Reno, Nevada, may not be on the front burner of your destination plans. But trust me, Reno no longer fits the image of an aging sin city. Once known for quickie divorces, wide-open gambling and easy access to women of questionable ethics, Reno has ceded the title of “Anything Goes” to Las Vegas. Reno has moved beyond the exclusivity of a gaming mecca to become a vibrant community with multiple attractions.
For more years than most of us have been alive, Reno has proudly proclaimed itself to be “The Biggest Little City in the World.” A sign announcing that claim has spanned Virginia Street, Reno’s main drag, since the days when most visitors arrived via the Southern Pacific Railroad. There had to be a bit of boastfulness in that claim for a town whose population in the 1930s was under 20,000. But even then, its reputation far exceeded its population.
During World War II, when my parents and I lived in Reno, there were few options for legal gambling in the United States. Here and there a bar might have a few slot machines in a back room but there was hardly anything like Harold’s Club in Reno. Here was a place where you could openly lose your money on lines of slots that started practically on the sidewalk, or at the blackjack tables, the spinning roulette wheel and the dancing dice of the craps table. The family-owned casino liked to boast that it had “Harold’s Club or Bust” signs in locations all over the globe. The Fourth of July parade featured men wearing barrels with signs saying, “I busted,” and Harold’s Club written underneath. There were other, smaller casinos all bunched together between West Second Street and the railroad tracks on Virginia Street. Dollars were silver, not paper. A short distance south on Virginia Street, the elegant Mapes Hotel faced the equally swank Riverside Hotel across the Truckee River, each offering luxury digs for those waiting out the six weeks for their divorce to become final.
In time, divorce laws were relaxed in other states and Native Americans finally got even for their centuries-old inferior treatment by filling the landscape with Indian casinos. Washoe County decided legalized prostitution was not part of the image it wished to present to the public and the madams moved their businesses to neighboring, more lenient counties. And at the southern end of the state, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and the mob made what had once been a sleepy village into a powerhouse world-class destination. There were many who assumed Reno was doomed to remain a “little” city, a pale shadow of Las Vegas, and anything but “The Biggest Little City in the World.”
Fortunately, Reno did not slip into oblivion but managed to recreate itself into a destination offering multiple benefits to its visitors. And it has done so without following the path of its southern neighbor and burying the visitor in glitz and mind-boggling traffic. You can actually drive your rig through and into Reno without having to pry your fingers off the steering wheel when you stop. Harold’s Club is gone, but gaming is available in attractive and even luxurious venues where the entertainment often features headliners of national repute.
More importantly, Reno has become a destination attractive to people who would never dream of squandering their hard earned cash on a roulette table or slot machine. The Truckee River flows through the heart of Reno on its way from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake. For much of Reno’s history, the river was simply something to put up with, forcing city fathers to build bridges and clean up after occasional rampages. Now the river is a beautiful linear park, with rapids where intrepid kayakers practice their sport while young people cluster along its banks and splash happily in the cool water. Alcoves offer quiet spots for reflection, with flowers, trees, water fountains and art work in the very heart of the city. Walkways allow bikers, in-line skaters, runners and walkers miles of riverside beauty. I recall seeing river otters on one walk along the Truckee’s banks.
The river walk passes the city’s old Episcopal church, where downtown workers and visitors can listen to organ concerts at noon. The former ticket office of a still functioning movie theater has been turned into an innovative art gallery, with changing exhibits showcasing the work of numerous Northern Nevada artists. Restaurants offer outside seating where you can enjoy a meal and watch the activities on and along the river. An outdoor amphitheater offers a variety of live entertainment while basketball and tennis courts attract the young and would-be young. The fabled National Auto Museum attracts car buffs from all over the world. Bill Harrah of the Harrah’s gaming empire had one of the most extensive car collections in the United States. Fortunately, after his death, much of his collection was retained to form the nucleus of this outstanding museum.
Easy To Get Around
Reno has made its downtown and river walk pedestrian friendly by collaborating with the Union Pacific Railroad to put the tracks that once split the downtown in a deep trench, ending once and for all the never-ending tie-ups that resulted from constant mainline train traffic. Free shuttle buses circle downtown casinos and portions of the river walk, making it easy to get to the many attractions.
