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When we first heard about driving the Loneliest Road in America—otherwise known as U.S. Highway 50—that crosses the barren hinterlands of central Nevada, we were intrigued. In a 1986 article for Life Magazine, the American Automobile Association had this to day about it:

“There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”

Yikes! They make the road sound like something from a Hank Williams song. Well, once we heard that, we just had to see for ourselves if their description was true . . . or perhaps prove it wrong.

Nevada state tourism has embraced the once-derogatory moniker of "The Loneliest Road" with special road signs

Historic road through mountain passes

Decades before the Interstate Highway System was built,  two-lane U.S. 50 was the primary route across Nevada, linking its Utah and California borders. It’s also an historic road: it was once part of the Lincoln Highway—America’s first transcontinental route—that was proposed in 1913 to connect New York and San Francisco. Fifty years earlier the Pony Express also crisscrossed this path.

Crossing from Utah into Nevada on US Route 50 at a desolate gas station.

We started out at the Utah/Nevada border, at what may well be the “Loneliest Gas Station in America,” and, like all good pioneers, headed west. We were tracing the path of the early settlers who passed in Conestoga wagons without the benefit of power steering, GPS or extra horsepower under the hood. Tumbleweeds and the remnants of scattered vegetation provided some color as we set off into the Great Basin Desert.

Unexpectedly we started climbing over a 7,000-foot elevation mountain pass in what became a pattern on this roller coaster drive. Stone markers indicating a portion of the historic Lincoln Highway that shares the Loneliest Road in Nevada were installed by the Boy Scouts in 1928 to aid motorists and commemorate America's first transcontinental route.Upon reaching the peak the straight, two-lane road swooped down into a vast prairie before disappearing into the next mountain range 30 miles down the road. In total the drive undulates through seven high desert valleys, providing an array of earth tones and sage greens that form a soft contrast to the vivid blue Nevada sky dotted with stark white cumulus clouds.

The Lincoln Highway joins Highway 50 in the former railroad hub of Ely, 65 miles west of the Utah state line. You can still see remnants of that historic route in the form of concrete signposts marked with an “L”; the Boy Scouts of America placed them there in 1928 to guide motorists while commemorating the road’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln. However, with the vast desert stretching to the horizon on either side of the road, it would take one very confused driver to get lost here.

Old trains, vintage opera houses and mid-century neon

Ely hosts one of the biggest attractions along Highway 50: the Nevada Northern Railroad Museum. The 56-acre historic train yard and depot have been restored to how they looked in 1907, when local copper mines filled the burgeoning need for telephone and electrical lines in America. Visitors can even ride on a train powered by a circa 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive that was built in Philadelphia.

Two "campers" who spend their vacation tinkering with trains at the Nevada Railroad Museum in Ely, Nevada along the state's Loneliest Road

An elderly gentleman clad in striped denim overalls, sporting a glorious white beard and hoisting a giant monkey wrench mentioned he was one of the campers at the museum. Somewhat confused, we found out the museum offers its own version of a “fantasy camp”: a weeklong session where adult train geeks can tinker on actual equipment.

The Hotel Nevada, along Nevada's Loneliest Road in the town of Ely, remains little changed from 70 years ago.

77 miles farther west, the silver-and-lead mining town of Eureka bills itself as the “Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road.” In the 1880s, when the smelters were cranking out at full speed, it was named “The Pittsburgh of the West.” With an ornate circa 1879 opera house and museum in the former offices of one of Nevada’s oldest newspapers, The Eureka Sentinel, which was founded in 1870 during the mining boom, Eureka could easily serve as a Western movie set.

The Victorian-era buildings that line the main street of Eureka, Nevada are a well-preserved testament to the once-bustling commerce along the Loneliest Road

Ghost towns and ancient stones

Lovers of ghost towns—and all things abandoned—will love this drive. All along the Loneliest Road, just over the hill to the north or south intrepid souls will find the vestiges of life once lived with gusto. Two miles outside of Eureka, the former mining hamlet of Ruby Hill lies abandoned to the elements. Some of the corrugated tin-roofed buildings scattered along a small gully still house the furniture of prior residents–a sobering reminder of why these are called ghost towns. Among the silvery juniper bushes and piñon trees, cactus flowers blooming in bright fuchsia provide vivid splashes of color.

The abandoned ghost town of Ruby Hill lies just off the Loneliest Road outside of Eureka, Nevada

Midway across the state, Route 50 shakes hands a few times with the path of the old Pony Express. A handful of crumbling stations are still hunched over by the roadside. This area is desolate even now, imagine the plight of the lonely mail rider galloping through during the service’s brief life?

