Joy, from Perth, Australia, wrote that her youngest son and grandson, both in their 20's, were coming this way and asked what there was to do and see. Oh boy - where do I start? First, let me be clear that this the Reno/Tahoe part of Nevada. It's up where the eastern edge of California makes that angled bend. Las Vegas, despite being in the same state, is nowhere near here. Vegas is a good 7-8 hours drive south of here, a completely different climate and environment.
The jewel of the area is Lake Tahoe itself - a natural alpine lake more than 6,000 ft above sea level, completely ringed by mountains rising even higher. The lake is half in California, half in Nevada - the angled bend in the state line, mentioned above, is out in the middle. The lake reflects the sky and, with our annual average of 300 sunny days, is almost always a beautiful blue. More than 1,600 feet deep, it never freezes. Twelve by twenty-two miles, it has more than 70 miles of shoreline. Driving around the lake can make for a wonderful day. It takes about 3 hours to drive it straight through, but allow much more time to stop and gawk. Every turn brings a new vista and there are plenty of spots to pull over to take photos, plenty of interesting places to stop and shop or to grab some lunch or a cup of coffee.
If limited in time, at least try to make it out to Emerald Bay. Said to be one of the most photographed spots in the world, it's well worth the drive, especially if you're staying on the south shore. On top of little Fanette Island are the ruins of a stone teahouse, part of the Vikingsholm estate built in the 1920's. The estate, now owned by California, includes a "castle" at the end of the bay, open for tours in the summer. Check first to make sure the road around Emerald Bay is open - that part is occasionally closed for avalanche control. And take care - the road is narrow and twisty, and shady spots can be icy even when the rest of the road is dry.
If you'd like to see the lake from the water, there are Mississippi paddlewheelers that cruise from South Lake Tahoe, and Zephyr Cove on the east shore, across the lake to Emerald Bay and back. In winter, there are scenic cruises daily, and sunset dinner cruises Wednesdays and Saturdays. On some winter Fridays, the Ski Cruise sounds like a great time - take a ski bus from your South Shore hotel to the Squaw Valley Village to spend the day, and then party on the return trip across the lake on the paddlewheeler.
Of course, the main reason people come to this area in the winter is to play in the snow. Tahoe offers something for everyone, from downhill skiing and boarding, to cross-country and snowshoeing, to ice skating, sledding and tubing (sliding down the hill on an inflated tire innertube). The area has the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America, and they measure snowfall in feet instead of mere inches. Every place has some kind of lesson package, and rental equipment is readily available. At Heavenly Valley, on the south shore, some ski runs face the whites and blues of the Tahoe Basin, others overlook the tans and greys of the high-desert Carson Valley. A few miles west of Tahoe City on the west shore, Squaw Valley was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Both those big resorts offer gondola rides to the top of the mountain for non-skiers, and numerous other activities as well.
A few miles further west of Squaw, you'll come to Truckee, an interesting little old-west railroad town where Amtrak's California Zephyr stills stops daily on its route between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay. Just west of Truckee is a California State Park memorializing the tragic Donner Party pioneer wagon train. The museum is open year-round, and there are winter trails for cross-country skiers and snowshoers.
Reno is 30 minutes drive east of Truckee on I-80. In between, at the bottom of the pass at Boomtown, is a Cabela's sporting goods store. It's worth a visit, not necessarily to buy anything, but just to wander around and look. The store is a natural history museum of sorts, with taxidermy displays and dioramas from around the world and a couple of huge aquariums. I know it's strange to recommend stores as must-see items on a tourist listing, but Scheels on I-80 just east of Reno in Sparks is another amazingly massive sporting goods store experience. Both stores will provide lots of low-cost entertainment, inside out of the cold.
Reno has numerous attractions, aside from casinos, where you can get out of the cold too. The boys might enjoy wandering through the National Auto Museum, watching college basketball at the Lawlor Events Center, or checking out what's happening at the Reno Events Center - all within walking distance downtown. The big casinos, both in Reno and Tahoe's south shore, also offer a variety of shows and nightclubs - pick up a local newspaper to see who and what is playing where.
Of course, boys in their 20's might prefer checking out the coeds and the bars around the University of Nevada, Reno campus, also walking distance from downtown, just north of I-80 off Virginia Street. UNR is Nevada's land-grant institution - the buildings date from 1887 to the present. The Student Union or Main Library could be good places for some downtime and computer access.
