Comstock Lode that appeared almost overnight during the silver strike of 1859. The silver mined here helped President Abraham Lincoln pay for the Civil War. Today it can be a bit touristy but it’s still full of history, western culture and architecture with saloons and covered sidewalks.
As you come into town you will notice the old graveyard on your left. Be sure to take a walk through it. That’s right, be sure to take a stroll through the graveyard which is like walking back in history with well-maintained and incredibly artistic stone carvings and markers going back to the mid-1800s. Plus there are great views of the surrounding area. Gazing over town you might imagine that, like many old mining towns, it was a harsh and isolated place to settle. I have been there during winter months when the town is empty and the cold Sierra winds whips through reminding you of just how difficult those times were.
Also on your way into town you will pass Six Mile Canyon. Remember this as you will use this road to leave Virginia City and loop back to South Lake Tahoe when you’re done exploring.
A National Historic Landmark
Once on Main Street you will have stepped back in time. Virginia City is one of the oldest established communities in Nevada. Restored raised sidewalks and store fronts line the street, and in many ways it’s not much different than it was a hundred years ago. Virginia City was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
The Comstock Lode Silver Strike
Like many cities and towns in Nevada, Virginia City was a mining boomtown; it appeared virtually overnight as a result of the Comstock Lode silver strike of 1859 and, during its peak, was the richest city in America with a population of over 15,000. During the 20 years following the Comstock success about $400 million was taken out of the ground.
Where Mark Twain got His Name
Virginia City is also considered the “birthplace” of Mark Twain, as it was here in February 1863 that writer Samuel Clemens, who first tried mining, turned back to writing as a newspaperman reporting for the local Territorial Enterprise newspaper under the whimsical nome de plume Dan DeQuille. He first used his famous pen name Mark Twain here on February 3, 1863, when he signed a humorous travel account Letter From Carson – re: Joe Goodman; party at Gov. Johnson’s music with Mark Twain. For more on Twain’s exploits check out local author David Antonucci’s book Fairest Picture: Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe.
The Psychedelic Sixties Started Here
When the silver ran out, the town had to develop other ways to survive and tourism became the area’s mainstay. Take the Red Dog Saloon for example, which was where Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Charlatans, the Grateful Dead and others got their start during the summer of 1965. What went on at the Red Dog was the beginning of West Coast hippie culture. Another favorite watering hole is the Bucket of Blood Saloon, which has been a local favorite since 1876.
During the summer, Virginia City is one of the Reno area’s favorite biker hangouts. If you want the place to yourself, visit in the fall when the weather is still good and the crowds have gone.
If you get a chance I highly recommend you ride around beyond Main Street and sample the area’s historic architecture. For example, the Fourth Ward School is an historic four-story mansard-roofed former public school building. It was designed in 1876 by architect C.M. Bennett in the Second Empire style of architecture. The school originally held over 1000. Its last class graduated in 1936 and today it’s open to the public as the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum.
Heading Out of Town on Six Mile Canyon Road
When you are ready to head out of town, get back on Main Street and leave in the same direction you came. As you come up on Six Mile Canyon turn right and take this nice little two lane road back out to US Highway 50 to Carson City to take US Highway 395 south.
Jacks Valley Road Bliss-Out and Watch for Deer
As you begin to leave town keep your eye out for Jacks Valley Road where you will take a right. This is one of my favorite local roads as it hugs the base of the Sierras. I love riding this stretch as the sun goes down with a little Grateful Dead playing on my helmet speakers. Don’t get too blissed out though! This road cuts through dear migration paths and I have had to stop to wait for herds to cross.
Genoa, a Weird Combo of Italy, Mormons and Movie Sets
Deer aside, between here and Genoa you get sweeping views of the Carson Valley which I have come to really love. Genoa, named after the city in Italy, was founded in 1850 and served as the set for Clint Eastwood’s film “Misery” based on the Stephen King novel, and starring Kathy Bates and James Caan. Genoa was originally a stop for respite on the California trail and called Mormon Station, belonging to the Utah territory. It became the first settlement in the Nevada Territory after Brigham Young called back the Mormons to fight in the Utah War. The Genoa Bar and Saloon is the oldest “thirst parlor” in Nevada, patronized by Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, and Johnny Cash. Today it’s a popular stopping spot for riders throughout Northern Nevada. If you see a red BMW 650 GS, stop in and say hello to Willie, the owner.
Soaking in the Hot Tubs
Back on Jacks Valley Road the next place of interest is David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort. Founded in 1862, Walley’s Hot Springs is set at the base of the Sierra Nevada and offers natural hot mineral springs/pools. There is nothing like just relaxing in these hot springs and enjoying the recuperative powers the water has to offer, especially after a day of riding. Bring your bathing suit and enjoy.
Back to South Lake Tahoe
From there it’s an easy ride down Highway 395 to Kingsbury Grade where you will turn right and head up and over back to South Lake Tahoe back to that familiar view of the Lake Tahoe I never tire of.