Horns honked and drivers scowled as vehicles nearly locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic during a Friday morning commute in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mr. TWS and I were happy to be heading for the hills.
It was the beginning of a three-day getaway weekend that first took us east over the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevada mountains and into Carson Valley, Nevada for a quick introduction to what the area has to offer. Even though our stay was very short, I learned that there’s plenty to do there, it has a lot of interesting history, and it’s a great place just to kick back, relax, and unplug.
Carson Valley offers numerous outdoor activities that range from easy to advanced — such as fishing, hiking, gliding, and horseback riding all in a laid-back environment against a backdrop of the beautiful Wild West. Plus, we got to the town of Minden in just four hours from San Francisco (even with heavy traffic in the Bay Area) and Carson Valley is only two and one-half hours from Sacramento.
How to spend a great day — Carson Valley things to do:
Enjoy the scenery
Getting our first glimpse of the Carson Valley from the summit of the Carson Pass Highway (CA 89/NV88) was like entering a different, calmer, more peaceful place, evoking thoughts of the early West. There was only light traffic on this mid-November late morning. Over the years, we’ve had occasions to visit South Lake Tahoe (which we’d be visiting the following day) to the west of Carson Valley, but had never taken this particular route bypassing Lake Tahoe or spending time in Carson Valley.
Mr. TWS loves clouds and in Nevada on this trip, he got an eyeful. On the drive to Carson Valley, we admired cloud shapes and textures that we don’t recall ever seeing before, and they seemed to get more dramatic as we got closer. Commenting upon them to someone later, we learned that some of these clouds were called lenticular clouds, and they can be harbingers of surprisingly dangerous weather. Lenticular clouds are usually described as lens shaped, but we envisioned flying saucers as they seem to hover over the land, motionless.
From easy to advanced, there are about 16 miles of hiking trails in the Genoa Trail System for hikers, mountain bikes, horses, and dogs, each accessible from the historic town of Genoa. It was a little late in the day to begin one of the trails that climb up into the foothills, so we chose one that fit our mood and time frame perfectly just east of town at the Nature Conservancy’s River Fork Ranch. It was an easy nature walk meandering along the Carson River to the confluence of two of its branches. I stopped more than once to admire the panoramic scenery of surrounding mountains and ranches epitomizing the West’s vastness, beauty, and serenity.
On our walk we watched large flocks of birds (probably kestrels) floating quietly and then suddenly scampering across the water in groups before settling quickly back into a floating flock. The scamper was a cross between flying and running on the water.
We met up with only three people (two bird watchers and one local man out for a walk). On the trail, we also saw a couple on horseback in a nearby pasture, and one lone bull that seemed to be contemplating a charge. Luckily, there was a ditch and fence separating us from any potential danger, but Mr. TWS commented that my red scarf flagging in the wind was asking for trouble.
Imbibe in history:
Ending our hike as the sun began to set, we headed into town to Genoa Bar, the oldest bar (or as it was previous called – “thirst parlour”) in Nevada. We sat at the old bar sipping our wine among locals watching a lively game of billiards while we examined old and even dusty artifacts behind the bar. The most impressive item was the huge mirror that was made using diamond dust. It was installed in the bar in the late 1840s and came from Glasgow, Scotland. The bartender shined a flashlight on it so that we could see the diamond dust sparkle in the mirror.
An old wood stove, the only source of heat in the bar, threw out so much heat from its crackling flames that the saloon doors were kept open even on this cold fall evening.
Many famous people have visited over the years. Among them were Mark Twain, Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt; Carole Lombard and Clark Gable; Lauren Bacall, Willie Nelson, and Charlie Daniels. Although I can’t completely envision Lauren Bacall bellying up to the bar here, it seemed like a perfect spot for Willie and Charlie.
For those of us who love films, Genoa Bar is notable as a setting for several movies, including The Shootist, Charley Varrick, Honky Tonk Man, Misery, and Till the River Runs Dry.
There’s more history in Genoa (and the rest of Carson Valley), but we didn’t have time on this one-day introduction. So places such as the Genoa Courthouse Museum with historical exhibits of the Carson Valley will have to wait until next time. When it was built in 1865, it was a courthouse with a basement jail, later a school before coming a museum. Mormon Station State Park, the site of Nevada’s first permanent non-native settlement, is another spot we’d like to visit on a future visit to Genoa. A replica of the original trading post, built in 1851 and destroyed by fire in 1910, is a museum with pioneer-era exhibits and artifacts.
Stroll through historic downtown Minden
Minden, Nevada is a old railroad town that began with the extension of the Virginia &Truckee Railway from Carson City to Carson Valley. Construction began in 1905 and the first train arrived in 1906.
