My desert road trip idea with my dad and my husband started when our Africa trip to Namibia and Botswana was cancelled again due to COVID restrictions. We couldn’t see the desert in Africa so why not embark on a desert road trip to Nevada and Death Valley? Kind of the same, right? Well, maybe not, but don’t underestimate Nevada and Death Valley. Continue reading to see why you should visit!
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- 1 night in Reno, Plaza Resort Club
- 1 night in Tonopah, Mizpah Hotel
- 3 nights in Death Valley, The Oasis Inn at Death Valley
- 3 nights in Las Vegas, The Cosmopolitan on the strip
Things to Do
- Reno, Nevada: Truckee River Walk and National Automobile Museum
- En Route to Tonopah, NV: Virginia City and Goldfield Cemetery
- Tonopah, NV: Tonopah Historic Mining Park and Old Tonopah Cemetery
- En Route to Death Valley: Gold Point Ghost Town and Rhyolite
- Death Valley: Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Harmony Borax Works, Devil’s Golf Course, Zabriskie Point, Badwater, Dante’s View, Artists Palette/Drive, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, Darwin Falls, Mosaic Canyon, Ubehebe Crater
- Las Vegas, NV: Mirage Volcano, Flamingo Wildlife Habitat, Fountains of Bellagio, Helicopter ride, Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Day 1: Reno, Nevada
We flew from Baltimore, MD to Reno, Nevada via Southwest Airlines on Thursday, November 12, 2021. As soon as we arrived, we picked up our rental car (SUV recommended) to start our desert road trip. We hit the Automobile Museum and for a $15 entrance fee, it was well worth it. You wouldn’t think such an impressive car museum would be in Reno, but we were all surprised with how great this museum was. Even if you’re not a car aficionada, it’s worth a visit as it has over 200 cars. The highlight of my visit was seeing a KITT replica car from the 1980’s show Knight Rider with David Hasselhoff.
We then checked into the Plaza Resort Club Hotel. The hotel is within walking distance to both the Riverwalk area and downtown Reno. The rooms were dated but clean and huge and the hotel had character (in a good way). They even had mini fridges and microwaves. I would stay here again.
We took a walk around the Truckee River walk area and downtown Reno. The town was dead with very few people walking around. There seemed to be more homeless people than patrons. You can picture how vibrant this town must have been back in its heyday but that has long since passed. I did not, however feel unsafe walking around. The Truckee River walk area was the most busy and looked like a fun place to bar hop on the weekend with modern restaurants and bars overlooking the Truckee River. We had dinner at the Thai Corner Café and were served delicious large portioned meals. I would highly recommended them.
Desert Road Trip: Day 2
We were ready to start our desert road trip. It only took us 40 minutes from Reno to drive to Virginia City, a historic silver mining town from 1859. On our way there we didn’t see much but a few lonely wild horses trying to find something to eat in the desert.
We first stopped at the cemetery in town. We downloaded an interpretive tour of the cemetery on my iPhone which was pretty cool. Directions on how to access it can be found at the entrance to the cemetery. The audio tour was done as an Eagle Scout project and is quite good. I recommend listening to it. It gives a unique perspective on how the people died and their role in the town. Donations are accepted to upkeep the grounds.
Our next stop was at The Way It Was Museum in Virginia City. Admission is $4 and includes indoor and outdoor displays as well as a 16 minute video about mining operations in the town. The museum was quite good and I would recommend it as a stop when you are in town. You can’t beat the $4 entrance Fee.
Our last stop in Virginia City was at the Blood of Bucket Saloon. There are several bars to choose from in the historic district each with their unique history and period era decorations. The building is original from 1876. This town is very tourist friendly and I wondered if it would still be a viable town if it weren’t for the tourism industry. Everyone we encountered was friendly and genuinely happy to see us.
On our way out of town we stopped at the Chollar Mine for a tour of this gold and silver mine. Admission is $20 per person. There was only a couple of us on the tour and the guide did a really good job of explaining the history and interacting with the group. It seems to be an unknown gem in Virginia City. It’s definitely worth a visit even for the steep admission fee.
