As we left Virginia City, Nevada, we discussed possible routes we might take southward, and how far we might get, as it was already nearing 3 PM in the afternoon. Our two museum tours in Reno and our unplanned (but very cool) detour up and through Virginia City had eaten up a good part of the day, and when we first started out on this road trip, we said we would try and keep to a driving curfew of around 6-6:30 PM each day – to try and manage the driving fatigue factor if nothing else.
Carson City, the capital of Nevada, and “America’s smallest capitol city” lies 15 miles downhill from Virginia City, and that is where we headed next. (As a side note, if you’re trying to make time and don’t want to make the side-trip to Virginia City, Carson City is just 30 miles directly south of Reno via I-580S/US-395S). A quick perusal of the “tourist attractions in Carson City” websites, revealed that there was a Nevada State RR Museum, a Nevada State Museum, and a number of older homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We covered the 15 mile drive from Carson City in no time, and having already seen two museums (in Reno) and wandered through a historic mining town, we decided to motor straight through Carson City. I should tell you that in researching Carson City, we found out it was named after the legendary mountain man, Kit Carson, famed trapper, Hudson Bay scout, and explorer from the mid-1800’s. As near as we could tell, it’s primary reason for being, was that it served as a hub for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad which was essential for moving goods in and out of Virginia City during the Comstock Lode years.
To the southwest of Carson City, lies the beautiful resort town of South Lake Tahoe, and while Mary didn’t have any burning desire to see it, it was one of the places I had written down on my “like to see if I can list” when we were planning our trip. Not that I’m much of a skier these days (too many knee surgeries, not to mention back and shoulder problems), but I had become aware of Lake Tahoe in the 60’s and 70’s when it was host to numerous water and snow-related competitions that aired on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. At the north end of Lake Tahoe, lies Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and at the south end you’ll find Heavenly Mountain Resort, the biggest ski venue in the area.
Our drive from Carson City to South Lake Tahoe took roughly an hour, and saw us arrive around 4:30 in the afternoon. In between the two cities, we once again climbed up to altitudes of close to 8,000 feet above sea level, before coming back down to 6200 feet above sea level at South Lake Tahoe. As we cruised along the main street Mary remarked that it is very pretty here, but if you are not into skiing or watersports, there doesn’t look like there is much here to see and do. We stopped and took a few pictures of the beautiful mountains surrounding the town, and then found the nearest Starbucks – a frequent planning/re-grouping stop during our road trip.
Footnote here – for those planning a trip to the area in the future, there is a loop drive that covers the entire 72 miles around Lake Tahoe. Since it goes through several small towns along the way, and some seriously winding roads in places, the drive can easily take up to 2 1/2 hours. It should also be noted that depending on the time of year you visit Lake Tahoe, parts of the road are undriveable due to snow.
As we discussed our next steps, or should I say, our next chunk of road miles, we realized that we had somewhat boxed ourselves in by coming to South Lake Tahoe, which incidentally takes you back into California from Nevada half-way through the centre of town. It seemed we had three choices. Stay in South Lake Tahoe at one of the resorts. Retrace our route to Carson City, and bunk there for the night. Or, head up through the mountains in roughly a South-easterly fashion, with a destination of Bridgeport, California, some two hours away. We both felt good enough to put some more miles behind us, and it was a sunny afternoon, so we decided to hit the road.
Now the road we decided to hit, US-85/50S has warning signs and gates at the base of it, telling you that parts of the road are usually closed during winter months. Since it had been a fairly mild winter in the area, the roads were open and according to a gas station attendant at the foot of the road, we were told “you should be okay in that Jeep ya got there”.
Off we set, skirting the edge of the Eldorado National Forest, and up, and I mean up toward Monitor Pass on roads that would see us climb to over 9,000 feet about sea level. We were truly in the wilderness although we were at least on a paved highway. As we climbed higher, there was more and more snow on each side of the road, but the roads were dry, and we were still travelling in daylight. I have to say that some of the views were quite breath-taking, not of the Banff-Jasper Highway variety, but nonetheless, pretty spectacular in their own right. We also had the road to ourselves.
We made it through Monitor Pass without incident and found ourselves back on US-395S with a short drive remaining before we would arrive in Bridgeport – ETA 7:30 PM. Up to this point in our journey, I had been feeling fairly good about the route planning I had done, and, my daily projections of time on the road, distance to be covered and sights to be seen, had worked out pretty well, if I do say so myself. It was at this point in the day and week that my smugness ran out, since I had neglected to look up any information about Bridgeport, before targetting it from South Lake Tahoe.
As we rolled into the end of town (less than 1/4 of a mile from one end to the other), there were no street lights or traffic lights at all. There was a gas station at the west end of town, and everything else looked fairly dark and quiet. Did I mention that the population of Bridgeport turned out to be 575! (lesson learned here – don’t rely on font size when picking out towns on a map).
We’re tired, and we’re hungry. We pull over to the side of the road and turn on one of the overhead lights in the Jeep. Turning on our iPad and being grateful that we could get an internet signal, we ascertained that there were 3 motels and inns in town, and the one that had the most recent and somewhat favorable reviews on Expedia was directly across from where we had pulled over. We looked at each other and said, “how bad can it be”? We put away the map, started the Jeep and idled our way across the highway into the parking lot. There looked to be about 8 rooms interconnected in one long U-shaped pattern around a small parking lot. There was one other car in the lot, and we pulled up beside the office, which was lit. I walked over to the door and found a sign that said “Not here right now. Gone to a fund-raiser and should be back around 8:30-9”. I walked back to the Jeep laughing (what else could I do), and told Mary the news. She just shook her head in disbelief and suggested we go back to the gas station and ask if there was a place to eat. So we did, and to no surprise, found out that the only 2 restaurants in town were both closed for the evening.
Now we were faced with the dilemma that it was 7:40 PM, and it was dark. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no place to eat, and we wouldn’t be able to check into a sketchy motel for at least another 45 minutes to an hour.
Back to the iPad. This time we determined that an hour to the south was Mammoth Lakes, California, a popular ski resort town (site of the Mammoth Mountain ski area) with a population of over 8,000, and more importantly, home to more than 50 brand name hotels and resorts.
It took us all of about 20 seconds to decide that we’d rather spend the next hour driving to Mammoth Lakes, then sitting in a gas station parking lot eating convenience food snacks. Off we went.
It was an easy drive along a beautiful moon-lit highway with snow-capped mountains to our right, and hardly another vehicle in sight.
The rest of the evening was fairly uneventful. We arrived in Mammoth Lakes just before 9 PM, and had no problem finding a room. We grabbed some food at a local take-out and took it back to our hotel – a very clean and newly renovated Motel 6 (we don’t always have to stay in a 4 or 5 star hotel, although if we had our druthers………). The funny thing about this motel is that when we compared notes at the end of the week, we both agreed that the bed in the Motel 6 was the most comfortable we slept in all week!