Part 3 – California/Nevada Road Trip – December 2016
Tonopah, Nevada, was just an overnight stop on the way from Reno to Las Vegas on our road trip last December, but it has some fascinating history and is close to fabulous scenery and lots of ghost towns and other curiosities.
Tonopah is itself a historic mining town once known as the Queen of the Silver Camps. It was the site of one of the richest booms in the West, which took place on May 19, 1900. 
But there was more to see along the way before we even rolled into town on the evening of 8 December 2016, including a rest and refreshment stop at Churchill Springs Casino, and then a scenic pull-off to take a look at Walker Lake.
Walker Lake is a natural lake about 75 miles (120 km) southeast of Reno on US Route 95. The area around the lake has long been inhabited by the Paiute Indians. However, the diversion of water from the Walker River and its tributaries for irrigation purposes has resulted in a severe drop in the level of the lake impacting the lake’s fishery which in turn is having a dramatic effect on the species of birds using the lake.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has been acquiring water rights and has submitted applications to the Nevada State Engineer to transfer the water downstream to benefit the lake. The Walker River Paiute Reservation touches the lake at one point, and you briefly drive through it on US 95 en-route from Reno to Tonopah.
Tonopah looks exactly what it is – an old mining town with a colourful history. Originally an Indian campground known as Tonopah Springs, it became the site of one of the richest silver booms in the West. It was discovered by a local rancher named Jim Butler on 19 May 1900, when Butler’s mule wandered away and fell down a hole which, Butler discovered, contained an outcrop heavily laced with silver. Or so the local legend goes. It’s a good story, anyway.
In 1901 mines around the town produced almost $750,000 in gold and silver and for the next 40 years, the Tonopah mines were consistent producers until the Depression brought a slowdown. Not much in the way of mining has happened since the Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad shut down and its rails were torn up in 1947. 
I was staying the night at the Best Western Hi Desert Inn which sits immediately below the Tonopah Historic Mining Park on the hillside behind it (see photo above). Less tired legs might have impelled me to explore the parts of the site that were open, but the day was drawing to its close, and I was looking to sit down for a nice meal.
The Best Western staff pointed to the joint opposite – the Tonopah Brewing Co’s Tap Room, which is famous for its BBQ. I had the chicken – a huge plate of it, with salad and chips, at a modest price, and then hurried back to my room across the road, huddled against the chill of the descending desert night.
Next day we were off to Vegas – not a long drive, but there were some interesting places to see along the way. In particular, the semi deserted town of Goldfield was worth a stop and a chat with the lady in the gift shop who was enamoured of my travel buddy/mascot, little MJ.
Afterwards I drove around town looking at Goldfield’s abandoned civic buildings and the somewhat infamous ‘haunted’ Goldfield Hotel which has been the site of some paranormal investigations, in particular by the television program “Ghost Adventures”. When completed in 1908 it was said to be the most spectacular hotel in Nevada. Today it’s listed on the State Register of Historic Places and forms part of the Goldfield Historic District on the National Register. 
After that it was onward to Beatty. About 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas on the 95 there is a view (and a turnoff, which I didn’t take) to the Amargosa Dunes, a.k.a. Big Dune – a 1.5 square mile area popular with dune buggy enthusiasts. The name is self-evident given that it is, indeed, a big heap of sand sitting between the desert highway and the mountains, with its highest point topping 500 feet. 
Next stop was (don’t laugh!) at the Area 51 Alien Centre – in reality a big convenience store/truck stop with an extraterrestrial theme. Worth a stop to look around. (Just be aware there is a brothel out back!)  After our Area 51 stop and shop, there was quick visit to a petrol station in Indian Springs. One of the tyres on the rental car had started to go down, so I had to pull in for air before tackling the last stretch into Vegas.
The GPS had done itself proud up until this last leg, when it took me to Las Vegas Blvd North rather than South – and I didn’t twig until it had turned me around on the freeway a couple of times… what the??? Now, even though I usually drive in to Vegas from the direction of LA, I’ve been here often enough to know when I’m near the south end of The Strip, and this sure wasn’t it… nor was it anywhere near downtown.
Finally I just read the signs and used my knowledge of the place to find my way into Excalibur – at last! I guess after all the driving over recent days, it was bound to end with some tiredness and frustration – but in terms of the GPS, I learned a valuable lesson: namely to put my reading glasses on when programming it! Of course, the day wasn’t over yet – there was the inevitable queue and seemingly interminable wait to check in to Excalibur (not uncommon at the popular hotels in Vegas around check-in time each afternoon) before finally I could head up to our room.
But one look at the view (pictured below) from our castle tower made the drive with a leaking tyre, the wrestle with the GPS – and the queue at check-in – all worthwhile. It was, in Vegas parlance, a WINNER.
Story and photos (c) Kerry Hennigan
 For more info and a terrific promotional video, visit: http://tonopahnevada.com/
 History of Tonopah: http://www.tonopahnevada.com/history.html
 Goldfield Hotel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldfield_Hotel
 Amargosa Big Dune: https://travelnevada.com/discover/26019/amargosa-big-dune
 Area 51 Alien Centre: https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/40442