Highway 50, named the loneliest highway, and the response of local towns
March 14, 2019 5:41 PM   Subscribe

In July 1986, Life magazine honored the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday and highlighted American superlatives: On one page, the “Cutest” (a toddler actor) appears alongside the “Loneliest Road” (YouTube) below a photo of a seemingly endless highway that reaches across the desert toward the mountains, a lone cowboy on horseback crossing from one side of nothingness to the other. An anonymous AAA counselor is quoted in the article: “We warn all motorists not to drive there, unless they're confident of their survival skills.” The road was U.S. Highway 50 through Nevada (Google Maps), and rather than keep motorists away, however, the moniker piqued curiosity (National Geographic)—thanks in part to the Nevada Commission on Tourism (Pony Express Nevada).

The Nevada Commission on Tourism put together the Highway 50 Survival Guide (online on Issuu, or directly available as a PDF).

Austin, Nevada has this bit of history:
US 50 roughly follows the path of the Pony Express riders. This famed mail route included places such as Baker, Ely, Eureka, Austin, Fallon, Silver Springs and on to Sacramento. Brave young men carried mail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. To become a rider, the requirement was for “young, skinny, wiry fellow not over eighteen. Must be expert rider willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” It took 10 days for a letter to travel the entire 1,800 miles of the Pony Express route.
That's the intro to Austin, Nevada's attempt to 'conquer “The Loneliest Road in America” from Ely to Carson City,' approximately 300 miles.

Travel Nevada has another Highway 50 travel guide, and Route 50 (dot com) has a tour of the route's history, in charmingly Web 1.0 format.
posted by filthy light thief (31 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Bonus link: Life on the 'Loneliest Road' : 287-Mile Stretch of U.S. 50 Is America Minus Tourist Traps (Charles Hillinger for Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1986, a few months after the Life article was published)
posted by filthy light thief at 5:43 PM on March 14


I have driven that road. The fastest I ever drove my 1972 VW beetle was downhill on Highway 50; I believe I got up to 94 mph.

The National Geographic article gives a reasonable approximation of how isolated that road is. It’s difficult to see the loneliness in mere photographs.

East of Ely, near of the Utah border, is Lehman Caves. The mountain upon which the caves are located has a road that runs from desert, to scrub, to pine, to alpine while climbing the mountain. It’s a geography lesson, as much as the caves are a geography lesson

Great road, across a great state. Not the Nevada of Reno or Las Vegas.
posted by blob at 6:31 PM on March 14 [7 favorites]


There are a few amazing hot springs along HWY 50. I sat in a cattle tank hot spring at sunset and watched the dog chase jackrabbits last December.
posted by Grandysaur at 6:38 PM on March 14 [6 favorites]


I've driven 50 across Nevada (and further) twice now and liked the experience. In the modern era of reliable cars and cell phones it's honestly just another road, albeit a lonely one. I'm weirdly fond of Ely. Don't get me wrong, I'd never want to live there and in many ways it's a grim shithole. But it's got character. Also after 100+ miles you're ready to stop and have a drink.

Near Ely in addition to Lehman Caves there's also the Bristlecone Pines, trees living for thousands of years. They're tiny, stunted, ugly; twisted up from living at the very margin of existence. Right at the edge of timberline for the cold, very little water, too much sun and wind. The very oldest of them was cut down in the 60s by a grad student "for research purposes". The whole place is sort of a grim metaphor for something. Not sure what, but it's not a good something.
posted by Nelson at 6:39 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]


In Ely is the amazing Nevada Northern Railway Museum and Ride.

A whole railroad frozen in time, that used to serve the town and the massive copper mine next to it.
posted by nickggully at 6:40 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


BTW we think of the Continental Divide as the place where water runs East to the Atlantic or West to the Pacific. But it's not. The water that runs West runs West into Nevada, the Great Basin. Then it sits there and evaporates leaving behind salted earth. That's another grim metaphor for something, but not a good something.
posted by Nelson at 6:43 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure that's true? There's actually a bit of variation in these maps but it makes sense to me that the Columbia and Colorado rivers get their shares from the western Rockies.