The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is still seismically active, and contains many natural hot springs - a good way to warm up after a cold day skiing. Many are open to the public, with amenities such as the individual baths at Steamboat south of Reno, an outdoor pool at Carson in Carson City, and the full spa treatments at Walley's just south of Genoa, Nevada's oldest settlement.
Carson City, 25 miles south of Reno, is the capital of Nevada. The silver-domed capitol building is open to the public, with interesting displays on both floors. The State Museum is just down the street in the old US Mint Building, with everything from the original coin press to fossils to a walk-through replica of an underground mine. On the south end of town, there's the Railroad Museum and the local Visitors' Center. I haven't been in there lately, but they used to have a great aerial photograph on the wall, showing Carson City in the foreground, the Carson Range to the west, and beyond that Lake Tahoe - with the water level obviously 1,500 feet above the town.
East of Carson City, just off Highway 50, are some local businesses the Visitors' Center might not mention - the bunny ranches (and I don't mean rabbits). Brothels are legal in the rural counties of Nevada, and the county line is right on top of the hill. A couple of blocks off the highway to the north is the Moonlite Ranch, probably best known as the location for the HBO series, Cathouse; to the south are the Sagebrush, Kit Kat, and Moonlite II (formerly Kitty's). Some of the girls used to stop in at the bar where I worked on their way back to their week on-duty at the "ranches", and told me a bit about their job - they are examined by a doctor and tested for various diseases weekly; the men must always use condoms (per state law); no licensed prostitute in Nevada has ever tested positive for HIV/AIDS; and the girls also get a three-day class on detecting signs of STDs in men before they go into the line-up. Everything else, so I hear, is negotiable.
A couple of miles further east is the turnoff to Virginia City. No matter where my travels have taken me in the world, even places where people don't speak English, I can always get across where I'm from by humming the theme song from Bonanza - everybody knows that music and the burning map! While the Cartwrights never really walked the streets of Virginia City, a young man named Samuel Clemens did. Later, using the pen name Mark Twain, he wrote Roughing It, a great account of his adventures in the area. The gold and silver from the mines of the Comstock Lode helped finance the Union Army in the Civil War, and played a key part in the growth of San Francisco, California. The town is the largest designated Historical District in America, with the main street pretty much the same as it was in the 1860's. You can spend a fun day walking the board sidewalks, checking out the little shops and old saloons, maybe wandering through the old cemeteries on the northeast end of town, or taking in a museum or a tour. You might even want to take a ride on the tourist railroad running on the old Virgina & Truckee (V&T) route - the "crookedest short line in the world". Work is in progress to eventually rebuild the tracks all the way back to Carson City someday. It gets really cold up there once the sun sets in the winter, and the town pretty much rolls up its sidewalks then - time to head back down the mountain.
Of course, there are always the casinos. Nevada bars and casinos never close - they're open 24/7. You must be 21, and if you look young probably will be carded - carry proof-of-age identification. Many of the bigger casinos offer lessons in how to play the various games, and just about all have a Sports Book, where you can place a bet on just about any sports-related event in the country (you can even wager on whether the Super Bowl coin toss will be heads or tails). Oh, by the way, it's not called gambling here - "gambling" represents risk; the casinos prefer the term "gaming" - gaming denotes entertainment and fun. It's just Nevada semantics - decide your monetary limits before you start, and don't let the free drinks cloud your judgement. If you're playing, tipping the cocktail waitress increases the likelihood that she'll come around often, and if you're winning, the dealers appreciate the occasional tip as well. Be forewarned - altitude exaggerates the effects of alcohol.
I'm sure that's plenty of things to think about, if you've read this far. If you're driving across the Sierras, check weather and road conditions before you start. Many of the Sierra crossings farther south close for the winter; winter storms and avalanches can close the ones around here temporarily. Carry tire chains, and be prepared for winter driving conditions. Drink plenty of water to alleviate the headaches and possible nausea the altitude can induce - you should adjust after a couple of days. My email address is over there in the sidebar if you have specific questions and would like to reach me directly. I'll try to do a summer-specific post later in the year. Enjoy your visit!