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HIGH IN THE RED ROCKS OF WESTERN NEVADA, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad runs a 100-year-old steam locomotive that carries weekend passengers on a round trip between Carson City and Virginia City, the historic Old West town once famous for its rich gold and silver mines.
The 90-minute train ride is a sensory experience. The chugging of the engine mixes with the subtle smell of steam power and the sight of rust-colored terrain dotted with desert plants. The route twists and turns through two tunnels, and as the locomotive powers up the hills, the valley below comes into full view. Passengers can step to the front or back of the train for a glimpse of the sprawling, mountainous landscape. A keen eye can usually spot a herd of wild horses, brown and beautiful, grazing peacefully on tall grasses. The railroad experience is completed by a costumed conductor and rail hand; they narrate the train ride with historical facts and anecdotes.
It’s easy for passengers to conjure up images of the Old West. The Gold Rush led people to the mines of Nevada, creating a necessity for a rail system to transport people and goods from Virginia City to Reno, Lake Tahoe and elsewhere. Today, the 24 miles of track are located partially along this original line.
Once in Virginia City, choose from a long list of attractions. Get some grub at a steakhouse or saloon (Bucket of Blood has been open since 1876), take a bus tour and learn all about the town’s history, or hit up the many small shops for jewelry or rare stones. Enjoy the quirky odds and ends: The Suicide Table, for example, now sits on exhibit in the dimly lit Delta Saloon; it was once an infamously unlucky surface for gambling. The Historic Fourth Ward School Museum & Archives is a kid-friendly spot that was built as a schoolhouse for more than 1,000 students. Children can sit in the old desks and imagine dipping quills into inkwells to practice penmanship. Families can mosey through the museum’s many exhibits and see artifacts from the mining days. Round out the afternoon with a tour of the mines or a trip to Mackay Mansion, once owned by strike-it-rich silver miner John Mackay. The visitor center in town can help you plan your day.
As the day comes to a close, board the train once again for the trip back down to Carson City. Ride once more past Gold Hill, another mining town smaller than Virginia City. Take a last look at the natural beauty of Nevada and reflect on your day. If you’re not ready to leave Virginia City, stick around and things might get really interesting: A few hotels are rumored to be haunted.
Train ticket prices range from $32 to $82. (775) 847-0380; vtrailway.com