Nevada at first glance appears to be a state of vast, seemingly never-ending desert stretches, but few realize that it is also home to pockets of civilization, mountain ranges that climb 13,000 feet high, oases refuges like the turquoise Lake Tahoe, and streaming rivers and waterways in excess of 2,750 miles that course through the state’s hills and valleys. Everybody, of course, knows about the gambling, the ringing slots and craps tables, the shotgun wedding venues, and the glitter of golden lights that is Las Vegas.
Interestingly, Nevada’s 70 million acres of land make it the seventh largest state in the U.S., but over 87% of it is actually owned and controlled by the government in Washington, D.C. Huge chunks of Nevada’s central region is off-limits to civilians including the nuclear waste and test sites of the Nellis Test Range, the Nuclear Test Site, the Yucca Mountain, and the much-talked-about Area 51.
Geographically, Nevada is made up of north-south mountain ranges that include dozens of peaks between 8,000 and 13,000 feet high. These ranges harbor lush forests of Utah juniper, piñon pine, cedar, fir, and spruce. More surprising is the 8 major rivers, more than 130 lakes, and 500 reservoir streams in and around the state’s hills that make for great fishing, rafting, and canoeing. These same hills are rich with minerals, among them gold, silver, and lead. Desert stretches, of course, occupy much of Nevada; in the north by the Great Basin Desert and in the south by the Mojave. And eastern Nevada looks nothing like the monotonous image of sand and scorching heat everyone is used to, but the region on the contrary receives substantial moisture and its verdant terrain is populated wildly by sagebrushes.
Paleo-Indians were the first to live in Nevada 11,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that they lived in caves and along the glacial lakes in Northwest Nevada, hunting bison and mammoths. When the last remnants of the ice age disappeared 4,000 years ago, the Indians adapted a desert culture. In the north, the Lovelock Indians hunted small mammals and fished the lakes. In the south, the Archaic Indians lived in pit houses and hunted sheep and tortoise while harvesting cholla fruit and screwbean mesquite. Eventually, the Archaic Indians evolved into large settlements growing bean and corn in irrigated fields.
The first Europeans to arrive in Nevada were Russian explorers looking for fur. While there is no evidence they made contact with the Indians, the late 17th century traders and trappers along the California coast certainly ventured inland and did. Spanish conquistadors explored the region during this period as well, looking for gold, and claimed Nevada for Spain. For the next century or so, Nevada was used as nothing more than a route from the east to California or from the east to New Mexico. In 1830, Mexican trader Antonio Armijo discovered a shortcut on the Spanish Trail through the present site of Las Vegas. And three years later, John Fremont, the famous Army explorer, set out to map Nevada; he named every topographic feature he saw.
When Mexico gained Independence from Spain, Nevada became part of the Mexican Republic. After the Mexican-American War and the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty in 1848, however, Nevada became part of the United States, specifically the Utah Territory. In the 1860s, gold was discovered in Virginia City, which brought a wave of prospectors and miners from all over the country. With the flood of migrants, congress created the Nevada Territory, separating it from Utah. Three years later, Nevada became the 36th state in the union, largely because its mining-based economy made it an ally of the industrialized Union and Abraham Lincoln was seeking reelection. Meanwhile, the gold and mining boom lasted well into the late 19th century and revived in 1900 with the discovery of silver in Tonopah as well as strikes in Rhyolite and Goldfield a decade later.
During these mining days, gambling was a favorite pastime among miners. The state outlawed gambling, however, in 1909. When mining and agriculture declined during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Nevada re-legalized gambling to soften the blow. During the years leading up to WWII and after the war, Nevada’s economy grew from federal public works such as the building of the Hoover Dam and manufacturing from war-related industries. Because over 87% of Nevada is owned by the federal government, many nuclear tests and waste disposal areas are done in Nevada.
After the war, Nevada’s gaming industry was developed and cities like Las Vegas and Reno were grown into major travel destinations – home of celebrity entertainers and lined with casinos, large hotels, world-class restaurants, and golf courses. Much of the infrastructure and development originally came from mob money until Howard Hughes showed up in the late 1960s and bought out the major hotel-casinos. By the early 1980s, all the hidden mob interest had been weeded out. Today, Nevada remains forever linked to its casinos; but it is also known for its libertarian laws. Marriage laws make it the easiest state for couples to marry and divorce; prostitution is legal in many counties; and residents pay no personal or corporate income taxes. It is easy to see why Nevada is often perceived as a hedonistic paradise.
Nevada is divided into several unofficial territories. The Reno-Tahoe Territory occupies the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada in the state’s northwest and is home to most of Nevada’s historic and scenic attractions including the freshwater Lake Tahoe and the ski resorts nearby.
The Cowboy Country runs across Nevada’s northern regions along the I-80 freeway through the heart of the Great Basin desert. The region features arid stretches broken up by isolated mountain ranges and valleys as well as the occasional watershed lake. But most of the region is dry desert, and its name comes from its former role as a “wild west” trail used by pioneers traveling in covered wagons or on horseback.
The Pony Express Territory of Nevada runs through central Nevada and provides one of the few remaining opportunities to experience the Old West, as the region has been left as it was back in the days when it was roamed by cowboys.
The Pioneer Territory covers Nevada’s south-central region and is full of historic ghost towns that were once settled by miners of the state’s rich gold and minerals. Today, many of these old mining camps host museums that trace Nevada’s mining history.
Nevada’s major tourist destination is Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world. It is also a major entertainment center where you can enjoy concerts, music performances, variety and magic shows, dance shows featuring showgirls, and sporting events like boxing and Nascar races.
Reno is another major attraction of Nevada, another gambling and entertainment center. But unlike Las Vegas, Reno is surrounded by historic and natural attractions including nearby ski resorts and the freshwater Lake Tahoe, which is perfect for outdoor sports enthusiasts looking to canoe, raft, or hike and mountain bike in the surrounding trails.