The Loneliest Road in America: Highway 50 across Nevada… The Backroads’ Series

Today marks the beginning of my Backroad Series where I will feature highways that Peggy and I traveled over this past summer on our 8,000 mile journey around the US in our small RV.

Almost every photo I took while driving across Nevada emphasized Highway 50’s claim to being the loneliest road in America. This is desert country where mountain ranges are inevitably followed by basins. The desert is courtesy of a rain shadow created by the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The basins and ranges are courtesy of plate tectonics.

In 1986, Life Magazine declared that the section of Highway 50 that stretches across the Nevada desert was The Loneliest Road in America. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. It was more like, “Why would anyone in their right mind choose to drive this road?” But Nevadans saw it differently. They knew an opportunity when they saw it. After all, the state got its kick-start when silver and gold were discovered in abundance. And then it built Las Vegas. 

Who wouldn’t want to drive The Loneliest Road in America, the folks in Carson City, Nevada’s capitol, reasoned? Adventuresome souls would immediately add it to their bucket list! Signs were made and publicity was cranked out. Maybe the road wouldn’t be so lonely…

Signs declaring Highway 50 across Nevada to be ‘The Loneliest Road in America’ were created for publicity and photo ops.

It worked for me. I’ve driven the highway three times since. My last time was this past summer when Peggy and I went out in search of backroads across America. Highway 50 definitely qualifies— and it is still one of the loneliest roads in America.  It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time in the 60’s, that’s the 1860s, it served as the premier route for people making their way West. The Overland Stage Coach Company, the Pony Express, and the country’s first national telegraph all made use of it. In 1913 it became part of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental road.

I know a bit about the road. I was raised in the small town of Diamond Springs, which is located in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, three miles from Placerville, AKA Hangtown. If you walked out my front door and hiked a block east on Highway 49 past Fitzgerald’s house and the jungle-like graveyard that backed up to our property, you came to Missouri Flat Road. Turning left there took you to Highway 50, a mere mile away. My brother Marshall and I often made that hike in the summer when we were on our way to one of our favorite swimming holes, the 20-foot-deep Tub on Weber Creek. 

I was vaguely aware at the time that if you climbed on the road and drove east for a long time, you could reach the Atlantic Ocean. I also knew about the Pony Express connection. The parents of one of my close friends in Diamond Springs owned a small café in a historic building that had once served as a Pony Express stop. That was about it except for the annual Wagon Train that made its way from Lake Tahoe to Placerville on Highway 50 to celebrate the ‘good old days.’ The town would close Main Street to traffic and everyone would party. As I remember, the men would grow beards for the event, have fast-draw contests, and get drunk. Luckily, their six shooters were filled with blanks. 

Later, when I was in college, I had a laundry route in the summer that ran from Placerville up to South Lake Tahoe over Highway 50. The beautiful 120-mile round trip across the mountains paid for my college education. That section of Highway 50 was far from lonely, however. On Fridays and Saturdays, it could resemble a parking lot as people made their way up from the Bay Area and Sacramento to play at Lake Tahoe and gamble.

To avoid the possibility of the crowded highway this past summer, Peggy and I climbed on Interstate 80 in Sacramento and zoomed over the Sierras through Reno to the small town of Fernley, where we left the freeway behind and drove southeast to pick up 50 as it passed through Fallon, Nevada. That’s where lonely begins. (BTW: Had we gone north from Fernley for 60 miles, we would have ended up in the Black Rock Desert, the site where Burning Man takes place.)

I am going to do three posts on Highway 50 through Nevada. Later, I will do a couple of posts on 50 in West Virginia and Ohio as part of my backroad series. I took the photos in this post between Fallon and the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area in the center of the state.

Once you leave Fallon, Highway 50 seems to go on forever. Except for a few towns (three), ranches, and mining operations, the population drops close to zero.
Twenty miles outside of Fallon, first time drivers of Highway 50 are surprised to come on Sand Mountain, a large sand dune that is two miles long and 600 feet high. Locals say it ‘sings’ to you. The sand came from ancient (and very large) Lake Lahonton, a product of the glacial age. It dried up 9,000 years ago as the climate grew warmer and glaciers retreated north.
While many people think of the desert as desolate, I’ve always found it to have its own unique type of beauty. This is sagebrush country!
Mountains climb up to over 10,000 feet along Highway 50 through Nevada. Passes range between 6,000 and 7,500 feet.
I like the contrast here between the blue sky, dark mountains and buff colored desert floor. The geologist Clarence Dutton described the narrow parallel mountain ranges that define the topography of the Basin and Range like an “army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico.”

