Travel

How to Pull Off the Ultimate Nevada Stargazing Road Trip

Journey to some of the darkest places in the US, with scenic stops and roadside attractions in between.

Anton Petrus/Getty Images
Anton Petrus/Getty Images
Anton Petrus/Getty Images

Outside of the blinding neon lights of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada is a vast, mostly rural state of open desert landscapes and pitch-black skies. For stargazers, it’s paradise.

The state is home to three official “Dark Sky Places,” designated pockets of land where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars shine their brightest. Reaching these remote locales isn’t always easy, but Nevada rewards ambitious road trippers with unforgettable things to see along the way: a host of bizarre roadside attractions, Old West ghost towns, stunning state parks, alien-themed kitsch, and phenomenal natural sites.

To help plan your own killer stargazing road trip through Nevada, we’ve charted out three loose itineraries, with plenty of opportunities to zip and zag: a 130-mile drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park; a 300-mile journey from Vegas up to Great Basin National Park; and a 150-mile stretch from Reno to the ultra-remote Massacre Rim. Happy star tripping.

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

Route 1: Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park

Yes, Death Valley is technically in California. But this national park-the largest in the lower 48-sprawls 3.4 million acres and is partially located in Nevada, too. It also happens to be a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest level awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association. Translation: It’s dark as shit out here, and the stars are absolutely bonkers.

Death Valley is all about extreme, Star Wars-esque landscapes. Some particularly cool places to watch the stars come out are Zabriskie Point-a hilltop lookout striped with shades of yellow, red, and brown that’s particularly trippy at sunset-and the expansive peaks and valleys of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which look downright lunar as the sun goes down. (Just make sure to bring tons of water and a flashlight to find your way back to the parking lot.) The park also hosts its own Dark Sky Festival every year in late February or early March, a great time to visit for guided night hikes with rangers, astrophotography meet-ups, and a star party.

You know what’s not a great time to visit? The height of summer, when temperatures regularly top 120 degrees. This intensely dry, barren park requires some extra planning to visit: luckily, we have an entire guide for that.

Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock
Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock
Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock

Driving from Las Vegas to Death Valley

For this star-trip, drive north on US-95 out of Vegas towards Tonopah. The journey will take you past some of the best roadside attractions in Nevada, if not the States, so prepare to pull over. It’s a very weird highway, so obviously we wrote an article about it.

In the Amargosa Valley, there’s the Area 51 Alien Travel Center, which is just a standard travel center with a gas station and a 1950s-style diner, but the gift shop is loaded with lots of alien-themed kitsch. Oh, and there’s a brothel here, too. An alien-themed one. That offers free tours. From there you can take a slight detour to Devils Hole, a 60,000-year-old fissure that opens up into a sprawling system of geothermal water-filled caves, the full size and depth of which has never been recorded. It is also the exclusive home of the ancient, endangered Pupfish.

Stop in Beatty for a chili dog and the coldest draft beer of your life at the Harry Burro before a drive through the historic ghost town of Rhyolite and a can’t-be-missed photo opp at the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Beatty is a gateway into Death Valley, with the closest lodging and gas station within the park at Stovepipe Wells.

Keep the trip going: Continuing up US-95 will bring you to Tonopah, once named the #1 Stargazing Destination in America by USA Today. Along the way, you’ll pass the haunted ghost town of Goldfield and the truly WTF International Car Forest of the Last Church. In Tonopah, there’s the Clair Blackburn Memorial Stargazing Park, with cement pads for telescopes and monthly star parties throughout the summer. Download their “Star Trails” map of paved and unpaved trails in the area for some unforgettable night hikes. Tonopah is also home to the creepy Clown Motel where you can stay the night…I guess.

