We sent writers on trips to the north, east, south and west. What’d they find? That the road not taken can be pretty fun, too.

 

North

Pioche, NV

Breathtaking nature and a haunting past await (just pack a lunch)

We were smart to pick up sandwiches at Bronze Café before leaving Las Vegas on our way to Pioche. Otherwise, my husband and I would have sat at a picnic table in Kershaw-Ryan State Park outside Caliente, eating bags of chips from one of the few truck stops on the 93 as we took in the wild roses cascading down the canyon wall. Instead, we had a delicious picnic to enjoy in the lush riparian park.

This is the trip north on Nevada’s Great Basin Highway in a nutshell: stunning surroundings; rudimentary amenities. I first noticed it in the primitive campgrounds of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge 87 miles north of Vegas, where we stopped to stretch our legs with a stroll around Upper Pahranagat Lake. Standing motionless on the levee that crosses the water, we heard nothing for a moment but wild birds and — what was that? — a school of 2-foot-long carp breaking the surface for bugs. An hour later, it was Caliente and Kershaw-Ryan. Sure, the town has two diners, the Knotty Pine and Brandin’ Iron, plus Pioneer Pizza (which has been closed on both my last trips through), but they’re not exactly foodie-friendly and are downright hostile to vegetarians. Still, Caliente was a culinary destination compared to Pioche. As we checked in at the Overland Hotel, co-owner Ron Mortenson informed us that the town’s “finest and only restaurant,” the Historic Silver Café, would be closing at 8 p.m. That, we found out later, meant we’d need to hurry over before they ran out of heated-up Costco cheese pizzas.

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No matter. The town’s rich history more than made up for its lack of fine cuisine. We dropped our bags in the huge Bears Den suite and hustled down the hill to see the sun set behind Boot Hill cemetery, where boards are crudely chiseled with Wild West epitaphs, such as: “Shot by a coward as he worked his claim. No one even knew his name.” The discovery of silver in the hills above town in the 1860s birthed a community marked by crime and violence. In the 1870s, Pioche’s 10,000 dwellers had 140 saloons and four bordellos to choose from. Today, you could lose a couple days on a walking tour of the place, which boasts more than 30 stops, including the so-called “Million-Dollar Courthouse” (its price inflated by political corruption), the Oddfellows Lodge (formerly the town’s first hardware store) and the Pioche Record (Nevada’s second-oldest continually printed weekly newspaper), all dating back to the 1870s.

Alas, no spirits visited us in our reputedly haunted hotel. Maybe we slept too well. It had, after all, been a long day in the fresh air, contemplating the ghosts of mining’s past. Heidi Kyser

 

Go here, do this

Picnic at Kershaw-Ryan State Park. 775-726-3564, parks.nv.gov

Hike at Cathedral Gorge State Park. 775-728-4460, parks.nv.gov

Stay at the Overland Hotel. 775-962-5895, overlandhotelnv.com

Eat at the Historic Silver Café, 888-344-6922. silvercafeandbakery.com

Do the old mining town’s walking tour with 30-plus stops. lincolncountynevada.com

Go fishing at Spring Valley State Park, 20 miles east of Pioche. 775-962-5102, parks.nv.gov

 

WEST

Tecopa, CA

A place for clear skies, tasty quinoa, no wi-fi — and a spiritual recharge

When Vegas gets me down, I seek refuge in the desert. One of my favorite getaways is the tiny outpost of Tecopa, a dusty cluster of eccentrics and old spa resorts baking peacefully in a barren moonscape valley just over the California state line outside Pahrump.

In its heyday, Tecopa was a swanky destination — a natural hot spring bubbles up from the earth beneath the town, its waters regarded among the world’s finest in terms of mineral content. These days it’s more like a sunbaked collection of weathered cinder block cabins and shaggy tamarisk trees huddled around a few indoor soaking pools, popular with retirees and New Agers in search of a miracle cure for a litany of ailments.

But even if you’re not into the healing powers of muck, Tecopa is a fantastic retreat. There is no cell reception or wi-fi, so you can spend your time in utter solitude, alone with just your thoughts and a few naked hippies, shrouded in profound stillness.

On many of my visits, I’ve gotten a room at one of the resorts — but these aren’t “resorts” as defined by MGM. Ancient cabins, no TVs, groaning swamp coolers — nary a nightclub or celebrity chef in sight. Fantastic!

But as atmospheric as the resorts are, sometimes I prefer to wallow in the mud, under the stars. So on my last visit, I bypassed the town entirely and continued into the valley, where a hot-spring pond languishes in a marshy lowland, an unexpected patch of green. The water is hot — around 110 degrees — and the bottom of the pond is coated with deliciously thick, gooey mud that, if you’re so inclined, can be plastered all over oneself to magnificent effect.

