Once a booming mining town, historic Virginia City, Nevada, has seen its share of economic rises and falls.
The city developed almost overnight as miners flocked to take part in the silver strike at Comstock Lode in 1859. Named after American miner Henry Comstock, Comstock Lode is a silver ore lode located on a peak in the Virginia Range in Virginia City. The discovery of the lode created a booming metropolis of more than 25,000 residents.
Since then, this mining town has reinvented itself as a tourist destination reminiscent of its past -- with historic buildings and churches, museums and mine tours, a steam train ride, stagecoach, and plenty of old-west saloons -- and visitors feel as if they have stepped back into the 1800s. Visitors view history through the lens of a once booming town as characters in period clothing walk the wooden boardwalk sidewalks. The city is steeped with lore, history lessons, and the beauty of the area.
I visited the area on a press trip, touring six cities in as many days, starting in Reno with stops in North and South Lake Tahoe, Carson Valley, Virginia City, Carson City, and back to Reno. Each area held a unique appeal: the majesty of Lake Tahoe, the farmlands in Carson Valley, spectacular hiking in the capital city of Carson City, Reno’s stimulating nightlife, and the rugged authenticity and charm of Virginia City. This article details my road trip through the Reno/Tahoe area.
In no particular order, here are 10 things not to miss in historical Virginia City, Nevada.
1. Visit Mark Twain’s Watering Hole
The frontier newspaper Territorial Enterprise was home to legendary writers including Mark Twain. Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, worked for the newspaper until he left Virginia City in 1865.
As my driver took me from Carson Valley to Virginia City, the car climbed as we passed what were once active mines. On the outskirts of town, we stopped at the Gold Hill Hotel and Saloon. Although the bar wasn’t open yet at that early hour, my driver told me that Mark Twain was known to spend time drinking there. The hotel’s claim now is that it’s the only full-service hotel in Virginia City having a restaurant and bar on site. As small-town bars sometimes do, the hours are determined by business, with the bar open from 4:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. or “later if busy” on Thursday through Sunday.
You’ll find more saloons claiming that Twain spent time there (and even a saloon named after him), but the Gold Hill Hotel and Saloon is the first one you’ll encounter as you arrive in Virginia City. Set apart from the other bars in town, you can almost envision Twain sipping a whiskey while pondering that day’s story for the newspaper.
2. Ride The Virginia And Truckee Railroad
The construction of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad in 1869 allowed transportation of goods. V and T R.R. is the most famous of all American short lines. At its peak, as many as 45 trains arrived and departed Virginia City daily; now, you can ride the train from Virginia City to Gold Hill and back. There’s an extended route that runs from Virginia City to Carson City on weekends.
The railroad was rebuilt in 1974 and operates 100-year-old steam engines and heritage diesel locomotives that depart from the original 1870 depot. The train rides run daily from May through October with special themed and seasonal trains such as the V and T Candy Cane Express that starts in November; a Civil War Days and Battle Trains that run Labor Day weekend; and others. Check the schedule for train rides.
3. Meet Characters Of Days Past While Shopping Downtown
Step inside one of the historic buildings on N C Street, the main strip running through town, and sample sweet treats such as fudge or ice cream, shop the touristy gift shops, antique shops, or get your photo taken in an old-time photo shop. Walk along the historic boardwalks as you stop to chat with local “characters” in period costumes who will gladly give directions or offer a suggestion for the best saloon.
The shops are touristy, but it’s hard not to enjoy the buildings’ authentic history and the shops selling rocks, silver jewelry, and typical tourist fare. To tame a sweets craving, don’t miss Grandma’s Fudge Factory or Red’s Old Fashioned Candies, where I couldn’t resist buying a caramel apple to enjoy later in my hotel room.
4. Tour Historical Museums
With 17 museums that retell stories from the past, you can learn about Mark Twain’s time working at the Territorial Enterprise. View his desk and other pressroom items on display at the Mark Twain Museum.
At the Marshall Mint Museum, view custom gold and silver medallions, plus bullion, collector coins, and jewelry.
To view the largest collection of Comstock mining artifacts, visit The Way It Was Museum.
Because of the Great Fire and mining mishaps, Virginia City is known as one of the most haunted cities. One of the most haunted locations in the west is the Washoe Club. Tour the Washoe Club and Haunted Museum hourly from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
With so many museums to choose from, you may want to take one of the prepared itineraries so you don’t miss a thing.
5. Sample Virginia’s Official Spirit (And Maybe View A Spirit) In A Saloon
During its heyday, Virginia City was home to more than 100 saloons to quench the miners’ thirst. The city was alive day and night, giving it a wild west reputation.
Since the water supply was considered iffy, one fable told that the only safe way to drink the water was to mix one part water to two parts gin. While that’s no longer necessary, Cemetery Gin is a distillery that uses Nevada pine nuts to create award-winning gin you can sample at one of the saloons.
I stopped for a drink at a saloon, on Halloween no less, in this haunted city. As a small band played music at the Silver Queen Hotel and Wedding Chapel, locals and tourists in costume danced and celebrated the holiday. Sitting at the bar, I noticed a monitor showing a black and white screen with a view of the wedding chapel. This live “show” ran nonstop in case there was any supernatural activity to be captured. Although I was almost afraid to watch, I also couldn’t stop watching. Nothing ever appeared on my short watch, luckily.
For dinner that night, I stepped into another saloon, the Red Dog Saloon and Pizza Parlor. The Chicago-style pizza was delicious, but the real star of the evening was people-watching as families ate dinner and watched live entertainment as they prepared for the city-wide trick or treating event about to occur on the streets of downtown.
While there aren’t 100 saloons anymore, there are still plenty to choose from for live music, a draw beer, and a chance to view a ghostly sighting. For the most local and authentic experience, step inside the Silver Dollar Saloon. One of the most historic and oldest saloons, which opened in 1865, is the Delta Saloon. Wherever you wind up whetting your whistle, you’ll find a rowdy and spirited environment.
6. Take A Mine Tour
Both the Chollar Mine and the Ponderosa Mine offer tours to allow visitors to experience how the treasures were produced. The Comstock area was home to more than 100 mines that produced seven million tons of silver ore. Take a historic mine tour beneath Virginia City at Chollar Mine, or visit a working stamp mill at Comstock Gold Mill.
7. Walk Through A Cemetery
With so many haunted locations, it’s only natural that some wish to tour a cemetery at one of two historic cemeteries. Take a self-guided tour with downloadable audio tours available online of either Silver Terrace Cemetery or the Gold Hill Cemetery.
8. Visit The Mackay Mansion
One of Virginia City’s few remaining original structures is the Mackay Mansion. The Victorian-era mansion was built in 1859 by the Hearst family. Tour the mansion to see the original furnishings and vintage Tiffany silver, plus stroll the grounds with its 100-mile view. In addition to daily tours, ghost hunters can partake in paranormal investigations; there are even night tours to spend the night if desired.
9. Take In A Show At Piper’s Opera House
The vintage theater at Piper’s Opera House has hosted music and plays throughout the years. Or book a special event at the historic location.
10. Stay At A Historic Hotel
During my visit, I spent the night in an enormous suite with a full kitchen, fireplace, and spectacular sunset views of the mountains at Silverland Inn and Suites. This Victorian-style era hotel is quaint and charming with old-style furnishings. If you’re on foot, as I was, take heed that the hill walking down from N C Street to the hotel is incredibly steep. Climbing back up the hill at a 6,207 feet altitude left me panting and needing a rest. Fortunately, the prize at the top of the hill is the abundance of saloons and other resting places.