Somewhat relatedly, I've never driven this road but wandering around southern Idaho after the solar eclipse, making our way to Craters of the Moon, looked very much like this. With the exception of huge traffic jams even in the remotest one-horse towns that probably quadrupled their populations just at each gas station. It was a phenomenon that's for sure.
posted by traveler_ at 7:09 PM on March 14


I have traveled this road a lot. Chester Fried Chicken in Battle Mountain. (the armpit of Nevada,) the locals.say, then away on the 50. But I love the 6 as well. The lunar crater between Ely and Tonopah, and the volcanic playas are fantastic, and camping out there in my VW van, under the Milky Way, the best. I almost got a job teaching art in Battle Mountain, but they also wanted someone who would coach football. Yeah.
posted by Oyéah at 7:24 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]


It's a bit off US 50 but Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is pretty cool. It's a ghost town that became so after the nearby gold mine got played out, and then a completely unrelated discovery of a trove of dinosaur bones was made decades afterwards. The campground was nice too, I spent a night in it when I was driving across the country during a spell of funemployment.
posted by the painkiller at 7:24 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


On one page, the “Cutest” (a toddler actor) appears alongside the “Loneliest Road”

I completely misinterpreted that and was quite baffled - why the hell would they plunk some poor baby down on the side of a deserted highway, just for a stupid photo op? I felt pretty silly after I saw they meant the photos were next to each other on the magazine page.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:40 PM on March 14 [6 favorites]


I rode a bicycle across Nevada on The Loneliest Road. It was nice. I have fond memories of the little towns along this section of US 50.

It's definitely not the actual loneliest road, of course. For a truly empty road, for example, check out US Highway 21 between Milford, Utah and Baker Nevada. 84 miles with no services of any kind. There is one tree, notable because it sits near a spring which is the only source of water in many miles. The day I rode it I saw no more than two cars the entire day. Then I got in The Loneliest Road the next day which was (relatively) busy.
posted by JeffL at 7:47 PM on March 14 [8 favorites]


Rode The Loneliest by motorcycle in 2010. My riding comrade had a tire blow out on his bike- this was before you had maps on phones or anything, and there was no signal anyway, so I had to ride ahead to see if there was… anything at all really, anyplace close, and left my friend behind waiting for me to come back with word. Luckily Ely wasn't too far ahead, and the hotel had a 'biker' discount, but for my friend the road must have seemed lonely indeed for a few hours there.
posted by rodlymight at 8:02 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]


Let me just say this...The Currant Summit marked at 6,999 feet. I am thinking, couldn't they have plunked a one foot rock down, right here, to make it an even 7000 feet? Seriously I love this road.
posted by Oyéah at 8:16 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


You can actually still send a letter via the Pony Express. The National Pony Express Association re-rides the route every year, carrying a mochila filled with actual letters which are then posted to their final destination from whichever is the terminus for that year--they alternate between east to west and west to east. I still have (somewhere, I think) the belt buckle to prove that I rode a leg of the 1982 re-ride, around Grubbs Well, NV, which is just north of 50 somewhere between, if I'm remembering correctly, Austin and Eureka.
posted by bricoleur at 8:37 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]


I would skip highway 50 (because it isn't lonely anymore), and instead travel this route from Vegas and back, overnight stay in Ely perhaps.

https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Las+Vegas,+Nevada/Great+Basin+National+Park,+Nevada/Tonopah,+NV/Las+Vegas,+NV/

Great Basin National Park (also Wikipedia). This is the only National Park in Nevada, with the oldest grove of bristlecone pines (4500+ years old), and includes Lehman Caves, and also has a night sky program with telescopes, due to the near complete lack of light pollution.

Highway 6 in Nevada

There are no services anywhere between Tonopah and Ely (a distance of about 168 miles). Although US 50 has the nickname "The Loneliest Road in America", US 6 has a solid case for the title; as Tonopah and Ely are the only cities it goes through in the 306 miles (492 km) it traverses in Nevada, with a combined population of just over 6,500, while US 50 boasts Carson City with over 50,000 and even Fallon alone out populates US 6, with over 8,000. In addition, there is not much traffic for US 6, as it ends 38 miles (61 km) south of the California/Nevada border in the small town of Bishop, CA at US 395 (with connections to the former western terminus of US 6 in Los Angeles).
posted by Brian B. at 8:37 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]


About the only thing I remember about my Highway 50 road trip 20+ years ago was driving through a particularly eerie stretch of thousands of seemingly identical small conical hills, and the road gently swerving and rising and falling between them.

