Where history and hilarity are only a small part of what you’ll find.
It was the Comstock Lode; a mere fragment of the great American Frontier. Gold was a major commodity in the West, but in a small Nevada town miners had discovered a blue rock that would prove to be equally as prosperous: silver. Virginia City became a bonafide boomtown in the mid eighteen hundreds thanks to the discovery of this precious ore; and though most of the land’s deposits have been depleted, and much of what could have previously been considered a thriving city can now be deemed something of a ghost town, the area is still rich in asset us locals hold invaluable; Virginia City is overflowing with a wealth of lore and history.
Growing up in Virginia City was like growing up in any small, tourist town, I would imagine. With the unique circumstance that some of your closest neighbors might be specters, should you believe in that kind of thing. It was the classic everyone-knows-your-name kind of town, with a safe feel, lots of space, and not much to do; the perfect place for a tomboy latchkey to exercise her imagination and really explore.
It was the best in summer, when the temperature never went above ninety and the sun stayed high. The town would fill up with tourists rushing to take old-timey pictures and empty their wallets on cowboy hats and over-priced candy. There was some kind of event almost every weekend. My sister and I would reap the benefit of attraction, enjoying free handouts of food or admittance to one of the many happenings - it always helps to be a local. We’d get up early and go to bed late, spending the entire day out in the sun just romping around in the lands we considered ours.
It was a unique experience growing up in one of Nevada’s most recognized ghost towns, but it taught me a lot about myself and gave me my sense of wonder. It sparked a lust for nature and an inherent need for travel. There are a TON of things a traveler could do in Virginia City, Nevada, but here is an abridged list as told by a former citizen:
Go on a mine tour:
You can’t discover enough silver to make men into millionaires and to turn a small city in California into San Francisco without first digging a few mines. It’s true, the silver discovered in the hills of Virginia City built empires around the world, but most notable is likely San Francisco; a city built with Comstock silver. During the mining bonanza of the nineteenth century there would have been numerous mines, some wildly prosperous and built with the highest engineering standard, and some nothing more than forgotten holes in the face of a mountain side.
Today you can pick from two different mines to tour, each boasting its own collection of historic artifacts and authenticity. Regardless of which you choose, you’ll get the opportunity to admire the intelligent use of square-set timbering in construction, and will see displays of mining equipment used by real people during the mining boom. The tours are not particularly long, but they give you a chance to delve underground, experiencing the sensation of thick darkness and the rich smell of old soil. You will hear stories told of great successes, and perhaps some of great tragedy; mining was lucrative but it was dangerous, too. Miners faced the threat of cave-ins, flooding, and even fires while in the mines. Luckily the mines open to the public have been stabilized and are perfectly safe for touring.
Walk through the Cemetery:
Nowhere is history richer than among those that actually lived it. Sure they won’t be there personally recounting their tales, but I’ve read some pretty interesting tombstones in my time exploring the cemeteries around Virginia City - it was the Wild West, after all. There are a number of cemeteries to choose from on the Comstock (and a number of relatively unmarked gravesites scattered around), but most significant is probably The Silver Terrace Cemeteries. Certainly the largest in the area, it boasts home to some notable groups of people, including the Masons, the Knights of Pythias, and the Improved Order of Red Men to name a few. It even touts its very own Boot Hill, a staple in the American West, where gunfighters and men often “died with their boots on”.
The cemeteries display a shocking diversity in the types and styles of gravesites, which is a paradigm of the people that found themselves drawn to the prosperity of the West. Dreams of riches attracted immigrants from all over the world to the Northern Nevada boomtown. In fact, very few of the people buried here were even born in Nevada (unless you count the children, and boy are there a lot of children). Even the very materials used and haphazard layout tell a story. Fences and borders surrounding the plots showcase common Victorian design practices of the period, and headstones made of anything from wood to precious stone all speak to the diversity in the social and economic environment that made up Virginia City. Make sure to watch your step and be respectful of the unmarked graves while exploring one of these slightly spooky, but infinitely interesting historical sites.
