daughter and her husband, Jennifer and Rod Neely, were married at Lake Tahoe in 1984, and it
has been one of their favorite vacation spots ever since. I had been
wanting to join them on one of their trips, and it finally worked
during spring break this year.
29 I got up very early and made the one-hour drive to Oakhurst,
arriving at their house about 6:30 a.m. for a planned 7
a.m. departure. Since we would be going our different ways after our
Tahoe visit, they drove their Jeep and I took my Honda. Rod and Jennifer have made this trip many times, and
their preferred route is to follow State Highway 49 from it's
southern starting point in downtown Oakhurst all the way to State 88
know all the rest stops, and we made our first one in Mariposa,
about 35 miles from their place. Here Jennifer joined me
and took over the driving duties. We continued on the winding road
across Lake McClure on the Merced River at Bagby and on to
northernmost community in Mariposa County, and our next stopping
point. Like most towns on Highway 49, Coulterville had its heyday
during the gold rush, and is an interesting place to visit. Our stay
there was very short, however.
Jamestown-Sonora area in Tuolumne County has become a rather large
population center, with the traffic congestion that goes with that.
The Neely's have discovered a bypass on county roads that avoids
the problem area.
section, we came to San
Andreas in Calaveras County, where we stopped at a mini-mart. As
we approached the door I saw a man who looked familiar going in.
Once inside, I took a closer look, and it was indeed Larry Anderson,
who lives a few blocks from the market. Larry was a regular at the
Commodore shows that our computer club in Fresno sponsors each year
in Las Vegas. He has not been able to attend recent events, but
continues to maintain the web
site for the show, and we had a nice visit.
It was a
fairly short jaunt from here to Jackson,
the county seat of Amador County, where Highway
88 comes in from Stockton. We turned east and started over the
Sierra Nevada, on this very scenic route that reaches its highest
point at 8,574 foot Carson
checking in, we spent the rest of the day loafing around our rooms,
having a cocktail hour, and going to eat. We also contributed to
Nevada's gambling economy, although I think in the long run Rod and
Jennifer made a profit for the time we were there. I didn't. We
mostly played slots, although they played a few keno games, so I
tried that for the first time. I doubled my $10 investment, but this
did not make me think it was a surefire way to make money.
morning we went across the street and had
breakfast at a restaurant in Harrah's (part
of the same ownership), where the pancakes surpassed almost any I
have eaten, but the bacon left a lot to be desired. After that we did a nice walk down to
the lake, then back up into town, a
little over a mile and a half all together.
I had hoped
we would do more hiking, or maybe a gondola ride, but it was very
cold and windy the second day. Rod and Jennifer walked to a nearby
shopping center, and eventually brought me some berries and yogurt
for breakfast. That night we had dinner at the Cabo Wabo that is
located in Harvey's - pretty good Mexican food but nothing
outstanding. I think this chain is more famous for overpriced
tequila and being owned by Sammy Hagar than the actual food.
morning, April 1, we were going to go out to breakfast, but Rod and
Jennifer wanted to get started for home, and I was heading for
Virginia City. We collected our final keno winnings, said our goodbye, and
departed for our respective destinations.
I had known
a little about Virginia City for decades, but had never been there.
Since it was only about 50 miles from Tahoe, this seemed like the
perfect time, and after I arranged the trip with Rod and Jennifer, I made reservations
at the Sugarloaf Mountain Motel.
Harvey's, I drove north from Stateline on US
50, which climbs up from the Tahoe basin and drops down to the
Carson Plain, and Carson City, capitol of the state. I stopped here
for breakfast at a Denny's, then got gas, and continued east a
short distance on highway 50, to the turnoff at state highway 341.
My cell phone GPS told me to get off on state 342, but it was closed
and 341 was the detour. It turned out that both highways came
together at the western end of Virginia City, just a couple of
blocks from my motel. Highway 341 is the truck route; apparently 342
is more steep and winding, although it looks as if it would be like
comparing red apples and light red apples.
motel, and many places in town, the view to the south looks over a
low, rounded peak, which is the actual Sugarloaf
Mountain, and out
to the flat country beyond. Locals claim there is a 100 mile view on a clear
day (some say 200 miles).
Once I got
checked into the motel and brought in my luggage, I set out to see
the city. I can't remember the exact details of when I did what,
but I know I did a bunch of walking that first day, into the heart
of downtown Virginia
City. The main street from the motel to the
end of the main business district is probably a little over a mile. I
enjoyed looking at the old buildings, not just the stores, but also
several well-preserved large mansions from mining days, and a couple
of churches of classic design.
to be three main category of stores:
most of which offer historical displays or even a museum. These
range from a few artifacts on a shelf to a complete separate area,
usually with an admission charge.
sell clothing and various types of souvenirs. I collect magnets from
places I visit, and one of these was my only purchase in any of
sources, including full sit-down restaurants, sandwich shops, and
ice cream and candy stores. One of these, Grandma's
Fudge Factory, tempted
me with ice cream, and the first time I entered I also bought some peanut
brittle and chocolate "bark."
