Spires, mines and Old West legends in Nevada’s oldest towns

The historic churches of St. Paul the Prospector Episcopal (left) and St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains Roman Catholic (right) in the old mining town of Virginia City.
The historic churches of St. Paul the Prospector Episcopal (left) and St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains Roman Catholic (right) in the old mining town of Virginia City. | Dennis Lennox

There is more to Nevada than Las Vegas.

My visit to the Silver State started after flying into Reno. After picking up a rental car I embarked upon a three-day road trip across Reno-Tahoe to discover Nevada’s oldest towns.

Anchored by the state capital of Carson City, the region sits on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near magnificent Lake Tahoe.

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I first stopped in Virginia City, a former mining town settled in 1859. In its heyday, it had one of the largest populations anywhere in the Old West. It is estimated that about $20 billion in gold and silver was extracted from mines in and around here.

The historic buildings along C Street in Virginia City.
The historic buildings along C Street in Virginia City. | Dennis Lennox

The streetscape feels like a time capsule, thanks to blocks of historic buildings. Most date to after 1875, when a fire destroyed pretty much everything.

First Presbyterian Church with its simple but elegant carpenter Gothic style managed to survive the fire. The same cannot be said for St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains Church (Roman Catholic), which was rebuilt within the original brick walls. The undercroft has an interesting but disorganized museum that includes both religious and secular objects. Next door is St. Paul the Prospector, the first Episcopal parish in Nevada. The church, which features more elaborate carpenter Gothic architecture than the Presbyterians, is in bad shape and raising money for a restoration.

The Nevada Capitol in the capital city of Carson City.
The Nevada Capitol in the capital city of Carson City. | Dennis Lennox

About a half-hour’s drive away, through other once-prosperous mining towns like Gold Hill and Silver City, is the capital of Carson City. Named after legendary explorer Kit Carson, it is one of the country’s most underrated state capitals.

What looks like the palace of an obscure European principality is actually the Capitol building. Within walking distance is the interesting Nevada State Museum. Other attractions include the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum, which had the unfortunate luck of opening in early 2020 just before the pandemic, and the State Railroad Museum.

Twenty minutes south in Douglas County is Carson Valley, where cattle, sheep and even wild horses graze against a backdrop of the mighty Sierra Nevadas.

I found myself in the quaint town of Genoa. Dating to 1850, when this was the Utah Territory and Latter-day Saints erected a small trading post on the California Trail called Mormon Station, Nevada’s first settlement looks more like a small town from somewhere in New York, Ohio or Pennsylvania.

Local guide Sue Knight showed me everything, including the Genoa Bar. Having opened in 1853, this is Nevada’s oldest continuously operated bar. Even teetotalers appreciate the colorful atmosphere. Visitors craving more than a drink should visit the deli in the Genoa Country Store, which is across from the museum and reconstructed stockade at Mormon Station State Historic Park. There is also the postbellum county courthouse-turned-local historical museum.

If you go

Virginia City’s Visitor Center is a great resource. Not only can you purchase tickets for all the attractions, but you can also reserve a walkabout tour from docent Deke DiMarzo, who portrays several characters from the olden days.

Cobb Mansion, where I stayed, is a bed-and-breakfast housed within a circa 1876 Victorian Italianate home. Alternatives include the Silverland Inn & Suites, also in Virginia City, and the new Staybridge Suites in Carson City.

Eat at Virginia City’s Cafe Del Rio, J.T. Basque Restaurant in Gardnerville and The Pink House in Genoa.

Follow @dennislennox on Instagram and Twitter.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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