As someone who has done quite a bit of exploring in the Western United States, it’s rare that I stumble across a destination that surprises me. But as wild horses and burros flashed through the passenger window as my 80-year-old father drove us along the wintery banks of Walker River and into Carson Valley, I knew I was in for something special.
Just 45 minutes south of Reno and 12 miles east of South Lake Tahoe, Carson Valley is the first taste of modern civilization for anyone journeying from Las Vegas; our departure point of choice. The seven-hour drive itself was like a trip through time. We passed through forests of Joshua trees and towns whose gold rush had long since passed. But the real reward was arriving in the valley itself.
This story was created in partnership with Visit Carson Valley.
Awaiting my father and I in Carson Valley was a base camp of culture, heritage, and adventure. Here are our recommendations for the traveler seeking plenty of space and legendary experiences—no matter what time of year you decide to visit.
1. Get your bearings in Carson Valley
There are a few different ways to approach your visit in Carson Valley. With four unique communities (Gardnerville, Minden, Genoa, and Topaz Lake), we recommend creating an itinerary based on your interests. Prefer hiking? A stay in historic Genoa will provide easy access to trails in the Sierra Nevada. Enjoy a bit of history? Minden’s Esmeralda Avenue is perfect for an afternoon stroll. Hungry for more? Foodies will revel in Main Street Gardnerville’s restaurant scene, summer farmer’s market, and wine walks. Each community has its own personality, and we recommend sampling them all. And while Carson Valley feels small in size (in the best of ways), there are a number of comfortable places to rest your head in each area after a day of outdoor adventure.Wild horse photo by JT Humphrey
2. Go searching for wild mustangs
Less than 10 minutes away from Main Street Gardnerville, you’ll encounter one of my favorite road signs––a black horse on a yellow diamond indicating that mustangs might be just around the next bend. Join JT Humphrey, Carson Valley’s most legendary wildlife guide and photographer, as the pavement turns to dirt at the base of the Pine Nut Mountains. Here, on a mixture of BLM and privately owned conservation land, you’ll have the opportunity to go on a true western adventure. The mustangs are split into several unique bands led by stallions with names such as Blondie, Blue, and of course, Zorro. JT will take you up gullies and down ravines in his 4WD vehicle to all the secret spots where the horses graze and socialize, regaling you with stories along the way. If you prefer to watch the skies instead, JT is also an expert birder. He will point out golden eagles, great horned owls, and other endemic species that call this valley home.
3. Make like an eagle and take a glider ride
Minden, Nevada is known for its exceptional gliding, and for good reason! Take a ride with Soaring NV for the ultimate way to kick off your morning in Carson Valley. Thanks to the valley’s proximity to Lake Tahoe (it’s only a 30-minute drive) and the unique thermal currents the mountains provide, you have the opportunity to view this stunning landscape from above. Climb aboard with your trusty pilot and get ready to have your jaw drop! (Don’t worry, the ride can be as tame or as wild as you desire.) And if you’re at all afraid, don’t be—I was anxious to tears before my flight but once in the air, all my worries faded away with the tarmac. Soaring NV is also one of the only outfitters who can fit two passengers in the back of their gliders. It’s a squeeze, but it’s worth it to experience the thrill of gliding with a loved one!
4. Treat yourself to a craft brew or two
Not only are there a number of watering holes to quench your thirst post-adventure in Carson Valley; you’ll find some particularly unique flavors. Try a picon punch at JT’s Basque Bar and Dining Room, a Main Street Gardnerville tradition. Here, Basque meals are served family-style with red wine and specialty drams in an ode to the valley’s sheepherding culture. For a more modern take on Carson Valley’s libation scene, the newly opened Bently Heritage Estate Distillery is an excellent choice. Voted Nevada’s distillery of the year in 2020, the Bently family treats visitors to a taste of the valley’s bountiful wheat and oat harvests with hand-crafted vodka and gin. Their whisky (spelled without the e) is currently in the barrel, and I can’t wait to come back when it’s “good and ready” as they say. And of course, craft beer abounds for those who prefer their refreshments on the hoppy side.
5. Be a part of history in Carson Valley
If I had one takeaway from my 48 hours in Carson Valley, it’s that this is a place that is still writing its history. It won’t look the same in five years, but it won’t change in the ways that matter, either. For visitors like my father and I, it’s a destination that feels undiscovered while still being tremendously welcoming. The characters who have forged livelihoods in this corner of Nevada are hardy, friendly, and resilient—just like the rugged piñon pine and sage brush that surrounds them. It’s a place with one eye on the past and another on the future, and the legendary locals of Carson Valley have the balance just right.