There are no
Reno/Vegas style casinos, but all the saloons seem to have slot
There are a couple of
old hotels, which may also include a saloon or museum. There are also some
formal museums, two of which I visited and will discuss a bit
town is at 6,200 feet elevation, winters in the past have often been
quite severe, and many attractions are only open from May through
October, so I missed out on a couple of things I would like to have
through town I had to watch my step on the old wooden sidewalk,
which slopes down along with the terrain., Once I got
about halfway through the town, I could see that continuing to the
end of the business district would be a bit more of a walk than I
wanted that day. I crossed the street and started back toward my
motel, window shopping and making mental notes of places I'd like to
check out later.
important stop was the visitor center. Before arriving I had looked
on line for things to see and do, and realized that many of these
were not open. I mentioned this when I checked in, and the motel
owner explained that many things ARE open, and that I could get good
information at the visitor center. The man on duty gave me a map of
the city which listed various things to do and see on the back, with
the ones that were open marked.
the Mackay Mansion was on the "open" list, I walked down
to D street, and I do mean DOWN; it's a steep drop from one street
to another in this town that's fastened on to the side of a
mountain. I entered the museum just in time to join a tour, which
consisted of just two other people, conducted by a very friendly and
was not just a residence, but also the main office of the mining
operations. There's plenty of information about Mackay
and his mining operations on line, but two bits of information stood
out - the first occupant of the building was a mine superintendent
named George Hurst, who started with $400 and left the area a
multi-millionaire, setting the stage for the various enterprises of
his son, William Randolph.
tidbit of information was that during the peak of his mining
operations, Mackay was the fourth richest man in the world,
testimony to the huge fortunes that were made in Virginia City.
completing the tour, I walked west on D Street to where it joins the
state highway, and followed that around to C Street and my motel.
After a brief nap, I drove down town and parked approximately where
I had turned back earlier. From here I walked to the end of the main
business district, and made my way back to the car, stopping at
Grandma's for ice cream.
this in the freezer in my motel and settled in for the night,
enjoying a light supper of cheese that I had brought with me, plus
some nuts that I bought at the motel store.
Later, as I was
finishing up my ice cream snack shortly before going to bed, I
looked at the weather app on my iPad. I have several different
cities active, and can bring them up with a finger swipe, and when I
saw a forecast of snow showers I thought maybe I was looking at the
Duluth MN page. But no, this was what the Weather Channel thought
was in store for Virginia City, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1
I went to
bed early, a little before 10, but woke up around 11. I immediately
opened the blind, and sure enough, there was a little bit of snow on
my Honda and on the grass outside my room. The next morning it did
not appear to have snowed any more, but there was a dusting of snow
on the buildings and surrounding
hills. It started melting quickly
as soon as the sun came up, but little pellets of snow drifted
down once in a while throughout the morning from partly blue
skies. There was still snow late in the day in a shady area below street level on
the north side of
buildings and in a narrow open air walk-in mall. Throughout
the day it was very cold, either
46 or 38 at , depending on which app I looked at, the
Weather Channel or AccuWeather.
my berries and yogurt for breakfast, then drove a bit more than
halfway through town to The Way it Was
Museum. For $3 you can wander
through the history of the area, with what is described as the most complete collection of Comstock
mining artifacts in the world.
There are also photos and maps from the “Bonanza” period, and well
thought out signs describing some of the photos and objects. The
price of admission includes a short film about Virginia City
history, and a visit here is well worth the time.
I spent an
hour or more in the museum, taking quite a few photos and reading
most of the informational signs. One of the most striking items is
pump," which operates in a way similar to an oil pump
and was used to remove water from the mine shafts. The heavy rocker
beam is attached to a wooden rod, made from attaching numerous
timbers together, to reach down as far as 900 feet. There was also a
great deal of information about the Sutro
Tunnel, a three mile long conduit to carry water away from the
mines and eliminate the need for pumping. Although it was completed
just as mining went into steep decline, it continues to drain water
from the upper levels of the old shafts.
learned that in more recent years, the school had a class in staying out of abandoned mines,
always a wise idea in any mining area. There's a ton of information
about mining days on line; this
is one of the best.
mining, Virginia City's major claim to fame is being the
location where Samuel Clemons (Mark
Twain) got his start as a
writer. He came to Nevada as assistant to his older brother, who had
been appointed secretary to the governor, but his duties were
virtually non-existent, so he sought his fortune in silver and gold
like so many others - in Carson City and a number of other areas,
including bustling Virginia City, home of 15,000 residents.
