August is a restless time in Southern Nevada: It’s ridiculously hot and the novelty of summer vacation wore off back in, what, late June? Luckily, there are plentiful regional museums nearby to entertain the historian, the burgeoning artist, the high-score-obsessed arcade geek and, for that matter, just about anyone who wants to find a way to add a few brain-fortifying excursions to their late-summer agenda.
The Lost City Museum in Overton, Nevada (721 S. Moapa Valley Blvd., 397-2193) focuses on the archaeology of the region and the excavation process that took place prior to the museum’s construction. Lost City features ancient artifacts, like Anasazi pottery and petroglyphs, but also highlights some of the prehistoric creatures that once roamed eastern Nevada. Worried the kids will be bored? Never fear. Just make sure you point out the large piece of mummified sloth poop proudly displayed in one of the glass cases. After you’ve explored the galleries, head outdoors to the pueblo reconstructions to see how some of the original Nevadans once lived. On your way back to the car, don’t miss an example of the earliest type of structure found in Nevada, the eerily spartan pithouse. Although this particular pithouse was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1935, the original structure found on the site dates to 655 A.D. With its emphasis on Anasazi culture, the Lost City Museum pairs well with a hike at the petroglyph-rich Mouse’s Tank trail at nearby Valley of Fire State Park.
Breaking news: It turns out Kingman, Ariz. is more than a freeway exit and a Cracker Barrel. With its Route 66 pedigree, it makes sense that Kingman is home to the Powerhouse Route 66 Museum (120 W. Andy Devine Ave., 928-753-9889). Stop by this historic building, located along the longest remaining stretch of “the mother road,” for an educational yet quirky look at the former road-trip staple. You’ll find a 1950 Studebaker Champion, two antique gas pumps and a variety of vintage signs, souvenirs, brightly colored murals and soda bottles. The exhibits range from Route 66’s beginning as a conduit of trade and its Dust Bowl history to the road’s glory days as an icon of American travel. The building itself is significant, too. Built in 1909 and providing power to area mines, the powerhouse played an important role in early-20th-century Kingman. Admission to the museum is only $4 for adults, and tickets are also good for admission to the Mohave Museum of History and Arts and the Bonelli House, both located in Kingman. After you’ve explored the Route 66 Museum, head across the street to Locomotive Park for a picnic under a shade tree and a look at the historic Sante Fe train that is the park’s centerpiece. For dessert, stop by Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner for a chocolate malt.
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Parents whose children qualify as full-fledged Thomas the Tank Engine addicts will want to check out the Southern Nevada Railroad Museum in Boulder City (600 Yucca St., 486-5933). Explore the outdoor exhibit, which features a number of historic train engines, then buy a ticket and hop aboard the air-conditioned train (or head for the open-air car if you want to feel the 100-degree wind in your hair) for a 45-minute ride. Although visitors can’t ride all the way to Hoover Dam today, the original Union Pacific line was built to help construction of the nearby engineering marvel. Adults willing to pay $250 can make a reservation to be an “engineer for an hour,” which includes operating one of the locomotives with the help of a licensed engineer. Sight of a grown man excitedly shouting, “Choo-choo!”: Priceless.
Looking for quiet contemplation rather than train whistles and squealing children? Visit the Hispanic Museum of Nevada (3680 S. Maryland Parkway, 773-2203). After moving from one venue to another, it looks like the museum has found a permanent home at Boulevard Mall. Luckily, this gallery doesn’t feature the usual cringe-worthy, mass-produced, emotionless fare that you find at most shopping mall art galleries. The Hispanic Museum of Nevada includes works in a variety of media, from textiles and jewelry to paintings and sculptural pieces. Prominently displayed in the gallery space, visitors will find the MTV wall, signed by an array of celebrities including Kanye West, Christina Aguilera and Jay-Z, who appeared on TRL Live and autographed the wall to help raise funds for Hurricane Katrina relief.
With a collection of Mesquite-themed items that make the set pieces on Mad Men look positively futuristic, the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum (35 W. Mesquite Blvd., 346-5295) showcases items of local significance, from an early film projector to the area’s first slot machine. Add to that a fabulously retro kitchen, a collection of early telephones, a 1920s-era parlor and more antique irons than you’ve ever seen in one place, and you won’t be so quick to forget to appreciate your modern-day comforts again. Housed in the town’s former hospital/library/Boys Scouts of America hall, the museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is well-suited to its latest reincarnation. Before you leave Mesquite, stop by the Mesquite Fine Arts Center, located next door to the museum, which showcases the work of Mesquite artists and also offers lectures and art classes.
If a nude woman made of cinderblocks is more your style, visit the Goldwell Open Air Museum (goldwellmuseum.org, 870-9946) near Beatty, Nevada. This outdoor sculpture museum showcases the work of a group of European artists who were fascinated by the unique desert landscape. Several sculptures are set against the barren Mojave Desert with nothing else in sight except the lightly traveled Highway 375 and a few power lines. After you’ve met “Lady Desert” (the cinderblock blonde) by Hugo Heyrman and pondered the enigmatic, draped figures of “The Last Supper” and “Ghost Rider” by Charles Albert Szukalski, take the short drive up the road to an outdoor educational experience of a different kind. The ghost town of Rhyolite is the perfect stop for photographers, with its Instagram-ready abandoned buildings and silent main thoroughfare. It may seem quiet now, but the town was bustling with mining industry folks in the early 1900s. Production fell and people left, making Rhyolite a ghost town by the early 1920s. Visitors shouldn’t miss the saloon keeper’s house, which was constructed using glass bottles, and the lonely yet picturesque Cook Bank. (Those driving to Rhyolite from Las Vegas can stop along Highway 95 for a photo-op with a roadside attraction billed as the “world’s largest firecracker,” although it seems to be, predictably, just a really large metal drum.)
Those who aren’t in a high-culture, history-and-art mood can take their competitive spirit to a different kind of museum: the Pinball Hall of Fame (1610 E. Tropicana Ave., 597-2627). Museums don’t get much more joyous than this: a 10,000-square foot funhouse of pinball madness full of hands-on entertainment for those who want to relive their arcade glory days. Admission is free; patrons only need to come prepared with a bag full of quarters in order to play one of the vintage pinball machines, most of which still cost only a quarter to play. From mid-century games to colorful machines from the 1970s and ’80s, the Pinball Hall of Fame offers more than 200 ways to practice your pinball finesse — just be careful not to tilt.