Ride the train if you’ve got the time:
I’ll admit, it’s been actual decades since I’ve stepped foot on the good ol’ V&T because frankly, I’m afraid of trains and I’m likely traumatized from that one bandit incident (during the fall season, you can hitch a “haunted” train ride. As I recall there were “bandits” involved and I wasn’t having it. I believe they call it Pumpkin Patch Trains these days). Aboard the historic Virginia and Truckee Railroad, you’ll take a relatively slow ride through the hills of the Comstock, passing by rabbit brush and sage, and making your way through the pitch dark of a rocky tunnel. You can enjoy one of the daily narrated trips from Virginia City to Gold Hill and back, or you can time it right and hit one of the special Event Trains (bandits not always included).
You’ll ride by old mines and important sites from the past, all while an expert tells the stories of Virginia City. Don’t get too relaxed though; as soon as you let your guard down the conductor is likely to blow the whistle. Call it serendipitous timing or call it comical planning, but that whistle can be heard echoing the rocky hills miles away from the tracks. Consider it your warning.
Go to at least one of the ridiculously inappropriate events that the town prides itself in:
Looking for a laugh? Make time for the Annual World Championship Outhouse Races. Wanting to try an exotic food of some kind? Come on down for the Annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry (pro tip: they aren’t really oysters). If you are looking for an experience but aren’t feeling that adventurous, you can always catch the Annual Chili on the Comstock event or the epic Fourth of July Celebration (promising some of the best fireworks I’ve ever seen, and only one brush fire). The point is, there’s a lot to do in Virginia City and it’s all in good fun. You’ll always find tasty food, a collection of locals wandering around in period garb and attitude, and some spectacular weather because this part of Nevada is one of the sunniest spots in the country.
If my casual descriptions haven’t convinced you, check out the website for Virginia City. In fact, the Events page says it all: “Oysters, Camels, and Outhouses” - could you need more?
Get some hand crafted candy (at Red’s Old Fashioned Candies):
I’m telling you as a former-local that detests high prices but is willing to pay their worth: some of the hand crafted fare you’ll find at Red’s is good. Really good. They have a rainbow display of ice cream with hand-dipped cones, hard candies, chocolates, spun sugar and so, so much more. And on many occasions you can catch a “Candy Master” stirring a massive hot cauldron like they’re cooking up a witches brew. It’s usually some kind of fudge or brittle, and believe me when I tell you it’s better than store bought. Butter having a baby with sugar and melting on your tongue, better.
Of course, there are more shops to choose from than just this one (Grandma’s Fudge Factory is an obvious contender), but my sister and I grew up eating Red’s so it’s my biased recommendation. Now, if you’ve got a mighty sweet tooth but aren’t into the butter-rich confections, you can always head over to Barrels O’ Candy (our favorite) or the Virginia City Mercantile. Here you’ll find common and exotic candies alike, all sold by weight and with enough variety to make even the pickiest of sweet-lovers happy. I recommend checking out the mountainous piles of taffy, with flavors ranging from good old vanilla to delicious apple pie. If you plan your timing right and walk by the Mercantile when one of the workers is standing outside, you’ll likely score a complimentary root beer barrel; an old-hat flavor to native tongue, but a quintessential Comstock taste nonetheless.
Just wander around (but don’t get lost!):
The place is over-spilling with landmarks and antiquity, you’re likely to stumble on something no matter where you walk. There are old mining structures scattered about, a classic Shoe Tree - a must see if it’s your first time in the Old West - there are historic tours, and locals-a-plenty, all willing and eager to tell you a story about the area’s colorful past.
As a kid I wandered these parts until I knew them like the back of my hand (my personal favorite was when we’d take trips to the American Flats, an abandoned cyanide mill used to process silver at one time - but I’ll write about that later), but that doesn’t mean I don’t love roaming around my old stomping grounds to this day. I’ve taken Russell on a tour of the graveyard, shown him rusty old cars and traversed tailing piles (and of course gorged on mountains of candy), and it seems like every time I go there’s something new to discover.
If you’re already planning a trip to Reno or Lake Tahoe, I highly recommend adding Virginia City to your itinerary; it’s just a short jaunt up the hill and into the past. Or even better, plan a longer stay on the Comstock. Spend some time learning about silver mining and saloons, walk among citizens of yore and maybe even catch a ghost or two. It’s a landmark perfect for family trips or those looking to learn a few things (and have a good laugh), and while it may be a bit dusty and more than a little old, there really is nowhere quite like it.