About half way between Fallon and Austin, Nevada, we came upon a small, historical marker site that featured the Overland Stagecoach, the Pony Express and America’s first cross country telegraph. All three were inspired by the North’s need to maintain communication with the West during the Civil War. Both the Pony Express and the Overland Stage Company had stations here. Three illustrations (early photos?) at the site captured our attention.

The Pony Express ran its historic route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California— a distance of 1966 miles— in ten days. Each rider would normally cover between 75 and 100 miles at top speed. Stations along the way had saddled horses ready to go when the rider arrived. It took approximately two minutes to make the change. While the Pony Express has reached legendary status, its run, so to speak, was a short 18 months from April of 1860 to October of 1861 when the transcontinental telegraph was created.
The Civil War and the need for rapid communication between the East and West inspired Congress to push and pay for the building of the telegraph. The creation of the Pony Express was seen as a stopgap effort while it was being built. My dad worked as a lineman in the 30s. His job was to climb up poles like these as power lines were stretched across Northern California and Oregon.
The Overland Stage Company began its run over the route at about the same time the telegraph was completed. Serving as the primary mode of passenger transport between Missouri and California, it had originally operated a more southern route. The coming of the Civil War forced it to move north to the central Nevada route. A young Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) would use it to get to Nevada. When the transcontinental railroad across America was completed in 1969, the route was discontinued.

Rumor is that a Pony Express horse kicked over a rock that showed silver and the rush was on. Whether this is true or not, the presence of silver led to a silver rush and suddenly the town of Fallon was born. Soon it boasted a population of over 10,000 and even had a castle! Now it is best described as sleepy and historic.

When we drove through Austin, major work was being done on the road and it wasn’t conducive to stopping, but I did snap a few photos.The barely visible sign on the building says Stage Coach Inn.
Another photo of downtown. I was aiming my camera a bit high to avoid all of the roadwork. One of several churches built in Fallon during the heyday of silver mining looms in the background.
Austin’s best known landmark is Stoke’s Castle. It was built by an eccentric millionaire from the eastern US who only occupied it for a few months during the silver rush. While small in terms of what we think of as castles, it reminds me of the castles built between Scotland and England for protection against raiding (and possibly as a base for raiding) in the 13th and 14th Centuries. Some of my ancestors reportedly came from the region. I suspect that they were outlaws.
We wrapped up our first day of backroad travel by climbing up Highway 50 into the Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest and over Hickison pass. We were pleased to see green! Next Thursday I will feature the Hickison Petroglyph area as well as the Grime’s petroglyph site that served as bookends for our first day of travel.

NEXT POST: On Tuesday, I will feature the second part of my introduction to the book I am blogging, “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.” I answer the question about why I would undertake a 700 mile plus backpacking journey down the PCT at 75. Will a plea of insanity work?

33 thoughts on “The Loneliest Road in America: Highway 50 across Nevada… The Backroads’ Series

  1. My favorite road, bar none. Years ago I was travelling west, between Middlegate and Fallon, looking up at the arrays of radio antennas on the nearby mountaintops. I had just left the ruins of a Pony Express station, struck by how quickly, in only a little more than a hundred years, the brave young men of the Pony Express were replaced by speed of light communications. I was in an speedy, comfortable, self-propelled vehicle, unconcerned with Indians, lame horses or freezing temperatures. What a difference.

    • The changes are mind boggling and they just keep happening, only faster. Other than the mountain dominating antennas, however, outback Nevada doesn’t look much different that it did a 150 years ago. Even the rural communities and places like Middlegate maintain a strong element of yesteryear. It’s one of the reasons I love the state! Thanks for adding your thoughts. –Curt

  2. Love your blog. Slight correction though: Stoke’s Castle is in Austin, not Fallon. Not that a hundred miles makes that much difference out there. Keep wandering and writing!