Some friends and I rolled in around sunset, laid out a blanket at the edge of the pond, and spent the evening alternating between soaking in the water and laying out in the warm desert night, swimming in the vast sea of stars. Tecopa has minimal light pollution, and the stargazing is incredible.

All my senses were engaged — the warm caress of the night air, the sound of frogs, the scent of the springtime desert. And let us not forget taste, also indulged on our way through Tecopa, at the only restaurant in town — the inexplicably amazing Pastel’s Bistro, where we gorged on Brazilian black beans, avocado and quinoa. Quinoa in the middle of nowhere? Why not?! That’s the magic of Tecopa — unexpected luxuries juxtaposed against the harsh desert. Not the Four Seasons, but it’s what you make of it. For me, it’s the perfect spiritual recharge. Sarah Jane Woodall

 

Go here, do this

Tecopa Hot Springs Resort offers both camping and lodging options. tecopahotsprings.org

For other lodging options, check out the offerings in nearby Shoshone or slightly less nearby Pahrump. tripadvisor.com

The springs are segregated into male and female facilities, and nude bathing is required. tecopahotsprings.org

A tasty day trip can be made from a visit to the famed China Ranch Date Farm, an oasis in the Mojave. chinaranch.com

For quirky history, the caves at Dublin Gulch — carved into cliffs by early settlers — are  20 minutes away. ghosttowns.com

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Pioche, NV
Heidi Kyser

Cathedral Gorge, NV

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Pioche, NV
Heidi Kyser

Pioche, NV

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Pioche, NV
Heidi Kyser

Pahranagat, NV

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Tecopa, CA
Sarah Jane Woodall

Tecopa, CA

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Tecopa, CA
Sarah Jane Woodall

Tecopa, CA

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Tecopa, CA
Sarah Jane Woodall

Tecopa, CA

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Flagstaff, AZ
Andrew Kiraly

Flagstaff, AZ

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Flagstaff, AZ
Andrew Kiraly

Flagstaff, AZ

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Flagstaff, AZ
Andrew Kiraly

Flagstaff, AZ

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Flagstaff, AZ
Andrew Kiraly

Flagstaff, AZ

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Needles, CA
Greg Thilmont

Needles, CA

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Needles, CA
Greg Thilmont

Needles, CA

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Needles, CA
Greg Thilmont

Needles, CA

EAST

Flagstaff, AZ And Williams, too

See (the night skies) and be seen (by wary wolves) in a land of the real

On this blustery Saturday afternoon, it seems that Williams, Arizona has reached a tipping point. Half the businesses lining its famed main drag, a snippet of historic Route 66, are cafés, bars, restaurants or retail stores. The other half are souvenir shops selling Route 66 tchotchkes. This creeping self-referentiality does not go unnoticed by locals, who, from their stools at the sleepy Sultana Bar, watch us tourists with bemusement, watch as their small island of the real is surrounded by a rising tide of the irreal. But there’s still plenty of real to be had: an eye-opening double espresso at Cafe 326, a smartphone photo session at the idle Williams train.

Maybe that thirst for the real is what led us to Bearizona, a drive-through zoo at the tail end of town. It’s as novel as you might imagine: Trundling along in your car at school-zone speed, you get to watch black bears, white bison and even Arctic wolves do their thing. Their thing, in this case, is placidly munching on treats liberally and strategically strewn around the road. The animals move around more like Walmart shoppers than Wild Kingdom subjects, but they still hold a magnetic fascination, even (how Walmart of me) when safely glimpsed from a side-view mirror. And every once in a while, as though accidentally rousing from an engineered stupor, a bear or wolf looks through your car window, through your eyeballs, down your optic nerve and right into the startled oyster that is your caveman brain on sudden alert. Whoa. Let’s just take our foot off the brake and move along, shall we? ... This is a safari for those with low fear thresholds.

Flagstaff is a launch pad for many Southwest activities, from camping to rock-climbing, but lazy weekend warriors (guilty) can stick around the city’s nougat center and still find plenty to do. The pleasure is in Flagstaff’s small-scale, tilt-shift urbanity: a decadent steak-and-martini dinner at Josephine’s, lingering over coffee and pastry at Macy’s to watch the beardster vagabonds and REI parents filter through. For numerous reasons, their downtown seems to maintain a certain abiding, unfussy equilibrium of quaintness. It’s remarkable, and refreshing, after you’re far from what sometimes seems, at its worst moments, to be Vegas’ overheated Potemkin startup version of Downtown.