On the eastern outskirts of Fallon, the desert yields an archaeological surprise close to the road. At Grimes Point, a quarter-mile walking trail reveals rust-colored basalt boulders marked by geometric petroglyphs of circles and wavy lines, some of which were struck almost 3,000 years ago by indigenous peoples. Even more remarkable considering the parched desert environs, going back 12 millennia this spot was 400 feet below the surface of a lake.

Petroglyphs from 3,000 years ago offer an intriguing diversion at Grimes Point, along Nevada's Loneliest Road

F-18s and freedom ringing

The town of Fallon is perched at the western terminus of the “lonely” portion of highway that Life magazine referred to in 1986. Known as the oasis of Nevada (which admittedly isn’t saying much), Fallon boasts a rare patch of green in the state and is famous for its luscious cantaloupes and as the home of Fallon Naval Air Station, where the pilots made famous in the movie Top Gun now train; it’s not unusual to see (or rather hear) a pair of F-18 Hornets roaring overhead.

Sand Mountain, a 600-foot tall sand dune, sits alongside the Loneliest Road, just east of Fallon, Nevada.

Nearing the California state line, motorists will note an incongruous sight in the capital of Carson City. In front of the Nevada State Museum there’s a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell. In 1950 one was given to each state as part of a U.S. Savings Bond drive. But why does the bell look so much different than the original that is displayed in Philadelphia? This one lacks the famous crack.

A replica of the Liberty Bell--from a 1950s US Savings Bond drive, occupies pried of place in Carson City, Nevada along the Loneliest Road

At this point, we were ready to let freedom ring ourselves. We had driven the length of The Loneliest Road and lived to tell the tale. Though there were indeed some desolate stretches, there’s a particular beauty in the landscape along with haunting sights of a bygone era. It’s well worth the journey.

Pick up a "passport" to chart your progress along Nevada's Loneliest RoadNote: Rather than grouse at the slur on their character, the towns that form the bone-dry vertebrae along the spine of the Loneliest Road chose to make the best of it. They created a passport-like “Official Highway 50 Survival Guide” that highlights points of interest on the route. Intrepid travelers who have it stamped at stations along the way qualify for an “I Survived Highway 50” certificate and souvenir upon completion. Now what could be better than that?

Like it? Share it . . .Pin it!US Route 50 across Nevada--the so-called "Loneliest Road in America"--offers a glimpse into the past, along with stunning scenery

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Las Vegas is one of the most popular cities in the world, but is it an attractive tourist destination for people who don’t gamble? We put the city to the test, starting out by finding hotels in Las Vegas without casinos (or that place them in a separate building). They still provided an exciting Vegas vibe while allowing us a bit of freedom from glitzy slot machines and poker tables. As an added bonus they are all non-smoking hotels.

The Vdara Hotel & Spa

vdara hotel las vegas

Tucked into the glittering City Center complex that also includes The Aria hotel & casino, the Vdara offers a slick yet sedate address right in the thick of The Strip. Accommodations are all suites of varying sizes, decorated with edgy touches like remote controlled sun shades straight out of a James Bond villain’s lair.

You’re also only steps from Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana show. We had never seen Cirque du Soleil show before and were blown away by it. With eight different Cirque du Soleil shows currently appearing in Las Vegas, you’ll never run out of nightly entertainment options.

Zarkana stage (800x217)

There’s a gourmet market and café off the lobby that offers a varied selection of simple meals and snacks to enjoy in your room. There are no in-room coffee makers, which perhaps explains the long lines at Starbucks down in the lobby, but upon request housekeeping will bring up a Keurig machine with all the fixings.

Highlight: The super quiet atmosphere in the midst of the buzzy Strip, along with the north-facing rooms offering an impressive view of the Bellagio fountain show.

The Platinum Hotel

LAs Vegas platinum hotel interior

Perhaps the best-kept secret in town, this all-suite smoke-free property sits tucked away only two blocks east of Las Vegas Blvd, putting guests within easy walking distance of the dancing fountains and flashing lights of The Strip. Describing the accommodations as “suites” is an understatement; they are large 1- and 2-bedroom apartments, complete with well-stocked kitchens, gas fireplaces and washer/dryers. We could easily have moved in for a few months.

Westward rooms face the glitz of Las Vegas Boulevard while eastern rooms offer a majestic mountain view; these also face the airport but the windows are so insulated you won’t even notice the planes gliding by.

Highlight: The 6th-floor indoor/outdoor pool, with a fantastic view of The Strip.

 

Palms Place

Las Vegas Hotel Palms Place (800x590)

A quiet oasis perched at the edge of the sprawling Palms casino/hotel complex about 1 mile west of The Strip, all accommodations are sleekly decorated “suites” that are either studios or full apartments. The location is just perfect for offering a panoramic view of The Strip skyline to the east; western-facing suites give you the mountains and glorious sunsets (note: 1- and 2-bedroom units have huge tubs perched right at the windows, so you can indulge in a soak while you soak up the views).