In neighboring Sparks, once known solely for its massive railroad roundhouse and dozens of smoke-spewing mammoth steam locomotives that were needed to boost long lines of freight cars over formidable Donner Pass, a large artificial lake ringed by walkways, shops and condos attracts sun worshippers, dog owners and even sailboat enthusiasts. Adjacent Sparks Marina RV Park provides an attractive venue to park your rig where a short walk will put you on the mile-plus walkway surrounding the lake.
Reno also offers an attractive central location for exploring several nearby destinations. You can visit Virginia City, which a century and a half ago was one of the most flamboyant cities in the United States. Unbelievable fortunes in silver were dug from the depths of Mount Davidson, funding in part the massive debt the United States incurred during the Civil War. Virginia City today is unabashedly a tourist trap, but that hasn’t stopped thousands from clomping down its wooden boardwalks or bellying up to its numerous bars. After all, how can you look down on a place where Mark Twain launched his writing career?
Lake Tahoe’s Variety
Equally as close is the north shore of Lake Tahoe, one of the true scenic wonders of our country. Deep blue waters rimmed with jagged granite peaks and dark green pine forests will have you constantly reaching for your camera. Driving completely around the lake will take a full day, but it will be a day of constant surprises and visual delights. Rustic villages, peaceful beaches, stunning state parks, Emerald Bay with its Vikingsholm castle, and frenzied south shore with its casinos, ski resorts and mobs of people all are part of the wonderful mix that is Lake Tahoe.
Also close, but not as well known, is the charming California town of Truckee, nestled in a bowl adjacent to the pristine waters of Donner Lake. Above are the massive ramparts of the Sierra Nevada, the granite barrier that broke the Donner party. Adjacent to town, a towering statue holding bronze replicas of a man, a woman and a child gazing toward the distant pass graces the state park honoring the doomed party. The base of the statue on which the bronze figures stand is the height of the snow that dreadful winter. Truckee’s downtown is a far cry from the grim story of the Donner Party. Like Virginia City, Truckee definitely caters to tourists, but with modern shopping opportunities rather than recreating the past. The Squeeze Inn restaurant in the heart of town is always one of our favorite breakfast haunts when we are near.
Carson City with its impressive museum in what was once the United States mint is an easy 30 miles south of Reno. Coin collectors swoon over the thought of finding one of the exceedingly rare CC mintmark coins that once flowed from this mint. The press that stamped those coins out is on exhibit along with specimens of gold and silver coins once minted there. As a child, I fell in love with the mine exhibit there, and still find it fascinating decades later. Just a mile or so farther south is the Nevada State Railroad Museum, where worshipers of the steam locomotive come to pay homage to the fragile tin pots that once carried the nabobs of San Francisco over the fabled rails of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad to the Comstock Lode. Some of the engines are still in operating condition, nearly 150 years after they were built, and if you are lucky, you may be there on a day when they fire up one of the ornate engines and run it around the circular track.
I hope I’ve encouraged you to put Reno on your destination radar. There are several nice RV parks there in addition to the Sparks Marina. One, Rivers Edge RV Park, puts you right on the Truckee River and the hiking and biking trail that follows its banks. Reno can be a year-round destination as well with several major ski resorts within easy driving distance. If you go, I think you’ll agree with me that Reno deserves its motto of “The Biggest Little City in the World.”
Gerald C. Hammon is writer and full-time RVer.
IF YOU GO:
Here are attractions and RV parks in the Reno area:
• Truckee River Gallery, 11 N. Sierra, Reno. www.truckeerivergallery.com; (775) 324-1105.
• Squeeze Inn, 10060 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, Calif.
• Nevada State Museum, 600 N. Carson, Carson City. www.nevadaculture.org/museums; (775) 687-4810.
• Nevada State Railroad Museum, 2180 S. Carson, Carson City. www.nevadaculture.org/museums; (775) 687-6953.
• National Automobile Museum, Lake and Mill Streets. Reno. www.automuseum.org; (775) 333-9300.
• Sparks Marina RV Park, (775) 851-8888
• Rivers Edge RV Park, (800) 621-4792
• Bonanza Terrace RV Park, (775) 329-9624
• Chism’s Trailer Park, (775) 322-2281
• Keystone RV Park & Motel, (800) 686-8559
• Shamrock RV Park, (775) 329-5222
• Silver Sage RV Park, (888) 823-2002
• Victorian RV Park, (800) 955-6405