Oh yeah, and later driving along a river canyon at night as a river boat night tour was taking place invisibly far below, illuminating the canyon walls with moving shadows.
posted by moonmilk at 9:07 PM on March 14 [4 favorites]


someone should set a modern day fantasy (can't really call it urban fantasy lol) story in it.
posted by gryftir at 9:49 PM on March 14


The very oldest of them was cut down in the 60s by a grad student "for research purposes".

Since that misunderstanding, an even older bristlecone has been identified. But I believe these are in the California forest, not Nevada.

Love the Loneliest Highway, driven it twice. It's such a contrast to the other end, the Rte 50 I grew up with, stretching from New York Avenue in NE DC to Ocean City Maryland (another armpit).
posted by Rash at 10:50 PM on March 14


So how does it compare to Amboy Road (which I know is much shorter in its extent) in terms of creepiness?
posted by invitapriore at 11:19 PM on March 14


I love 50! It is the best way to enter the Tahoe basin. Cozy and dramatic at the same time.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:03 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


I recently went looking for the most boring highway in Canada. Highway 884 in Alberta was my winner. Enjoy the ride.
posted by clawsoon at 4:17 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


Ocean City Maryland (another armpit)

Apparently my extended family is no longer welcome there, so check back, it may have improved.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:00 AM on March 15


Although US 50 has the nickname "The Loneliest Road in America", US 6 has a solid case for the title

A decade ago my wife and I drove from Bishop, CA to West Wendover, NV on Highway 6, and it was lonely indeed. We might have only seen a dozen vehicles the whole way. Stunningly, desolately beautiful land, though.
posted by me3dia at 8:59 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


Here is an insider aside...You can take the 93 up out of Las Vegas heading North through Cliven Bundy country, sorta looking for Hwy 6, but if you take the road through The Great Basin it is 188 miles to Ely, and it is 60+ miles shorter to take the 93 going through Alamo, Rachel, and Hiko. This is a beautiful lonely highway, the Las Vegas Porsche club cleans up, in exchange for closing the road once per year, for a timed race. The Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge is along there, which is elegant at dawn.
posted by Oyéah at 9:02 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


gryftir: “someone should set a modern day fantasy (can't really call it urban fantasy lol) story in it.”
It's set on 30 years ago on old US-66 in California instead of US-50 in Nevada, but I think Bagdad Cafe might be something like that.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:10 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


“We warn all motorists not to drive there, unless they're confident of their survival skills.”

That really sounds like a dare.
posted by doctornemo at 11:18 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


This thread has seriously awakened my wanderlust!
posted by Oyéah at 11:57 AM on March 15 [3 favorites]


I rode a bicycle across Nevada on The Loneliest Road. It was nice. I have fond memories of the little towns along this section of US 50.

Haha, I was just thinking how I'd love to ride my bike along it at the appropriate time of year when I saw your comment.  Some of my favorite terrain from the cross country bike ride I made last summer were the wide empty places like this in Montana and the Dakotas where I'd go 70 miles or more between towns on some days.  For someone like me who loves riding solo it was heaven.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 2:35 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


gryftir: someone should set a modern day fantasy (can't really call it urban fantasy lol) story in it.

ob1quixote: It's set on 30 years ago on old US-66 in California instead of US-50 in Nevada, but I think Bagdad Cafe might be something like that.

There are not one, but TWO films* named after Zzyzx (Road), a pretty sparse 4.5 mile road heading out to an unincorporated community of the same name in San Bernardino County, California, United States, within the boundaries of the Mojave National Preserve.

* The second, to be unique, is named Zyzzyx Road. Both are thrillers, not fantasies.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:45 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Rte 50 I grew up with, stretching from New York Avenue in NE DC to Ocean City Maryland
The section in Arlington is not much better
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 4:37 PM on March 15


Dan Holt Explore Nevada a series for local cable television some with piano favorites .
posted by hortense at 9:44 PM on March 15


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