Full kitchens provide convenience for take-out meals and snacking.  There’s plenty of free covered self-parking in the adjacent lot. One acrid note: the bar that is open to the lobby allows smoking, which was odd in an otherwise smoke-free hotel.

Highlight: The epic showers, with a combination of rainfall and massaging showerheads that made us want to spend hours in there soaping up with the luxury amenities, including a complimentary bath pouf.

J.W. Marriott Resort and Spa

LV Hotels JW Marriott aerial cropped (800x641)

This elegant property is nestled amidst a golf course in the upscale community of Summerlin, about 15 minutes northwest of The Strip. Although the separately-operated Rampart Casino shares the property, the towers housing the rooms are completely separate, so you never need to pass through the gauntlet of slot machines. Rooms, which are spacious and chock-full of luxury touches like fluffy robes and oodles of pillows are housed in two 6-story towers with balconies or terraces overlooking the lushly landscaped grounds.

Although the resort offers several restaurants, they are near the casino. If you’re seeking a quieter and less smoky option head to the nearby Tivoli Village luxury shopping and dining complex and feast at Echo & Rig, a new restaurant that combines a fine steakhouse and bespoke butcher. They offer delicious cuts of meat we hadn’t even heard of before and grill them all over red oak. Delicious!

Highlight: The huge pool area offers plenty of spots of lounging in sun or shade.

Dining: Many of the signature celebrity restaurants in Las Vegas are affiliated with casinos and often open up right into the smoky, noisy gaming room. Here are two upscale dining options off the Strip that are freestanding restaurants, making them quieter and smoke-free.

Piero’s Italian Cuisine: This old-school Italian restaurant is the place for celebrity spotting off the strip. The most popular item is the tender Osso Bucco, which comes with a special spoon to scoop out the delicious marrow. As an extra throwback bonus, 1980s semi-icon Pia Zadora sings in the lounge on Fridays and Saturdays. 355 Convention Center Drive  (702) 369-2305 www.pieroscuisine.com

 

pieros osso buco (800x533)

Echo & Rig—Butcher and Steakhouse: If you want to get your carnivore on, this is the place to go. The in-house butcher shop creates prime cuts that are not found elsewhere: ask for the “Cap” steak, which is the tender part of a ribeye, its smaller size makes it a good value. 440 South Rampart Blvd., (702) 489-3525, www.echoandrig.com

Echo and Rig steak (800x630)

As a companion to this story we’ve also written about things to do in Las Vegas without gambling. Click here to find more hotels in Las Vegas.

 

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Strolling down the Strip in Las Vegas, our faces were overwhelmed by the glow of a million pulsating lights. We don’t gamble so what would we do in a city that is defined by casinos? We weren’t alone. Las Vegas is one of the country’s top convention cities, each year bringing in over 5 million people on business trips—and many of them aren’t into gambling either. To our surprise there were many things to do in Las Vegas without gambling.

Getting married in Las Vegas (or confirming your vows)

Larissa Michael Rocky Elvis (800x705)

Las Vegas is the wedding capital of America with over 300 ceremonies a day performed in two dozen wedding chapels; which is why the city’s marriage license bureau is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to midnight. Rather than simply watch others take the plunge, on a lark we decided to renew the vows we’d made 27 years earlier. For the full-on experience we chose the Elvis Presley themed Graceland Wedding Chapel where Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi tied the knot. It’s a freestanding chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard South, a block north of the Gold and Silver shop featured on the TV series Pawn Stars. (Which is handy for those who need a spur-of-the-moment wedding ring.)

We expected the ceremony to be kind of hokey. But even though sequin-clad Elvis look-alike Brendan Paul made us promise, among other things, not to step on each other’s blue suede shoes, it turned out to be surprisingly sweet. Newly re-hitched we made Las Vegas our honeymoon playground.

Plan your Las Vegas wedding (or renew your vows).

Flying upside down over the Nevada desert

larissa sky combat ace gleeAnyone who loved Top Gun would find it hard to pass up an aerial thrill ride. Larissa donned a flight suit and boarded a propeller-driven aerobatic aircraft at Sky Combat Ace. For starters Richard “Tex” Coe, a former Air Force F-14 fighter pilot, performed several barrel rolls and flew upside down to test Larissa’s stomach . . . then handed the controls over to her!

