In July 1986, LIFE magazine ran a feature story entitled “America, the Most,” containing a striking photograph of a long stretch of road. The grey strip of tarmac draws the eye to a dark hill. In the foreground, there’s nothing but a single car and a lone figure on horseback crossing the empty road.
A paragraph of text accompanies the image with the title “The Loneliest Road.” In it, a quote from an AAA spokesman does nothing to inspire would-be travelers to journey on this vast stretch of highway: “It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to travel there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
Turns out that AAA’s “warning” was great advertising! Today, the route in Nevada famously nicknamed the “Loneliest Road in America” is actually a popular tourist destination. Here’s a history of this famous highway and why you should consider making the journey!
Where Is the Loneliest Road?
In the decades that followed after the LIFE article was published, the nondescript stretch of highway known as the Loneliest Road became famous, but mostly for its shortcomings. The article referred to a 287-mile section of the U.S. Route 50 (also known as Lincoln Highway), linking the towns of Ely and Fallon, Nevada. According to the writer, it passed nine towns, two abandoned mining camps, a few gas pumps, and the occasional coyote. Even now, in certain segments of the highway, the Loneliest Road is as desolate as a road can be, traversing vast desert valleys with no stoplights in sight. But the mountain ranges and open plains surrounding the Loneliest Road have a stark beauty that many travelers find compelling. For this reason, the desolate highway has become one of the most well-known roads in Nevada.
A Marketing Opportunity
Rather than take offense from LIFE magazine’s pejorative headline, the state’s official tourism board Travel Nevada embraced it, touting the Loneliest Road as a unique destination. Efforts to market the Loneliest Road as a tourism attraction ensured that the “lonely” stretch of Route 50 in Nevada became the most well-known section of the transcontinental highway that connects Maryland to California. Furthermore, in a nod to the original AAA comment, visitors can stop in the towns along the route to validate their own Official Highway 50 Survival Guide.
Travel Nevada recognized that the ghost towns, old mining communities, and miles of empty road on Route 50 were as attractive to some tourists as the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip. In order to enjoy the road at a leisurely pace, Travel Nevada recommends allowing three days to explore the sites and scenery along the Loneliest Road.
Paving the Way West
The Loneliest Road used to go by another moniker — the stretch of highway loosely follows the same route as the Pony Express trail. Operational only for 18 months between April 1860 and October 1861, the Pony Express was a post delivery service using relay riders on horseback carrying mail from Missouri to California. Two months after the service commenced, U.S. Congress passed a bill allocating funds to a transcontinental telegraph line, rendering the Pony Express obsolete. The exact route of the Pony Express trail can be hard to pin down but Middlegate Station, situated next to U.S. Route 50, is believed to have been on its path.
Decades later, the stretch of the Lincoln Highway in Nevada picked up where the Pony Express left off. The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental roads across America. From the town of Ely, Nevada, the section of highway headed as far west as Fallon, Nevada, and continued for a few miles beyond that. The road was officially designated as part of the Lincoln Highway in 1913, but was largely superseded by Interstate 80 after the 1950s.
Nature and Wildlife
Although the Loneliest Road is desolate, the stretch of open road has natural beauty at every bend. Great Basin National Park, a short distance east from Ely, offers breathtaking scenery, but there’s plenty to delight drivers who continue west. Sagebrush lines the horizon as far as the eye can see, while scattered pinion pine trees provide shade. Rare species of butterflies flit about and birds of prey circle overhead. You should also keep your eyes peeled for elk, deer, and desert foxes. Wild horses roam the vast expanse and flocks of sheep graze beside the highway. You’ll often spot the Hickison burro herd close to Spencer Hot Springs in Smoky Valley, particularly at sunset.
Most impressive of all is Sand Mountain. Thousands of years ago, this sediment formed the bed of Lake Lahontan. Measuring six stories high and two miles long, Sand Mountain constantly shifts with the wind. It’s also one of the few singing dunes on the planet. Phenomenal sustained sound recordings reaching 105 decibels and lasting several minutes at a time make this a special place, whether you’re simply here to listen or have fun driving through the dunes in an off-road vehicle.
For thousands of years, long before the highway paved the journey west, people have left their mark in this part of Nevada. Close to Fallon, the carved drawings of the Grimes Point Prehistoric Rock Art Site are a must-see. These petroglyphs are believed to be at least 6,000 years old — perhaps considerably older. Archaeologists also recovered fragments of bone and shell as well as rudimentary tools from the area. Today, an interpretive trail helps visitors discover the area’s prehistoric past. There’s also a hiking path leading to Hidden Cave, which was once inhabited by those who created the drawings years ago.
Another fascinating stop for history buffs, located a short distance south of the Loneliest Road, is Toquima Cave. Highly significant to the Western Shoshone Indigenous tribe, this sacred rock shelter boasts over 300 pictographs. These abstract images were created with white, red, yellow, and black pigments. They differ from most other petroglyphs since they are painted rather than carved.
Mines and Railroads
There are only a handful of settlements in this part of Nevada, and one of them is the city of Eureka, dubbed the “Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road.” Silver was discovered nearby in the early 1860s, sparking an influx of prospectors. By the 1880s, there was enough money to spawn an opera house. However, the large number of nearby ghost towns, such as Hamilton, Monte Cristo, and Eberhardt, is a reminder that the area’s prosperity was short-lived.
Before the highway opened, the railroad also transformed the region. The museum attached to the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark in Ely is a good place to start if you’re keen to learn more. History gets hands-on here — visitors can take on the role of engineer or driver and take a vintage steam locomotive for a spin. You can also ride in a specially converted 1956 Pontiac station wagon!
The area’s more recent history is no less compelling. Close to the city of Austin, Wyoming, one of the most famous landmarks along the route is Stokes Castle. Anson Phelps Stokes, a wealthy industrialist, built the structure at the end of the 19th century, modeling his design after a tower in Italy he liked. Though he intended the castle to be a summer home, the family barely used it. The abandoned structure eventually succumbed to neglect and the elements before being renovated in the 20th century.
Other attractions along the Loneliest Road are also quirky. Many drivers pull in at Middlegate Station to refuel and admire the Shoe Tree. According to local lore, a pair of newlyweds threw the first shoes into the tree during an argument. Passersby continued the tradition until vandals cut the tree down. Undeterred locals designated a new Shoe Tree and the custom continues to this day. It seems even discarded footwear is destined to never be lonely on this particular Nevada highway!