No trip to Flagstaff is complete without a visit to the Lowell Observatory. Seriously; in that recommendation is a recognition that Flagstaff stewards its dark skies like we do water. I’m a sucker for celestial bodies, and on this Saturday night, the observatory had various telescopes and observing stations pointed at various quadrants of space. The smeared bruise of the Orion Nebula, a glimpse of streaky Jupiter through one of the secondary observatory scopes, a close-up of the cracked porcelain plate of the moon. “That’s Tycho, right?” said one stargazer, fannishly name-checking one of the moon’s craters as he squinted into the eyepiece. This seems to be the thing that locals and dedicated starhounds do on Saturday nights. Nerdy, real and very cool. Andrew Kiraly

 

Go here, do this

Bearizona offers a beginner-level drive-through zoo and walking tours, perfect for introducing kids to large, furry things. bearizona.com

A Flagstaff institution, Macy’s European Coffee House & Bakery serves strong coffee and decadent pastries (including many vegan options). macyscoffee.net

Principled carnivores must eat at Diablo Burger — locally sourced, organic beef patties served on English muffins. diabloburger.com

Starlight Pines Bed & Breakfast is a big, rambling house filled with antiques and old medical curios. starlightpinesbb.com

Sited in a historic 1911 home built from volcanic rock, Josephine’s Modern American Bistro serves upscale comfort food. josephinesrestaurant.com

 

SOUTH

Needles, CA

A town battered by time, but surrounded by quiet natural treasures

Though it’s only 100 miles to the south, the Colorado River town of Needles, California, doesn’t seem to be on our travel radar. “Why?” was the common response when I told friends I was headed there for a weekend. Answer: I hadn’t been in a few years and wanted to see if I was missing anything.

Headed out on a Friday evening, I beelined straight down U.S. 95, arriving in the airport-casino hamlet of Cal-Nev-Ari, the southernmost sliver of Nevada, just as twilight winked out in the Mojave Desert. I had booked a couple of nights at the Avi Resort & Casino; while Needles is lined with a dozen hotels along I-40, most are of the budget variety, catering to road-worn truckers and weary drivers between Los Angeles and Albuquerque. The most luxurious accommodations — rooms at the Best Western Colorado River Inn — were booked for a classic car jamboree. Plus, the Fort Mojave tribe-owned Avi Resort has attractive weekend packages, restaurants, a huge pool area and live music at night.

In the morning I headed to Needles for a photo safari. Frankly, the past few decades have been tough on the town. Many of its oldest buildings sit derelict. Even the large and refurbished El Garces Hotel, once a graceful Harvey House gem, awaits tenants. But what does remain is plenty of human history.

Walking along downtown sidewalks, I looked for local color through the lens of my Canon. In the town center, a tall sun- and water-themed pillar rises brightly above the blacktop of Broadway Street. Across from the train station, a Mexican restaurant’s hand-painted façade brings a tropical splash to an otherwise khaki-hued block. Nearly everything — including this monument and taco shop — is emblazoned with Route 66 insignia.

Needles was an important stopover in the years when “The Mother Road” was filled with people migrating to the West Coast, and the burg still trades in these glory days, as epitomized by a vintage Texaco station. It no longer pumps gas but continues to draw cars. The Bureau of Land Management’s California Gateway Site features a kiosk mapping out the rigors of the famous automotive artery. With all this nostalgic highway allure, Needles is definitely a popular place for motor rallies. I saw plenty of chrome and custom paint jobs.

During any trip to Needles, a drive close to its namesake rocky spires is a must. A dozen miles away, they have that quintessential Southwestern look, and instill more than a bit of awe at just how rugged the desert terrain can be.

Headed out from Avi Resort on Sunday morning, I had time to explore the region. I took a walk in the restored riparian environment of the Big Bend Conservation Area on the outskirts of Laughlin. A bit later I turned off State Road 163 to Grapevine Canyon — one of my favorite places in Southern Nevada — where a short hike up a wash led me to a huge array of petroglyphs. Finally, I veered left at Searchlight, down the Joshua Tree Highway. Near Primm, I pulled over for a hamburger at The Oasis in tiny Nipton, California, just to keep my Needles adventure going a few moments more. Greg Thilmont

 

Go here, do this

With all modern conveniences and a pool, the Best Western Colorado River Inn is Needles’ poshest place. It has plenty of Route 66 tchotchkes for sale, too. coloradoriverinn.com

Dig into an avocado-laden Mohave Benedict at Juicy’s River Cafe, Needles’ main local eatery.

A perfect gathering place for groups, River City Pizza Co. serves up pies, pastas, sandwiches and cold beevos. rivercitypizzaco.com

Learn about the Fort Mojave tribe’s history and culture in a hallway museum at Avi Resort & Casino, which features dioramas and photos. avicasino.com

If water skiing and beach bonfires are in your wheelhouse, head to fun-loving Pirate Cove Resort & Marina. piratecoveresort.com

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!

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