LArissa sky combat ace upside down 2She flew the plane through an adrenalin-pumping inverted 360 degree loop as she pulled 7 Gs (that’s seven times the force of gravity), contorting her face into an odd Hobbit-like mien before reverting to unbridled glee at what she had just accomplished. Upon returning to terra firma Larissa declared, “My knees are wobbling, when can I go again?”

Be sure to watch Larissa’s flight below then plan your Aerobatic Flight here.

Playing with construction toys

To get our feet back on the ground we ventured to Dig This, an attraction that fulfills childhood dreams of playing in the dirt. We chose a session on the Caterpillar excavator, those forbidding looking pieces of equipment with steel-toothed buckets that loom overhead like escapees from Jurassic Park. After rumbling across the sandy site we dug Humvee-sized holes, maneuvered 2,000 pound tires into pyramid shaped piles and played a form of excavator basketball where even LeBron James wouldn’t dare block our shots.

Las Vegas dig this construction (2) (800x604)

We assumed all that getting dirty appealed mostly to men living out their boyhood fantasies, but owner Ed Mumm said that half of their customers are women. “Quite frankly they’re better at it,” he revealed. “They listen to the directions while men tend to barrel ahead.” (Somewhere in that observation is marriage advice waiting to be heeded.)

Want to play in the dirt? Click here to book your adventure!

Quirky museums of Las Vegas

Las Vegas defines their history in more recent terms than our hometown of Philadelphia. The desert city was just hitting its stride only 60 years ago and some fascinating museums highlight the quirky events that have helped shape its identity.

Click here for tours of Las Vegas museums.

There’s a retro-cool vibe at the Neon Museum, where the gaudy signs of former casinos are preserved. Visitors enter through the restored lobby of the scallop-shell-shaped La Concha motel, a circa 1961 structure that was designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects. Its white swooping roofline is a stellar example of the futuristic Googie architecture (think of the house on The Jetsons) that abounds in Las Vegas.

neon museum night tour las vegas

The huge signs, perched on the ground in an outdoor setting, are most evocative during a nighttime tour. Our guide, the jovial Ian Zeitzer from northeast Philadelphia, led us on a serpentine path through the neon boneyard illuminating his “history lesson of lost Las Vegas.” The fancy script letters of the Moulon Rouge sign once flashed outside the casino that was a trendsetter in 1955; it was the first integrated gambling hall in Las Vegas, attracting the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and his Rat Pack pals Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

The picturesque Neon Museum has become a fashionable venue for outdoor weddings with a popular photo op beside the restored 1940s era “Wedding Information” sign, whose bright red arrow once pointed the way for nervous couples to tie the knot. During the summer we went for the popular nighttime tour.

Las Vegas Neon Museum wedding sign (800x568)

Back in the heyday of Las Vegas, the ownership of some of the casinos was murky, a topic that’s played out at the downtown Mob Museum, located in the former Federal Courthouse that was home to the Mafia hunting Kefauver hearings in the 1950s. You have to admire a city that isn’t afraid to highlight the sordid side of its history. The museum tells the unvarnished story of organized crime in America and how its tentacles wrapped around every aspect of casino ventures in Las Vegas. Visitors can also listen to tapes of undercover FBI agents as they ensnared the mobsters. A costume display reveals that Tony Soprano wore somewhat mundane Dockers on the TV show.

national atomic testing museum las vegas alien

While casinos were popping up like mushrooms, the US government was experimenting with mushroom clouds in the nearby desert. The National Atomic Testing Museum pays homage to the era when nuclear weapons were new and novel. Exhibits encompass the scientific and the social: some local hotels offered rooftop-viewing parties complete with bag lunches and heavy-duty goggles to watch the atomic detonations.

If any portion of your youth was spent hunched over a pinball machine, you’re in luck in Las Vegas. The Pinball Hall of Fame features over 250 working machines dating from 1932 to the present day just waiting for itchy flipper fingers. Tim Arnold, a self-confessed “pinball nut,” created the Hall of Fame as a non-profit entity that donates its proceeds to charity. We were drawn to beautifully restored games of the 1950s and ‘60s, which cost only a quarter to play. A pinball geek can while away hours there for less than they’d drop on a blackjack table in ten minutes.

Pinball Hall of Fame Starjet backglass (800x530)

Epilogue: Newly remarried we were leaving Las Vegas when we stopped at a gas station on the edge of town. After ten days of living casino-free Michael just couldn’t resist a one-armed bandit seated right by the cashier. But each time he slid in a crumpled dollar bill the machine kept spitting it out, and so ended our one attempt to gamble in Las Vegas. We guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

Pin it!There are plenty of fun and family-friendly things to do in Las Vegas without gambling!

If you really want to avoid the lure of gambling, here’s our review of hotels in Las Vegas that are casino-free or have placed them in a separate building.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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