Introduction to Scenic Byways in Nevada
Scenic byways are designated based on their historical, cultural, natural, archeological, recreational, and scenic qualities. Some of the best of Nevada's scenic byways are near the Reno/Tahoe region.
There are both state and federal scenic byways in Nevada. Three are designated by the federal government's National Scenic Byways Program, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. The remainder are recognized by the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT).
According to NDOT, there are 20 Nevada state scenic byways. For this article, we'll look at those from the list that have been chosen for emphasis by the Nevada Commission on Tourism (aka Travel Nevada). It is quite a diverse selection.
Lake Tahoe East Shore Drive National Scenic Byway
This byway along the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe is one of the most scenic in the world and one of Nevada's National Scenic Byways. It runs between Incline Village on the north and Stateline on the south, following both U.S. 50 and Nevada State Route 28. There are scenic overlooks at Memorial Point and Hidden Beach. For a more leisurely look at Lake Tahoe and a stroll along a sandy beach, stop in at Sand Harbor, a part of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. You can also check out historic Thunderbird Lodge, but you must make reservations for tours.
If you haven't had enough, you can continue and drive completely around Lake Tahoe. Refer to "Tour the Lake Tahoe Basin" for a description of the journey.
Mt. Rose Scenic Byway
When you drive the Mt. Rose Scenic Byway, you will understand why it is also called the Highway to the Sky - the views over the Truckee Meadows and Washoe Valley are almost like being in an airplane. The official designation is Nevada State Route 431, but locals know it as the Mt. Rose Highway. The southern end of this byway is in Incline Village at the intersection with Nevada 28 (the Lake Tahoe Eastshore Drive). The northern end is in Reno at S. Virginia Street. The 25 miles in between take the traveler from the sagebrush desert to the forested slopes of Mt. Rose and on to Lake Tahoe. It is a steep climb (or descent, depending on the direction of travel) of over 4,000 feet from Reno. You will pass numerous recreational opportunities, including the Galena Creek Visitor Center, Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, Diamond Peak ski area, the Mt. Rose Summit Welcome Plaza (elevation 8,911 feet, the highest all-season pass in the Sierra) and trailhead for the Tahoe Rim Trail and Mt. Rose Summit Trail, and the trailhead and snow play area at Tahoe Meadows. For fantastic views of Lake Tahoe, be sure to stop at the viewpoint above Incline Village. For more details, you can download the "Mount Rose Scenic Byway" brochure.
Pyramid Lake National Scenic Byway
Your first view of Pyramid Lake will be unexpected and memorable - a blue gem set in a stark, dry landscape. From Sparks, the Pyramid Lake National Scenic Byway runs north on Nevada State Route 445 (Pyramid Lake Highway) and tops out at an overlook providing an expansive view of Pyramid Lake and the surrounding desert mountains. Continue on 445 to the town of Sutcliffe or turn right on 446 to the town of Nixon at the intersection with 447. In Nixon, you can enjoy the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitors Center. In either Nixon or Sutcliffe, please purchase a tribal use permit for your visit. Pyramid Lake is completely within the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation and there are fees for recreational uses such as fishing, camping, and photography.
Pyramid Lake was named for the pyramid-shaped tufa formation on the west shore. Unfortunately, this part of the Pyramid Lake shoreline is closed to visitors because of vandalism problems in the area.
Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway
Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway takes you into the heart of the Ruby Mountains. This is another place where you'll wonder if you are still in Nevada and see why many people think the area should be turned into a national park. The parking area at the end of Lamoille Canyon Road provides a beautiful place for a picnic and has access to day hikes and longer treks on the Ruby Crest Trail. Thomas Canyon Campground is a good place to stay for those wanting to spend some time exploring this unit of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway is reached by taking Nevada State Route 227 south from Elko, then turning right on Lamoille Canyon Road just before the little town of Lamoille.
Red Rock Canyon Scenic Byway
Red Rock Canyon Scenic Byway travels through the heart of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (NCA). You reach the byway by taking Nevada State Route 159 west from the Las Vegas metro area. The drive will take you past colorful sandstone formations with frequent opportunities for hiking, picnicking, camping, and photography. Wildlife you might see include desert bighorn sheep. The area is administered by the Nevada Bureau of Land Management. You should start your visit at the excellent Visitor Center with area information and both indoor and outdoor exhibits.
Valley of Fire Scenic Byway
Valley of Fire Scenic Byway runs through the heart of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada's largest and first state park. The drive provides a visual feast in every direction as the road winds through a rugged red landscape of eroded bluffs, mountains, and sand dunes. Be sure to stop at the Visitor Center to learn about the geology and opportunities for camping, hiking, and photography. Some of Nevada's most significant petroglyphs are in this park. Valley of Fire is east of Las Vegas, reached from either I15 or Nevada State Routes 147 and 167.
Las Vegas Strip National Scenic Byway
The Las Vegas Strip is a National Scenic Byway and the only one you must see at night to know why it is a recognized landmark around the world. It's really impossible to describe the Las Vegas Strip in words - just know that you will experience a light show extravaganza like no other, courtesy of dozens of hotel casinos built with a bewildering variety of themes. You get to visit reproductions of some of the world's most famous places, including New York, Paris, Egypt, and medieval Europe. If you start your visit at the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign, drive up Las Vegas Boulevard to the Stratosphere, towering over 1,000 feet above the Strip.
Great Basin Scenic Byway
The Great Basin Scenic Byway will give you good look at the variety found within the Great Basin, an area that takes in most of Nevada. The route mostly follows U.S. 93, with Ely on the north and Crystal Springs on the south. Along the way, travelers pass through or near a big chunk of Nevada history, including old mining camps, historic railroads and depots, ghost towns, and five Nevada State Parks. From Ely, a side trip on this byway takes U.S. 50 to the little town of Baker and Great Basin National Park. You'll experience everything from wide open high desert to lofty Wheeler Peak (13,063 feet) when driving the Great Basin Scenic Byway.
Angel Lake Scenic Byway
When you see Angel Lake, you'll wonder if you are still in Nevada. This jewel of a lake is located in a mountain cirque, at 8400 feet in the East Humboldt Range. The Angel Lake Scenic Byway starts in the eastern Nevada town of Wells (338 miles east of Reno on I80). From there, you take Nevada State Route 231 (Angel Lake Road) south for 12 miles to reach the lake. Along the way, you will travel from desert sagebrush to an elevation reminiscent of alpine settings in the Sierra Nevada. If you are not wild about mountain roads, be aware that the last four miles are steep and twisty. Recreation opportunities along this byway include camping, picnicking, fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing.
Mt. Charleston Scenic Byway
Mt. Charleston Scenic Byway is another one of those places you don't expect to find in Nevada, much less near the glitz of Las Vegas. This route begins about an hour north of the bright lights and includes portions of three Nevada state highways (156, 157, and 158. These are known respectively as Lee Canyon Road, Kyle Canyon Road, and Deer Creek Road. Travelers will ascend from the low desert into an alpine environment of pine trees, rugged canyons, and lofty peaks topped by Mt. Charleston at 11,918 feet. There is even a ski resort. You'll enjoy spectacular scenery and expansive views along the way. This area is part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, with recreational opportunities that include camping, fishing, and hiking. Numerous plants and animals are indigenous to the area and found nowhere else.