Venture south, beyond the bright lights of Reno, and you'll notice that the cities shrink and the vistas grow. Welcome to the eastern Sierra foothills, where little towns, former mines, preserved buildings, and century-old saloons tell tales of times gone by.
In 1859, prospectors struck the Comstock Lode and, overnight, Virginia City became the West's first silver rush town: The population soared from 4,000 to 15,000 in a year. Learn more on a tour of Chollar Mine. Nearby, at the Mark Twain Museum, you can see the room where Twain worked as a newspaper reporter—complete with printing presses and his old desk.
Once a simple stopover for travelers, Carson City has grown into a destination in its own right. Inside a former brewery, the Brewery Arts Center offers pop concerts, film screenings, and other events, while the Nevada State Museum showcases a replica ghost town bathed in perpetual twilight.
Genoa, Nevada's oldest non-Native settlement, wears its history proudly. Boutiques and antique shops populate weathered buildings downtown. After strolling the main drag, duck into the Genoa Bar. The watering hole has been slinging cocktails since 1853, serving the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Lauren Bacall, and John Denver. Pull up a stool and let the barkeep tell you all about it.
Owing to its proximity to prime ranchland, Gardnerville became a hub for Basque sheepherders in the late 1800s. For a taste of their culture, head to Carson Valley Country Club or JT Basque Bar & Dining Room to tuck into such specialties as paprika tinged chicken and Picon Punch.
With a population of fewer than 200 souls, Topaz Lake is more lake than town. But there's still plenty to see here, from the soaring bald eagles—which come here to breed—to the blooming wild irises, apricot mallows, and milk vetches. Bring a camera to snap sunset photos or, if you're fishing, to prove that trophy trout really was that big.