 James Ronan/EyeEm/Getty Images
James Ronan/EyeEm/Getty Images
James Ronan/EyeEm/Getty Images

Route 2: Las Vegas to Great Basin National Park

On the eastern edge of Central Nevada, right next to Utah, is yet another Gold Tier Dark Sky Park: Great Basin. It’s also one of the least-visited, underrated national parks in the country with only 90,000 annual visitors. There are plenty of campgrounds in the area, some that can be reserved in advance and some that are first-come, first-serve. Fair warning: There is NO cell service in this 77,000-acre park. None.

The newly opened Astronomy Amphitheater hosts an Astronomy Festival every September, with guest speakers, photography workshops, and tours of the Great Basin Observatory. Great Basin’s Dark Sky Rangers offer guided full moon hikes in the summer months, as well as an astronomy program every Thursday and Saturday where visitors get 90 minutes of telescope viewing time.

If you’re a stargazer who still likes a warm bed with a spot of Wi-Fi, check into the Stargazer Inn in Baker, the closest town. The on-site bar and restaurant Kerouac’s is an unexpected delight-I mean, this is not a part of the country where you’d expect to find a robust craft cocktail list and a charcuterie board with duck mousse and Humboldt Fog on it.

Backcountry Explorers/500px/Getty Images
Backcountry Explorers/500px/Getty Images
Backcountry Explorers/500px/Getty Images

Driving from Las Vegas to Great Basin

From Vegas, follow US 93 north/northeast all the way until it ends; you’ll pass several worthwhile places to stop on the way to Great Basin. If you want to add some birding or fishing to your trip, camp out by the lake at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, one of the few wetland habitats in Nevada.

 You’ll pass by the historic city of Caliente, known for its natural hot springs (stop for a soak!) and the highly photographable, Spanish Mission-style train depot dating back to 1905. Up the road is Pioche, once the rowdiest town in the West (there’s a “Murderers’ Row” in the local cemetery). For ghosties, check into the Overland Hotel & Saloon, one of Nevada’s notoriously haunted hotels.

Between Caliente and Pioche sits the gorgeous Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada’s vastly less crowded answer to the Badlands and Bryce Canyon, full of slot canyons and cathedral-like spires formed tens of millions of years ago. It sucks and you should definitely not go there, especially if you’re an influencer.

Keep the trip going: After your adventure in Great Basin, drive an hour north along US-50 (dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America,”) to the tiny mountain town of Ely. The former boom town is full of murals and sculptures paying homage to the area’s copper mining history. Stay at the Prospector Hotel & Gambling Hall, whose lobby doubles as a local history museum-meets-Wild West Pop Art gallery. The Mexican restaurant on the property is legit good. 

The real reason you’re here: Ely’s Northern Nevada Railway Museum runs the Great Basin Star Train, a 2.5-hour stargazing excursion on a vintage diesel locomotive, led by Dark Sky Rangers from Great Basin. These special rides are only offered on select dates in the summer and they sell out FAST, so plan ahead. Back at the museum, you can stay the night in a bunkhouse or even a historic caboose. 

Take the long way back to Vegas on the Extraterrestrial Highway, down US-6 all the way to SR-375. The lonely stretch takes you past the highly classified military aircraft testing facility known as… drumroll… Area 51. Check out our full guide to the area right here. Highlights include the Little A’Le’Inn, the Alien Research Center, the Extraterrestrial Highway sign, and the Black Mailbox. Don’t miss E.T. Fresh Jerky for alien-themed snacks and the massive UFO-themed mural.

Thomas Winz/Getty Images
Thomas Winz/Getty Images
Thomas Winz/Getty Images

Route 3: Reno to Massacre Rim 

Wedged in the far northwest corner of the state, Massacre Rim is considered to be one of the darkest places on Earth. The 102,000-acre Wilderness Study Area is one of only seven Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the United States-a designation reserved for extremely remote locations, places so dark you can see shadows cast by the light of the Milky Way. 

This long, rugged journey is not for the faint of heart. Rough gravel roads are as good as it gets out here, so come with a high clearance 4×4 with a spare tire or two, or don’t come at all. November through May are off-limits when the roads are often impassable due to snow or mud. The stargazing is best in July and August during the Perseids, but you must come prepared for extra-hot summer weather. There is no food, water, gas, or cell phone service anywhere near the Sanctuary; the closest community is about 40 miles west in Cedarville, California.

