Traveling Along US-50, The Loneliest Road in America

US-50, NEVADA- Even though “somewhere around Barstow” is in the eastern part of California, the image conjured by Hunter S. Thompson’s famous opening line to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is exactly what I picture when I think of the Nevada desert. Long stretches of highway laid bare in front of you, shimmering in the sunlight, heat waves bouncing off the asphalt, desert sand stretching as far as the eye can see, and the blistering heat of the sun bearing down on you regardless of whether you’re driving a hardtop or a convertible.


In reality, the topography of Nevada is much different. The average elevation is 5500 feet, though this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s mountainous terrain. It’s a semi-arid climate, and vast stretches of immense desert are dotted with sagebrush, a short, squat plant that thrives in the Great Basin. The drive across the Loneliest Road in America, an odd but appropriate marketing slogan seized by the state of Nevada for US Route 50, will take you through 17 mountain passes and innumerable periods of long, flat highway, which even towards the end of May are cased in by snow-capped peaks, intermittent precipitation, and chilly weather.


Marketing US-50 as The Loneliest Road in America is an interesting strategy—selling the fact that there is nothing here in an effort to get people to come. The name itself belies the fact that there is little to see; for most, the whole point of taking this road is that they need to get from A to B. There are a few small towns, most notably Austin and Ely which are unsurprisingly small, run-down towns with a frontier feel populated largely by older folks. Sure, these towns exist—the basic economic principles of supply and demand dictate that it’s worth it for someone to sell gas to those driving through—but there is nothing of any substance going on here. In fact, most of the buildings, businesses, saloons, churches and post offices, look as if they are relics from the 19th century, with little sign of modern intrusion. There is not much to see, and as a result, little to spend your money on once you’re “there”.


While Nevada may be sparsely populated, driving across US-50 is a beautiful ride. You’ll cross mountain ranges, winding through passes, often with precipitation and treacherous turns, slowing to speeds of 30mph or less. Yet for the periods in between the passes it’s a simple straightaway, with some slight elevation, slight descent, but really you can just click on cruise control, admire the mountain ranges in the rear view mirror, some of them covered with clouds, the snow-tipped peaks sneaking out underneath, and the mountains in front of you, oftentimes resembling rolling hills, with desert brush and the occasional ungulate sitting atop. It’s a gorgeous drive—there is no traffic, and there are no people to annoy you, to get in your way, or make you uncomfortable in any way shape or form. It’s certainly a trip for someone that doesn’t mind just buckling down and cruising, but if you need to pass through the state of Nevada one way or another, I’d highly recommend taking the loneliest road in America. Just don’t expect to buy anything along the way.