The Farmer’s Bank of Carson Valley is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was town’s second building, built in 1909. The bank was relocated to a larger building across the street in 1918. Since then, it was the Minden Post Office until 1974, and is now the Bank Parlor and Pub.
Breakfast – Before leaving Carson Valley, we stopped for breakfast at Woodetts Diner in Gardnerville (photo bottom left below). Don’t be dissuaded by its location at the end of a small strip mall along Highway 395. They serve a very good breakfast with a lot of menu options. I really enjoyed the pancakes, which are huge, and Mr. TWS had an omelet — perfect comfort food on a chilly morning.
Lunch – Designed by a Beverly Hills architect, Minden Food Company is a large modern restaurant and bar along historic Esmeralda Street. It has three dining sections, two bars, and a private lounge. A mural painted by San Diego artist Kathleen King in one of the dining areas (partially shown top right above) grabbed my attention.
Dinner – Dining at J.T. Basque Bar and Dining Room, a vibrant restaurant in Gardnerville (a town adjacent to Minden) is more than a meal – it’s an experience. As soon as we entered, we had the sense of being in a very rustic European setting, where friends and neighbors gather together to enjoy hearty meals and wine. There’s a great feeling of camaraderie among the clientele and staff, and in a short time we got to feel like old friends, too.
You first step into the lively bar when you enter J.T. Basque from the street. Immediately, you hear conversations and lots of laughter. Many of those in the bar were enjoying a Picon Punch, a traditional beginning to a Basque dinner, particular to the American West. It’s made with Picon, a potent bitters prevalent in the Basque Country and France, and brandy. We were warmly welcomed by Maria Louise Lekumberry, daughter of the original owner who with her brother owns and operates the restaurant, and she immediately offered and then brought us each a Picon Punch. Raised in this bustling restaurant environment and hands-on at early ages, they carry on the traditions set forth by their Basque father. Maria joined us at the table for a wonderful conversation about her family, Basque traditions, history of the area, and the restaurant.
J.T. Basque is located in a Victorian building that was moved here in 1896 from Virginia City (about 30 miles away), and has been a hotel, saloon, and dining hall over the years. The Lekumberry family (who has owned the building since 1960) restored the facade to look as it did over 100 years ago.
We were seated in the dining room, which consisted of two large (and full) rooms. Although J.T. Basque no longer has long-table dining, meals are still served family style – emphasizing traditional Basque dishes, made of ingredients that are locally sourced, including natural grass-fed beef raised by the family in the Carson Valley, Winnemucca potatoes, and Smith Valley onions. Each meal includes a choice from a list of about 10 entrees each of which is part of a full multi-course dinner including soup of the day (this day’s was delicious, chock full of fresh vegetables in a beef broth); salad and French bread; stew of the day (this day’s was beef tongue and carrot stew); followed by the entrée with Basque-prepared beans and French fries; and ending with ice cream, a perfect desert after such a hearty meal. Mr. TWS had a type of bass for his entree. I had a top sirloin with lots of chunks of fresh garlic. A small bottle of red wine also accompanies each meal. The menu strives to provide the experience of a traditional Basque shepherd’s meal.
There are several lodging options in Carson Valley, including B & Bs and chain hotels. We were guests of the Carson Valley Inn, a popular establishment in the valley with 150 rooms which were remodeled in 2011 and 2012. Our spacious deluxe room was on the 2nd floor with a view toward the Sierra Nevada beyond the parking lot below. The king size bed was very comfortable, the wi-fi was free and reliable, and the location is convenient to the Minden and Garberville downtown areas. The inn has a large bustling casino which was completely remodeled in 2010 and includes the Cabaret Lounge with nightly entertainment. There are on-site restaurants as well — CV Steak and Katie’s Country Kitchen, which we did not have the opportunity to experience.
The casino has all the gaming options you need: slots, blackjack, craps, 3-card poker, and more. Mr. TWS and I opted for some leisurely video poker at the bar while sipping a nice glass of Pinot Noir. No, I didn’t win, but I had fun playing with the same $10 for a quite a while.
It’s important to note that since this is a Nevada hotel and casino, smoking is allowed in the casino and in some rooms. If you are a non-smoker, be sure to ask for a non-smoking room.
See more of the valley or move on to other getaway destinations
One could easily spend a few more days enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, exploring more of the area on hikes, bikes or horses, and learning more about the rich history of the Carson Valley. You might even discover your inner cowboy.
Our getaway took us back west, this time on Highway NV 207 (Kingsbury Grade Road) over the Carson Range to South Lake Tahoe, about 20 miles from Minden. Stay tuned for what we were up to in South Lake Tahoe and El Dorado County.
For more information: Carson Valley Visitors Authority
Disclosure: Our accommodations at Carson Valley Inn and dinner at J.T. Basque were hosted by the Carson Valley Visitor Authority.