    • Thanks so much. You are absolutely right. I knew that. My fingers and mind were playing a game with me. 🙂 It happens. The town photos were also of Austin. I have already gone back and made the corrections. Appreciated! –Curt

  3. We traveled pretty much this stretch (one of my favorites) on the way home from our 3+ week jaunt in the SW over a year ago. Can’t clearly remember how we ended up spending the night in Ashland on the last night, but I remember steering clear of Reno. In order to continue on without being molested by ‘civilization’ we headed north out of Fernley, spending a night at Pyramid Lake along the way. Love, love, love them lonely stretches.

    Chuckles at some of the memories you bring back… remembering Fallon for the wrecked (not just flat) tire when moving from P’ville to Eureka, UT many years back. We were hauling a trailer full to the gunnels of our worldly goods… Late hubby had us following the PX Trail and the Lincoln Highway many a time…

    I also like them “army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico.” 🤩

    • You were definitely on the road to Burning Man, Gunta. It takes place a few miles from Gerlach. Had you been traveling through around Labor Day, the road wouldn’t have seemed nearly as lonely. We’ve camped out at Pyramids amid Lake as well. I suspect that you came across from Klamath Falls through Keno to get to Ashland.
      Better Fallon than 50 miles out in the desert. 🙂 Sounds like you know the road well.
      And I have always been charmed by the caterpillar anaolgy. –Curt

      • Had to look at the map. We missed Gerlach, heading up the west side of the lake, we camped up in the hills that night. We paid for the permit with the Indian Reservation, but the sites down by the lake were buggy, so we did the dispersed thing just outside the reservation boundary. I think breakfast/lunch may have been in Susanville. Details escape me at this point, but I remember the fun parts. Hard to imagine folks who actually live out in that desolate country.

        Wish I could remember how we managed to get out of the dead tire episode… seems we ended up spending the night in one of the casinos either in Fernley or Fallon. That was back in the dark ages (’80). Might have been before the military base (I was shocked to see that) or possibly before burning man, too. ☮︎

      • Ah, you could have followed dirt roads over to Susanville or dropped back into Reno to pick up #95. That’s the way that Peggy and I head back when we aren’t driving up I-5.
        It was the early 90s that BM first moved to the Black Rock Desert from the Bay Area. It wasn’t ‘civilized’ until the late 90s, however. 🙂 I made my first trip in 2004. –Curt

  4. We were fortunate to be able to stop in Austin on two of the times we passed that way. Once we came north from Tonopath, a place I recall you have also visited on a somewhat lonely road too. On both occasions, we stopped in the Toiyabe Café and had a surprisingly good meal for such a remote place.

    • That sounds like good advice, Ray. I’ll have to remember the restaurant when I pass that way again. And yes, Tonopah is one of our go-to places as we head south or north on Highway 95. Did you take 376 north from Tonopah to get to Austin? That’s a road we haven’t been over. –Curt

  5. Do you suppose advertising the ‘loneliest road in the world’ will end its loneliness? looks like it hasn’t turned into a traffic jam just yet. That sand dune, which appears to come out of nowhere (thanks for the explanation) is remarkable.

    • They’ve been advertising it for over 30 years with minimal impact, Sue. 🙂 I expect the same will be true for the next 30!
      There are other sand dunes lurking around out there! Always a surprise. Always fun. –Curt

  6. I just mentioned to someone yesterday that if I were made to choose just one western state to visit, it would be Nevada. Of course Utah, NM, and etc. are gorgeous, but after I crossed Nevada on 50 — and a few other wannabe roads — I’d fallen in love. It’s good to know that there’s still some of that loneliness out there. Loved the photos!

    • Thanks, Linda. As I thought about it, I have spent more time in Nevada than any other states except California and Oregon. Part of the appeal to me has always been the ‘loneliness,’ the lack of crowded roads and masses of people (although Reno and Las Vegas have their share). Part is the distant views and stark beauty, and part is the character of the people who have chosen to live in remote areas. As soon as you escape the freeways, you enter another realm. But even I-80, which I used for crossing Nevada on my bicycle has its charm. –Curt

    • I’ve always thought that. I followed 80 through Nevada on my 10,000-mile bike trek and always regretted that I didn’t follow 50. I was traveling solo but if I had had a support vehicle, there’s no doubt I would have taken 50. There were other roads I followed in my journey that were equally remote. –Curt

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