We drove 40 minutes to the historic town of Tonopah, Nevada where we checked into the historic Mizpah Hotel. The hotel was built in 1907 and boasts that it was rated America’s #1 most haunted hotel (if you believe in that sort of thing). We met people who were staying there with the hope of seeing ghosts that night. The hotel was quite nice (which is reflected in the price), has a cool historic bar area, and is within walking distance to restaurants.
We walked a few blocks to the Tonopah Brewing Company for dinner. The food was BBQ style and was good. They brew their own beer and even had a gluten free cider which I drank although as expected it was a little on the sweet side. The bartender was very friendly as was the other bar patrons. I would recommend this restaurant. Who doesn’t like BBQ and beer on vacation?
Desert Road Trip: Day 3
Before leaving Tonopah, we stopped by the historic Tonopah cemetery next to the spooky Clown Motel. You can read about how people met their demise in this old mining town. There were many stuffed animals and toys placed in the graves but didn’t necessarily reflect the age of the deceased.
Our last stop in Tonopah was at the Tonopah Historic Mining Park. We spent several hours here and still didn’t see everything. This park is over 100 acres and is walking trails only so plan accordingly. Along with all the outdoor exhibits, there was also a museum and film to watch. This was a great park to get a feel for the dangers and equipment needed to mine silver and gold. At a cost of $5 it was well worth it. They even had a mine shaft you could walk through.
We got back on the road headed toward Death Valley National Park. We decided to follow a sign called “Gemfield” and drove down a dirt road to see where it would lead us. This is a pay-to-dig rockhounding site. We got out and looked around to find a couple cool rocks but decided to forego rock collecting. There was no one collecting money but a sign indicated to go into the town of Goldfield and you could pay on a per pound of rock collected price. This was a nice little side drive where we saw some Joshua trees and wild burros.
Our next stop was at the historic town of Goldfield to visit yet another historic cemetery and stretch our legs. At this point, we’d seen enough cemeteries.
Our last stop before Death Valley National Park was at the historic gold mining town of Rhyolite in the Bullfrog Mining District. The town only boomed for 3 years and quickly became a ghost town with only one seasonal caretaker currently living there watching over the artifacts. Most of the sites can be seen from a car but we did get out to see some of the architecture more closely. There was also a makeshift grave of a woman named Mona Bell who was tragically killed. Her makeshift grave is adorned with beads and high heeled shoes.
Just outside of the town there is the Goldwell Open Air Museum and a house made out of bottles. The museum sculptures were odd and unimpressive but might as well visit as it’s right on your way out of town.
Oasis Inn at Death Valley
We checked into the Oasis Inn at Death Valley for our 3 night stay. We were told to call the restaurant and book reservations but since no one answered, we had leftover sandwiches for dinner followed by beer and wine. The room was pretty small but clean and had a nice sitting area overlooking the grounds.
Salt Creek Trail and Ubehebe Crater
Our first stop on day 4 of our desert road trip was a 22 minute drive to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This is a short 1/2 mile boardwalk loop where you can possibly see the endangered salt creek pupfish if you look closely. We did not see any. We then drove 1 hour to Ubehebe Crater, a 600 foot deep crater at the northernmost park of the park. It was definitely an impressive hole in the ground.
Day Trip through Hanging Rock Canyon
We decided that today would be our scenic drive day so we followed Death Valley Road through Hanging Rock Canyon. We made a stop along the way to see an abandoned borax mine.
Death Valley Road ends at CA-168. Take a left and then take another left on US-395. Although Manzanar Historic Site was not on our list, we decided to take a stop as it was right off of US-395. This was a internment camp during WWII for Japanese citizens and Japanese illegal immigrants. The site was very well set up with historic signs and several buildings that mimicked what it was like for the Japanese living in this harsh area. It’s well worth a visit and is free of charge.
Father Crowley Vista Point
We headed back into the park to stop at Father Crowley Vista Point at Rainbow Canyon. This was a popular stop for tourists and although drones are not allowed in the park, there was a quinceañera drone photography session going on at the site. I highly recommend this stop for a selfie!
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
We continued to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. There are several dunes throughout the park. These are the most visited and are quite impressive. As the name implies, the mesquite bush grows in these dunes.
Devil’s Cornfield was our next stop. It was less impressive as you had to really use your imagination to picture the arrowweed plants that appear to look like bunched up corn. You just have to pull off the road to see it, so why not?