much of Nevada unappealing, describing it as a barren desert, but
was enthralled with Lake Tahoe, which he considered the most divine
scene he had ever seen. Of course, he didn't see it when the
slightly less divine gambling interests lined its shores with
high-rise casinos. However, he remained in the area some time,
trying unsuccessfully to make his fortune in mining and timber.
he became a reporter, feature writer and briefly editor of the Daily
Enterprise in Virginia City, where he perfected the art of
the "tall tale." This ultimately launched him to world
wide renown, but it must be pointed out that the story that really
made the biggest first impression was The
Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, set in California,
where Twain also spent time during his western sojourn. I believe this
is the complete story. Reading a plaque on one of the buildings that
housed the Enterprise, I was reminded that Twain recounted his
time in this area in the book Roughing It. Since I had this
on my iPad as part of his complete works, I started reading it my
last day there, and learned a great deal about mining, the
development of Nevada, and the author's well-known propensity for
about those times credit reporters William "Dan De Quille" Wright, James "Lying Jim" Townsend, and Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens
with perfecting the art of the western tall tale with articles that became legendary for their wit.
"tourist" activity was to take a short guided tour through
the Bonanza Mine, which displayed equipment and mining techniques,
as well as some of the minerals that were found there other than
silver and gold. The mines on either side of the Bonanza each made
millions, but that was actually an exception. The Bonanza and
hundreds of others took out less than a thousand dollars each.
tour I drove back to the motel, then
took a long walk through the town and back. I finished my tourist
activities by driving to the
local cemetery. This is a very large area, but I walked through only
a small part of it. For some people it's probably
worthwhile to explore the entire complex, but with no one I knew
there, and no familiar names, it didn't really
capture my interest.
to the motel, I was dragged into Grandma's for another ice cream
snack (saved in the freezer for after dinner), and picked up a
sandwich at the Firehouse BBQ.
There were a
number of places I would have visited if they had been open,
including the Virginia City & Truckee
Railroad, which offers
rides through the mining country. I also would have liked to see the
Marshall Mint Museum (not closed for the season, but closed the day
I was there), the Fireman's Museum, Fourth Ward School museum,
Comstock History Center, and Silver State Peace Officers
Museum. These give
me a reason for a return visit some day.
I spent an
enjoyable final evening getting started on Twain's book, and got to
bed at a reasonable hour. Without the distraction of my computer and
DVD player at home, I tend to go to be earlier on trips. I got up
the next morning, and got started on my homeward trip around 9 or
approached town the first day, I caught a glimpse of snowy peaks in
my rear view mirror, but there was no safe place to stop to take
the view was still there when I headed the other way from town, and a wide turnout lined
up perfectly with this scene. I took a bunch of photos
trip followed the same route as far as South Lake Tahoe, with stops
at the summit between Carson City and the lake, and at a couple of
vista points that offered a panoramic
view of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra.
turning on Highway 89 and back to 88, I stayed on US 50 over Echo
Summit. This is another very scenic stretch of highway that I had
never been on before. The route downhill on the west mostly follows
the south fork of
the American River into Placerville,
where I stopped for lunch. This is another gold rush town,
accounting for its original name of "Hangtown." It's
located where Highway 49 crosses US 50.
on 50 into the southeast corner of Sacramento, and south on Highway
99 back home, a 645 mile round trip. Tahoe was beautiful, but I had
too much food and drink, and too much gambling. Virginia City was
surprising, educational, and full of history.
Estel, April 2015
(Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window)
Rod & Jennifer at Caples Lake
At the border
Snowy peaks above Caples
The view from my hotel room
Tahoe and the snowy SIerra
Rod & Jennifer out and about
Jennifer wins at Keno
A very windy day
Mackay Mansion Museum
The front entrance
This phone could call
about seven people
One of the first flush
toilets west of the Mississippi
In the dining room
Snow on the Honda
Snow on the motel
Snow on the hills
Classic churches from
late 19th century
Savage Mansion and
The Fourth Ward School, capacity over
Car used to carry construction
materials into the Sutro Tunnell
James Fair's small stamp mill
Wire-bound wood pipe;
lots of it remains under the streets, no longer in use
Louis XVI desk from the 1700s
Ajax 50 gallon chemical
Cornish pump, used to extract water
from mine shafts
C Street in Virginia City in 2015
The old west flavor is retained
One of the iconic
saloons of Virginia City
Panoramic view of town
from the cemetery
Virginia City Cemetery
View from just outside
Tahoe from US 50
Lake from Logan Shoals
Panoramic view of Lake
Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada