Whenever I cross Donner Summit going east on Interstate 80, as I drop into the craggy confines of the Truckee River canyon, I typically enter a 30-minute span of fantasizing. As the highway twists beneath towering granite bluffs, I see myself as a time traveler. No longer am I ensconced comfortably in my 21st-century four-wheel-drive stagecoach. For this final stretch of road through Sierra Nevada, I imagine the original pioneers making their boom-or-bust journey.
My daydreaming halts abruptly with the appearance of a modern-day outpost, the aptly named Boomtown, followed by a lineup of hotel and casino billboards offering enticing claims such as “loosest slots,” “let the good times roll” and “more comps, more winners.” I’m entering Reno: “the Biggest Little City in the World.”
Since its inception in the 1860s, when Reno became popular as a gambling mecca for miners and railroad workers, the city has assumed various identities, from notorious divorce capital of the world to perennial country cousin of glitzy Las Vegas. Today, Reno is in the midst of a renaissance built around an advantage of what existed here all along: its natural environs. To capitalize on these dramatic outdoor boundaries, the city is partnering with its cross-mountain neighbor to crown itself “Reno-Tahoe: America’s Adventure Place.”
Marketing slogans aside, the variety of outdoor adventures possible here is indeed limited only by the duration of your visit and the physical abuse your body can endure. My agony threshold is usually fairly limited; I tend not to travel anywhere without a round of golf on the itinerary. Fortunately, Reno’s 4,500-foot elevation protects it from most of the winter snowstorms that make the Tahoe Basin a skier’s paradise, thus allowing the golf courses to remain open most of the year. That means that even if I dare tackle the ski slopes or cross-country trails, I can also bundle up for a brisk 18 during the winter.
The Reno area has 11 public courses. Only the Resort at Red Hawk in Sparks, however, has luxurious golf villas set up for those who want a home-living atmosphere while on vacation. The Lakes Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., provides plenty of challenge, with more than 100 bunkers in a setting certified as Nevada’s first Audubon International Signature Sanctuary (one of 35 in the world). For the more timid, or the sand averse, there’s also an 18-hole putting course.
Whether golf is a valid adventure is best debated elsewhere (say, the 19th hole), but when a place like Reno-Tahoe offers a menu of more heart-thumping activities I cannot partake of at home, the temptation to participate is irresistible. So on one recent visit, I parked my golf cart, elevated my risk meter and headed to downtown Reno. No, not to ride the shoulders of some hotshot at the craps table, but to test my command of an inflatable kayak on the Truckee River, which flows right through the heart of the city.
My voyage started at the west end of town at Mayberry Park. From there, it was all downstream (Class II to III) about 5.5 miles back to Reno Whitewater Park, a $1.5 million project in the middle of Reno’s hotel-casino and arts district. Last winter’s snowpack was extremely low, so Mike Miltner, owner of Tahoe Whitewater Tours, forewarned me about low water levels and a multitude of “sleeper rocks.” Sure enough, what I’d envisioned as a relaxing river float turned into a soggy pinball adventure that threw my vessel into a full tilt on one occasion. Considering the 90-degree weather, it was a welcome plunge, but climbing back on board was moment I hope doesn’t end up on YouTube.
Next, I ventured back up the hill to Northstar-at-Tahoe, where I sought out more tranquil activity. I made friends with my new four-legged buddy, Taco, who carried me on a trail ride to a peak overlooking Martis Valley along Highway 267. Thoroughly enjoying the serenity of the experience, I extended the trip an extra hour by using a revolutionary advance in communications that would have been the envy of every trailblazing frontiersman.
Back in Reno after a sunbaked day, I looked forward only to one activity, requiring no brain or muscle function other than the act of getting horizontal at Grand Sierra Resort and Casino, my home base. All the guest rooms at this luxurious hotel (formerly Reno Hilton), including 11 floors of hotel-condominium units, have been renovated with the requisite contemporary trimmings. In 2009, it will also be home to the nation’s largest indoor waterpark—a fitting complement to all those outdoor natural attractions.
Places to Stay
Grand Sierra Resort & Casino Northern Nevada’s largest hotel-casino, this luxury property with 1,975 rooms and suites plus branded shopping is now celebrating its one-year anniversary after major renovations. 800.648.5080, grandsierraresort.com.
The Resort at Red Hawk This destination resort offers packages starting at $120 in golf course villas and the opportunity to enjoy two championship courses. 775.626.6000, resortatredhawk.com.
Eldorado Hotel & Casino Located downtown, this premier hotel has 816 luxurious rooms and spa suites plus great headliner entertainment. 800.879.8879, eldoradoreno.com.
Silver Legacy Resort Casino The newest and largest hotel-casino downtown offers Victorian-style accommodations. Packages available. 800.687.8733, silverlegacy.com.
Things to Do
Kayaking and Rafting Guided day trips on the Truckee River in Reno or Lake Tahoe. 775.787.5000 or 530.581.2441, gowhitewater.com.
Horseback Riding Take in High Sierra views riding through meadows and gentle rolling hills on well-trained horses from Northstar Resort Stables. 775.969.3315, northstarattahoe.com.
Golf Take your pick from a wide array of courses with spectacular views and varying challenges, all over the Reno–Lake Tahoe region. golfthehighsierra.com.
Nevada Museum of Art Founded in 1931, the oldest cultural institution in Nevada is a forum for artists, community visual arts activities and exhibits. nevadaart.org.
The Riverwalk District Lodging, shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment in a friendly area that celebrates Reno’s culture and history year-round. renoriver.org.
If you go Reno-Tahoe: America’s Adventure Place: visitrenotahoe.com.
Places to Eat
La Famiglia An aptly named family-owned Italian restaurant since 2003, where all pasta is made fresh by the son, Sergio. 775.423.1414, lafamigliareno.com.
Dolce Enoteca E Ristorante High-end Italian cuisine with glamorous Hollywood ambience in the Grand Sierra Resort Casino. 775.324.9444, dolcegroup.com.
Stone House Cafe Enjoy your meal in a relaxing atmosphere either indoors or outside by the fire pit. 775.284.3895, stonehousecafereno.com.
Lexie’s on the River Overlooking the Truckee River, this contemporary restaurant has a menu emphasizing fresh ingredients and a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence wine list. 775.321.5831, sienareno.com/dining/lexies.
The Chocolate Bar Cheesecake, truffles and fondue made with Grand Cru chocolates from all over the world. Appetizers, wine and cocktails are also available. 775.337.1122, thechocbar.com.