During my first visit to Carson Valley in the fall of 2020, I experienced a full 48 hours of adventure and flavor. I had the best grilled cheese of my life at the Pink House in Genoa, strolled the mainstreet in Minden, and sipped on picon like a local at JT Basque in Gardnerville. I even faced my fears of being airborne and took an incredible glider flight with views of nearby Lake Tahoe and the Pine Nut Mountains, Carson Valley cradled in between. But the one thing I didn’t get to do? Find wild horses with local photographer and wildlife guide, JT Humphrey. So it was with high hopes this winter that I packed my bags and hit the road for Carson Valley, Nevada, once again.
This story was created in partnership with Carson Valley Visitors Authority.
Arriving in Carson Valley, Nevada
Although the horses would be the highlight of the trip, we found an entirely new itinerary to discover this time around. No rushing around, no frantic schedule—the travel writer’s dream. Flying into Reno International Airport and picking up my rental car was a breeze. Less than an hour later, I was unpacking my bags at Carson Valley Inn. Unsurprisingly for Nevada, my lodging was part hotel, part casino. But being able to enter through a quiet lobby on the north side of the building made me feel like I was staying at a boutique inn. My suite with the fireplace and 180-degree view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains didn’t hurt, either!
That evening, I was lucky enough to sample the menu at newly opened Daniel’s in the small community of Genoa. Nestled against the mountains, this little town is one of my favorite parts of Carson Valley. It’s the oldest settlement in Nevada and is brimming with history and delicious food. Toasting this laidback arrival day with a hand-crafted Serrano Ancho Jalapeño cocktail was just what the doctor ordered!
Nordic Skiing at Kirkwood
The next morning I rose early to see the sun casting pink hues over the snow capped mountains—the perfect omen. Carson Valley had recently received significant snowfall and conditions would be perfect for a morning of Nordic skiing. Forty-five minutes after picking up a bearclaw and some fresh squeezed orange juice at Schat’s Bakery, I rolled into the lot at Kirkwood Cross Country Ski and Snowshoe Center. My sweet spot was focused on the 12 kilometers of groomed trails winding through a gentle meadow. It was ideal for some welcome skate skiing. Endorphins and lots of happy waves to other skiers ensued!
Touring and Tasting Mainstreet Gardnerville
That afternoon, I enjoyed a personalized tour of Mainstreet Gardnerville. This was incredible, because I got to see small businesses that would have otherwise been closed—like Eddy Street Vintage Market. This must-see store is only open one weekend each month for a three-day shopping extravaganza. People come from across state lines to participate and see what seasonal gems the owners have carefully curated over the past three weeks. Then, we stopped by Big Daddy’s Bike and Brew to check out what was on tap. I learned that I need to come back in the summer, when a fire-truck-turned-food-truck blasts jams in the parking lot and the outdoor patio is humming!
That evening I headed to the iconic JT Basque for the second time. This historic restaurant is owned and operated by one of the original Basque families in Carson Valley, and every meal honors these roots. Dinner is served family-style and lends itself to the overall attitude of Carson Valley: warm and welcoming, with seconds encouraged.
Photographing Wild Horses and Eagles with JT Humphrey
I woke to my final full day with a hint of trepidation. JT Humphrey and I were off to find the horses. But what if, like last time, they were too far out of reach? We had all morning, but when you’re bumping around in JT’s graciously suspensioned truck, time flies.
Luckily, after nearly turning back twice but deciding to “just go a little further,” JT spotted his favorite mustang: Big Blue. Tucked into the piñon pines, the stallion was nearly invisible to my untrained eyes, but not ten minutes later we were standing practically right next to him. After years of guiding, JT has a special relationship with these horses, and they know him and his vehicle—allowing for unusually close observation. I was mesmerized as Big Blue’s son, a beautiful and round bay–fuzzy in his winter coat–who laid down right in front of us and took a nap in the morning sun. I suspect it wasn’t the most exciting morning JT had ever had with the mustangs, but for me it was even more than I had hoped for.
After getting our fill of photos, we switched our gaze to the horizon line. January is peak season for spotting eagles in Carson Valley, and my trip coincided perfectly. Sure enough, we found them, congregating around the cattle, precariously perched on fence posts. As a Pacific Northwest native, seeing bald eagles wasn’t new for me. But seeing them alongside tiny calves was a whole new size comparison! We finished our morning searching for owls, who take advantage of the many historic barn rafters found around Carson Valley. While we were unsuccessful in photographing any, we did hear a whoosh of wings in one dark corner. Surely, it was one of those wildlife encounters where you’re the one being observed!
Getting to Know Minden
That evening, I took the time to leisurely explore downtown Minden. This small community is located just to the north of Mainstreet Gardnerville, but it has its own unique history in Carson Valley. In fact, old time movie buffs will enjoy knowing that Clark Gable used to frequent the Minden Inn! It is also home to the COD Casino, a garage-turned-gambling joint with a lot of charisma. For dinner, I tucked into a booth at Khristopher’s Ristorante and Bar for the perfect personal-sized pizza and glass of vino before calling it a day.
The next morning as the snowflakes started to fly, I was back on the road to Reno. I could have spent many more days continuing to explore Carson Valley. But if I’ve learned anything from my visits so far, it’s more fun to save something for next time.