With much of Nevada’s territory occupied by the Great Basin desert, one of America’s most desolate places, it’s hard to imagine how this place ever gained the international notoriety that is has in the present day.
Apart from a handful of gold and mineral rush towns that mostly collapsed when share prices for their meal ticket fell in kind, not much of record was going on in this corner of the United States … until the Great Depression hit, which prompted federal officials to get shovel ready projects in place to get the masses of unemployed workers from around the country back on the job.
This quintupled the population of Las Vegas from 5 to 25,000, and while this population boom came with problems, members of the business community saw dollar signs, as the mostly male workers had little to do in their free time.
Gambling was legalized shortly thereafter, planting the seeds for explosive growth in the state’s gaming industry. While Nevada has no shortage of slot machines and blackjack tables for visitors to try their luck on, there are also many historical and natural attractions that will make your time in this fascinating state well worth it.
What To Do – Culture & History
Back in the 1950’s, much of Nevada’s empty space proved to be the perfect testing grounds for America’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal, as it it largely consisted of parched desert unsuitable for any sort of agriculture or human habitation.
While above ground explosions were later found to be harmful to residents downwind and those observing the detonations on site, they took place for a number of years before this realization was made, which is the story that the National Atomic Testing Museum endeavors to tell.
Being an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, this museum boasts high quality exhibits that document the experience of being involved in the tests that took place north of Las Vegas, with the centerpiece attraction being a presentation at Ground Zero theater that aims to accurately represent what an atmospheric nuclear test was like back in the day.
Another aspect of American popular culture of which Nevada has had a long running association with has been the nation’s fascination with UFO’s. The highly secretive American military base known as Area 51 has long been believed by many enthusiasts to hold alien technology seized from the crashed crafts of extraterrestrial visitors.
While we may never know for sure (access to the base is restricted, with the threat of lethal force keeping interlopers at bay), many tour groups in the Las Vegas area offer Area 51 tours that visit local areas of interest associated with extraterrestrial activity, in addition to pulling up to the gates of the base itself.
America has long been a nation built around and associated with cars and trucks, a heritage which the National Automobile Museum near Reno works hard everyday to preserve. Possessing specimens dating back from the nascent days of the late 19th century to the present day, this institution also features cars owned by celebrities (JFK, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley among them), as well as rides that had a central role in many of the 20th century’s greatest films (like the 1949 Mercury Series 9CM that James Dean drove in Rebel Without A Cause).
Throughout Nevada, there are dozens of ghost towns that tell the tale of many mining booms gone bust over the years. Rhyolite is one of the best of the bunch, a fact many more believable by the presence of the Goldwell Open Air Museum nearby.
After exploring the bones of Rhyolite’s glory days, explore the outdoor sculpture park that built upon an interpretation of the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. Six other works of art have joined the original collection of sculptures, so be sure to check it out before departing Rhyolite for your next destination.
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
If you are traveling to Nevada, chances are you’re heading there to indulge in the many pleasures that the city of Las Vegas has to offer its visitors. Built in a barren desert in the early 20th century with little else going for it from a resource standpoint, this gleaming metropolis has evolved into the Adult Disneyland of the world since that time, offering world class gaming, entertainment, dining and shopping opportunities.
While some of the world’s best high limit gambling is offered at casinos such as the Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace, those not interested putting untold amounts of money on red/black will find many amusement parks (the Adventuredome at Circus Circus stands out), live shows (Cirque de Soleil at the Bellagio), and aquariums (Mandalay Bay is the most impressive, while the Golden Nugget has a shark tank that you can venture into … if you dare!) to occupy your time between the many amazing restaurant meals and shopping trips (be sure to check out the Fremont Street Experience) you will enjoy here.
Those that love to geek out on things like infrastructure will not want to miss out on the chance to take a day trip to the Hoover Dam, which is located a short distance from Las Vegas. Built during the Great Depression to provide employment relief for massive amounts of unemployed workers, and to fill a massive infrastructure need in the rapidly growing west, this hydroelectric facility created America’s biggest reservoir behind it (Lake Mead, which is an excellent recreation area in the summer time as well), as well as a symbol of a nation heading towards the Pacific in search of the American Dream. Tours are available, though they have been scaled back from previous offerings due to the terror attacks of 9/11.
Nature lovers also need not stray far from the bright lights of Vegas, as the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area lies within a mere 15 miles (24 km) from its downtown core. Hiking, biking and rock climbing are popular activities that take place amidst the rusty sandstone canyon walls, which soar to a maxium height of 8,154 feet at La Madre Mountain.
Those seeking an escape from the barrenness of Nevada’s desert landscape will find it at Great Basin National Park, which is located near the state’s eastern border with Utah. Standing in stark contrast to the alien environment of the low desert beneath Great Basin’s mountainous terrain, the damper mountains of this national park permits drought resistant evergreen trees to grow here, which include the bristlecone pine. One of this species’ trees started growing here 5,000 years ago (sadly, it was cut down in 1964 for research purposes), making it one of the oldest continuously living organism on Earth!