Harmony Borax Works
We quickly hit Harmony Borax Works before the sun set. This was one of the companies that mined borax in the area and was famous for their 20 mule team that would haul the borax out of this very harsh area. Borax is mainly used as a cleaner, but has other uses as well.
The entire day trip was over an 8 hour drive not including stops. I would recommend this drive if you have a couple days staying in the park. Otherwise I would limit your site visits to the area around Furnace Creek which included the sites we did on Day 5.
On our second day at Death Valley National Park, we decided to limit our driving and see sights near our hotel. We stopped at Zabriskie’s Point just in time to miss the sun rise but the view was still stunning none the less. Its a pretty steep incline to the top but only a 1/4 mile walk on a paved path. It’s a must do!
Twenty Mule Canyon Road
We then drove through the Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road off CA-190. This is a 2.5 mile one way road that makes its way through eroded badlands. Portions of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was filmed here.
We then hit another iconic stop in Death Valley: Dante’s View. From here, you can see the lowest point in North America named Badwater Basin. You can view it from the parking area or take a short walk to get another perspective. This was my favorite overlook at Death Valley.
We then drove down to Badwater Basin to experience 282 feet below sea level. You can take a walk on the salt flats which seemed to go on forever. This was a very popular tourist attraction.
Natural Bridge Canyon Trail
Our next stop was a short 2 mile hike through Natural Bridge Canyon. Since we were there in November the weather was perfect, but I’m not sure I’d do this hike in the summertime. This was the only canyon trail we found to walk through during our stay in Death Valley.
You can’t go to Death Valley without seeing the famous Devil’s Golfcourse! I’m not a golfer but it definitely lives up to it’s name. Wind and erosion has created hard, jagged salt rocks. Look closely to examine the intricacy of the salt rocks.
Our last stop before heading back to the hotel was through Artist’s Drive. This is a 45 minute detour down a one way road where colorful eroded hillsides can be seen. The most colorful stop along the way is at Artist’s Palette. You can pull over and take pictures of the hillside’s pink, blue, and yellow colors. The road is quite winding and fun to drive. This is another must see sight in Death Valley.
Enjoying the Resort
Back at the hotel we enjoyed some down time at the pool and exploring the grounds including spotting a lone coyote. The bar and snack area was only open for a short time so I would recommend bringing drinks with you and saving your appetite for dinner as there were only two choices for food: quesadillas and Caesar salad.
As a side note about this very expensive hotel: Service was very limited. Most things were closed and making reservations at the only open restaurant was nearly impossible unless you personally walked down there and could find someone to reserve you a time slot. No one answered the phone so don’t bother calling. We were happy we had brought food and drinks with us in a cooler prior to checking in. It’s one of the only hotels in Death Valley so they got you! It was unclear if this was a COVID related service issue or not.
We did manage to make dinner reservations that night and had a wonderful experience. The waiter had been working there for a long time and really seemed to enjoy his job. He was very personable and gave us great service. The food was also delicious.
Day 6 was our big push to get to Las Vegas and our last stop on our desert road trip. We sucked it up at the only gas station in Death Valley and paid $6.65 a gallon for gasoline.
After a 3 hour drive, we stopped at the Hoover Dam to visit the museum and get some pictures. Due to COVID restrictions, they were not giving tours. This was my fourth time seeing the dam and it was still impressive none the less, although I couldn’t help to think of the devastation and local impacts it has had on the environment but without the Hoover dam, there would be no Las Vegas.
Clark County Museum
Our last museum we visited on our desert road trip was at the Clark County Museum just outside of Las Vegas. This was a huge museum and for $2 you can’t go wrong. The main exhibit hall took you from the ice age to current Nevada and Las Vegas. There was also houses and business’ along “Heritage Street” which recreated important moments in the history of the area. Many of the items in these houses were original and you can walk inside each of them. As an example, one could see how a family lived in Nevada in the 1950’s. Another section of the museum had a railroad depot and steam engine. The museum was very impressive.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel
We checked into the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the strip in Las Vegas. The room was fantastic with a Japanese soaking tub and a balcony overlooking the Bellagio fountains. This hotel is one of the nicest on the strip and is a definite must splurge! It’s well worth the stiff price to stay here especially with a fountain view balcony. There’s nothing quite like soaking in a tub watching the fountains at night.
