There was a time I would go to Virginia City eight times or so a year.
It was back when my idea of fun was driving to the base of Geiger Grade off Highway 395, hopping on a racing bicycle, heading up to Virginia City, dropping down to Carson City, climbing up Spooner Grade, pedaling by Lake Tahoe, struggling up Mt. Rose and then pushing it to the limits downhill often topping 55 mph. It was 88 miles of pure bicycling bliss involving 8,200 feet of climbing that allowed me to make two trips to the Sizzler’s salad bar for heaping full plates plus dessert in south Reno afterwards.
One time after doing the loop the guys I was with decided it might be nice to see what was in Virginia City instead of pedaling through it at 18 mph without stopping. That is when I fell in love with the place as well as the history of the Comstock.
Most of us — okay, those over 55 — probably remember Hoss and Little Joe telling their pa they were riding into Virginia City from the Ponderosa on the Western TV show by the same name.
At one time Virginia City boasted of 25,000 residents and was the most important city between Denver and San Francisco. The storied mines, several of which are beneath the actual city, produced untold riches, primarily of silver. The three mines that trigged the “Big Bonanza of 1873” yielded $300 million of silver alone.
The Queen of the Comstock is where Mark Twain toiled for several years as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise. His wit and sarcasm was sharpened while at the Enterprise with his dispatches from Carson City covering the Nevada Legislature on par with the political humor of Will Rogers.
As a visitor, Virginia City today offers a wealth of functional 19th century buildings. Unlike Bodie further south along Highway 395 after it meanders into California, there is no “arrested decay” in Virginia City. It is 1,000 times livelier than the 209’s “living gold rush town” tucked in the foothills in Columbia north of Sonora. How impressive is it? In 2009, Virginia City was awarded the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Distinctive Destinations Award.
There are no less than 15 places listed as “museums.” That isn’t to demean the list but to give you fair warning that many are “living museums” giving them a flair you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Among those are St. Mary’s in the Mountain Catholic Church, Comstock Gold Mill, Julia Buelette Red Light Museum, Pipers Opera House, and the Storey County Courthouse. The must “sees” include the Mackey Museum and the stunning Historic Fourth Ward School Museum and Archives. I’d be remiss not to mention my favorite, the Mark Twain Museum at the Territorial Enterprise.
There are 14 saloons in Virginia City ranging from the oldest — Millionaires Washoe Club that opened in 1862 — to the Red Light Lounge in the Mustang Ranch Steakhouse that operates in a 125 plus year-old building that was originally built for another purpose.
My favorite is the Bucket of Blood Saloon that’s been serving since it opened in 1876. The name alone is worth it not to mention the folklore of how it got its name after a disputed round of cards. They also have live music.
There are 16 restaurants and purveyors of food that includes a number of the saloon. The place I speak most glowingly of is on North C Street some four blocks from the southern edge of town before you take a Medusa-style rollercoaster drop down into Silver City — Grandma’s Fudge Factory. It still rates in my top three places I’ve ever had fudge and that includes the endless batches my mother would whip up for Christmas.
There are 12 lodging options ranging from bed and breakfasts with a solid footing in the Victorian era, motels, and an RV park.
The Virginia & Truckee Railroad trains are now running on weekends only with departures every hour from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. They feature both diesel and steam engines that offer daily trips winding through the Comstock hills laden with mining history as they make the run between Virginia City and Gold Hill. The trains run through October. Pumpkin train dates have yet to be announced.
Tickets for adults for diesel rides are $12 and for steam $14. Children ages 5 to 12 are $6 for diesel and $7 for steam. All day passes are $24 for diesel and $28 for steam.
Once the pandemic restrictions on crowds are lifted there are various events such as saloon crawls every few months. There are dozens of annual events worth the trip including a rodeo and a motorcycle grand prix. But the best by far are the annual International Camel and Ostrich Races typically conducted the first weekend in September that also include zebras, as well as the Civil War battle trains, and the World Championship Outhouse Races. You can come up with your own outhouse entry and register a three man team to compete. Again the events in the immediate next six weeks — such as those mentioned — have been cancelled for 2020 due to the pandemic but hopefully will be back on the calendar for next year. For up to date information on events as well as what to do, go to visitvirginiacity.com.
Virginia City is a perfect destination for a weekend trip that is a bit different than heading to the Sierra or to the coast.