The Old West Is Alive and Well in Carson City, And Now’s the Time to Visit
Where to hike, railbike and pull up a stool at a 120-year-old saloon
It’s quicker to drive from Kings Beach to Carson City than it is to Stateline — and the latter trip has none of the vertiginous change or cultural shift that come with following U.S. Highway 50 down the eastern slope of the Carson Range from Spooner Summit, a fast, slip-slidey ride. One minute you’re in Incline (aka “Income”) Village, the billionaire’s haven on Tahoe’s northern shore, the next you’re approaching Carson City from the south. The color palette changes from fir green and that singular blue to myriad variations on ochre. Even if Tahoe now feels like an extension of the Marina, driving from the lake down to Nevada’s capital city feels like properly entering the West, with the historic cattle ranches of Carson Valley better resembling the family spreads of Yellowstone than the scenes of late-stage ludicrousness of Silicon Valley.
Speaking of wealth: the unlikely silver dome on the Nevada State Capitol Building is a sign of Carson City’s own foundational plenitude. In the mid-19th century, Carson City was the rich beneficiary of economic activity stoked by the discovery of nearly $700 million of ore (mostly silver, some gold) taken from the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, 15 miles northeast of Carson City.
“Eagle Station was established as a trading post along the Carson Route of the California Trail in 1851, [but] with the discovery of gold and silver on the Comstock Lode in 1859, it quickly became a major commercial center,” says Michael Drews, archaeologist and chairman of the Carson City Historic Resources Commission. “What many people don’t realize is that much of the wealth derived from the riches of the Comstock flowed freely between Virginia City and San Francisco. Carson City benefited from both.”
Some of that wealth is still in evidence today, in a lovely downtown with several residences so well preserved that they’re on the National Register of Historic Places — like the Brougher Mansion, a 118-year-old turreted Queen Anne once home to Carson City’s postmaster, and the Adams House, a 100-year-old Craftsman bungalow, now used as an office. Happily, the Bank Saloon, built in 1899, has retained its original purpose; the longest-continually-operating bar in town now offers a slate of cocktails like Huckleberry Corpse Reviver, with Blue Ice Huckleberry Vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and cane sugar.
Below, 10 more things worth doing in Carson City.
If you like architecture, start with a walk through Carson City’s compact historical core — best explored by following the 2.5-mile Kit Carson Trail, which starts at the imposing Nevada State Museum and passes by the best of the city’s 19th-century residences, some exceptionally ornamental. (High marks go to the 1862 Gov. John E. Jones House.) Numismatists will want to build in extra time for the museum, which includes the one-time Carson City Mint. Download the trail map here.
People who like old houses generally like old things, which is great, since Carson City is home to two superior antique stores, directly across the street from each other. Due Sorelle has excellent French farmhouse goods, vintage paintings and dishware for half what they’d cost if you were actually in France, while across S. Curry Street, you’ll find the cavernous Hanifan’s. It’s a mess, and the prices are on the high side of fair, but it has its fair share of absolute treasures. If nothing suits but you still want to shop, head up Curry Street to the Charlie B. Gallery and Vasefinder Museum — owner Charlie Blim is a pottery savant, and the shop’s collection is surprisingly affordable (see his Etsy outlet for an idea of his aesthetic and pricing).
Carson City is surrounded by the ranchland of Carson Valley. The 700-acre Silver Saddle Ranch has trails running along the Carson River and into the adjoining Prison Hill Recreation Area. For a hike closer to home, try the waterfall at the end of Kings Canyon Road — you can drive to the trailhead, which reduces your walk to just over a half-mile, but as Drews points out, the U.S. Forest Service is now building a trail that’ll parallel Kings Canyon Road, and will take you all the way back to downtown.
And if that’s still not enough adrenaline, there’s Carson Canyon Railbike Tours, which was the unlikely star of an episode on the current season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: To follow in Lisa Rinna’s Fendi footsteps, you’ll need “to pedal for an extended time” on a railbike tour through the Carson River Valley; otherwise, you can take a train to Virginia City pulled by a 1916 steam locomotive — this latter attraction, fingers crossed, will reopen in September, following a COVID-related closure.
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