For dinner, we decided to go to a restaurant inside the Cosmopolitan, Blue Ribbon. They have a variety of food choices including gluten free menu items. The food is on the higher price end but was well worth it. Joe ended up splurging and getting the Tomahawk Steak which reminded me of a scene from the Flintstones. You need a reservation well ahead of time.
For breakfast, I wanted a Bloody Mary so we went to HEXX at the Paris Casino across the street. For $40 you can get a Bloody Mary with shrimp, Alaskan king crab leg, cheddar cheese and more. The glass was huge but it didn’t have as much of a punch as expected. The food was delicious and I would recommend this restaurant for brunch.
With food in our stomach’s we hit the strip to see some iconic sights including the flamingos at the Flamingo Hotel wildlife exhibit, Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and Caesar’s Palace.
We went to Costa for dinner at the Mirage. We made reservations well ahead of time which was a good decision as the restaurant was packed. Costa is an Italian restaurant with a reasonably priced menu and good food. We chose it because it was located in the Mirage close to the venue for the Beatles LOVE show.
Afterwards we went to see the Cirque du Soleil show Beatles LOVE at the Mirage. The show was amazing and although we upgraded our seats, I would say that there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. There was some audience interactive elements which made you feel like you were a part of the show. I would highly recommend seeing Beatles LOVE.
For breakfast we went to the Peppermill. This is a iconic restaurant at the end of the strip. We went to the front part, but I recommend going to the back which has more of a Vegas vibe. Although the place was very busy, food and drinks were delivered quickly and service was great.
Our next stop was at Circus Circus where we decided to be kids for a while. This casino is great if you have kids but DO NOT stay here. The rooms are nasty (I’ve stayed here before). They have tons of kids games where you get tickets to redeem for small prizes like a Dave & Busters type restaurant. Skeet ball was a favorite with my dad. We played a couple poker games but unfortunately a lot of the buttons were not working and were in need of repair.
One of the highlights of our trip to Las Vegas was a helicopter ride around Las Vegas with a stop in Red Rock Canyon. We booked the Neon & Nature Tour through Maverick Helicopters. I had some reservations about riding in a helicopter but the pilot was great and it was such a smooth ride. We landed at Red Rock Canyon for 45 minutes and had a champagne toast to celebrate the incredible view. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity!
For dinner we went to a steakhouse, The Golden Steer. This is the oldest steakhouse in Las Vegas and rumored to have be frequented by mafia members, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe to name a few. It’s a short uber ride from the strip. Joe and my dad got the steak. I got fish due to my food allergies. The smiles on their faces are an indication of the quality of the steaks. The fish was delicious as well!
Our desert road trip was coming to an end but not without first getting one last view of the Bellagio fountains from our balcony.
Recommendations for a Desert Road Trip
Would I recommend this itinerary? Absolutely! A couple key things to keep in mind:
- The best part of Reno is the Truckee Riverwalk area so stay at a hotel within walking distance to this area.
- The mining ghost towns are fantastic! You need to visit at least one cemetery and read the gravestones.
- Death Valley is expensive if you want to stay in a hotel. Try The Ranch at Death Valley for a cheaper hotel option or stay at a camp site (first come, first serve).
- Allow at least two full days in Death Valley to get the whole experience and avoid the summer months. If you only have one day, do the sites around Furnace Creek.
- Wear close toed shoes! There are scorpions. I love my Keen hiking shoes.
- Don’t forget to have some down time. Plan on at least two days where you have 1/2 a day to chill out.
- To save money and reduce hunger, stop at a grocery store in Reno and fill up a cooler with lunches, water, and snacks. We checked in our cooler on our Southwest flight. There is not always convenience stores and fast food chains along the way.
- Buy a paper map. Don’t assume the GPS will work. I bought this Nevada Map which also included Death Valley.
- Fill up your car! Gas stations are few and far between.
- Talk to the locals! They’ve got great stories and are very friendly.
- When in Vegas, make reservations for restaurants. They fill up fast. You will have limited options if you “wing it”.
- See at least one good show in Vegas. You can’t go wrong with a Cirque du Soleil show. There are several to choose from in Vegas.
- Bring good walking shoes for Vegas. You will walk A LOT.
- Bring Money! Vegas is very expensive and nothing is free unless you gamble a lot and then is it really free?
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