An overheard question, “When does the volcano erupt?” encapsulates the unique, around-the-clock madness that makes Las Vegas one of the most astonishing places on the planet. Sin City’s bright lights, hotels, and casinos contrast with Nevada’s awesome emptiness on this 400-mile northward drive through mountain and desert landscapes that make it easy to believe the seventh-largest state is home to only 2.2 million people. Toward the end of the day, we see seven cars-three running in convoy-while covering sixty miles.
Las Vegas is a shimmering blob in the rearview mirror when we start cruising up the Great Basin Highway, where road and desert are framed by stark, jagged, sun-baked, and, at times, snowcapped mountains. An hour or so later, lush meadows watered by springs make Alamo an oasis in the wilderness. One of the few settlements on the 250-mile run from Vegas to Ely, this small, scattered community was a rustlers’ hideaway.
There are times when you feel like the only person in the world, but the frisky Ford Mustang GT attracts a lawman’s attention just before the road swirls down, down, down to Caliente. He is more interested in our opinion of the car than in writing a ticket, but that encounter encourages us to observe the 70-mph speed limit.
Contrasting attractions between Caliente and Ely include Cathedral Gorge State Park’s fascinating rock formations, carved deep into the desert. We also loop to Pioche, a couple of miles off the Great Basin Highway, where a cute little opera house recalls the era when silver was mined in this remote town.
North of Ely, State Highway 93 climbs White Horse Pass and provides eastward views across the Great Salt Desert before dashing down to Wendover. The main attraction for car buffs is the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats, where men and machines have traveled at record-breaking speeds for almost a century.
Mirage, Las Vegas, Nevada (702-791- 7111; www.mirage.com). This hotel’s volcano erupts every fifteen minutes.
Peppermill, Wendover, Nevada (775-664-2255; www.peppermillwendover.com). One of this desert town’s several hotel-and-casino resorts.
Nevada, Ely, Nevada (775-289-6665; www.hotelnevada.com). Nevada’s tallest building at six stories in 1929.
Do remember that Las Vegas’s wide-ranging attractions include the Imperial Palace’s car collection and the Carroll Shelby Museum.
Do make sure you have enough fuel. There’s a 113-mile “dry” stretch beyond Pioche.
Don’t miss the Treasure Island hotel’s free sirens-and-pirates show while exploring the Strip in Las Vegas.
Eat & drink
Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas, Nevada (702-948-6937; www.eiffeltowerrestaurant.com). Enjoy great views from this 540-foot-tall replica of the French capital’s greatest landmark.
Moongate, Las Vegas, Nevada (702-791-7111; www.mirage.com). A tranquil oasis with delicious Chinese cuisine.
<b?Knotty Pine, Caliente, Nevada (775-726-3194). A good bet for breakfast only about two hours from Las Vegas.
Nevada Commission on Tourism (775-687-4322; www.travelnevada.com).
What’s On in Las Vegas, (www.ilovevegas.com).
Carroll Shelby Museum (702-643-3000; www.shelbyamerican.com).
What we drove
A silver Ford Mustang GT was perfect for a drive that crossed the Silver State’s Pony Express Territory. We enjoyed its retro styling, the lusty V-8’s 300 hp, and the comfortable seats during a long day in the saddle. Perfect weather meant we didn’t experience the charismatic coupe’s alleged twitchiness on wet roads. Our only regret: not being able to gallop across the Bonneville Salt Flats, which were flooded.