The payoff, of course, is the most spectacular night sky you’ll ever see in your whole silly life. Dispersed camping is permitted throughout the Sanctuary, and there are campgrounds in “nearby” public lands like the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and Modoc National Forest, which are also super dark. There are also first-come, first-serve public cabins available; call the BLM Winnemucca District at 775-625-1500 for more info.

Bernie Friel/Getty Images
Bernie Friel/Getty Images
Bernie Friel/Getty Images

Driving from Reno to Massacre Rim

It’s pretty isolated out here. But there are some sights to see along the way, because Nevada. From Reno, head east on I-80 until you hit SR-447-otherwise known as the “Burner Byway.” Make a detour to Pyramid Lake, the ancient remnants of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, an inland sea that once covered most of the massive state of Nevada. It’s a world-renowned fishing destination and the only known habitat for the ancient Cui-ui fish. This is all Paiute tribal land, so take note that permits are required for fishing, boating, and camping. 

Further north lies Gerlach, the gateway to Burning Man due to its proximity to the Black Rock Desert (aka “The Playa). At Bruno’s Country Club & Motel, grab some food and a Picon Punch (an artifact of Basque influence in Northern Nevada). Maybe rest here for the night and see for yourself why FiveThirtyEight named Gerlach the “Darkest Town in America.”

Gas up in Gerlach, then head north on SR-34 to follow the mile-long “Guru Road,” yet another weird but inspirational outdoor art installation project in the middle of the desert. Not far ahead is Fly Geyser, a six-foot-tall, rainbow-colored mound of mineral deposits that spews hot water five feet into the air. It’s located on private property, but if you want to see it up close, guided tours and nature walks are offered by the Friends of Black Rock High Rock.

Once you step foot in the Black Rock Desert, you will be walking on one of the largest, flattest surfaces in the world-that prehistoric Lake Lahontan, mentioned above? This is its dry lakebed. There is perhaps no greater wide-open sky to stargaze than what you’ll experience right here. Stay the night in the Soldier Meadows Campground, and spend some time star-soaking in the bathing pools formed by dammed pockets along a natural hot springs river.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who’s anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.

Travel

13 Reasons to Drive to Palm Springs

Rest, relaxation, and happy hour await you in the desert.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

SoCal winters may not cause locals to flee toward warmer weather, but it does remind us that now is a good time to visit Palm Springs. This time of year is the sweet spot where it’s not too hot during the day and the nights are perfect for a dip in a hot tub. Covered in kitsch, with a culture that encourages you to day drink and lay by a pool all day, it’s no wonder that the desert town has long been a refuge for weekend warriors looking for an escape. Bonus: You can pack up and drive, and be there in less time than it takes to binge a new Netflix series.

Palm Springs is home to a vibrant LGBTQ community-including the nation’s first all-LGBTQ city council-plus art and culture, as well as an abundance of mid-century modern architecture. A field of wind turbines welcome you to town, and once you’re there you’ll be welcomed by leaning palm trees and craggy mountain ranges that keep inspiration flowing. Here you can find warm weather, outdoor activities, and an abundance of restaurants and shops. You’ll also find plenty of opportunities to lounge poolside and do close to nothing, if that’s more your vibe. Use our recommendations below to craft your perfect weekend. You deserve it.

Editor’s note: The city of Palm Springs requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination status or a recent negative COVID test result for entry into the city’s indoor bars and restaurants. Make sure you plan accordingly.

Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire
Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire
Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire

Chill out in style

So you decided to make the good choice to spend a weekend in Palm Springs and need a place to stay. Sure, you could go the Airbnb route, of which the town has many. Or you could enjoy the luxury and amenities of one of Palm Springs’ beautifully designed hotels.

If you’re traveling with a whole posse, consider the boutique hotel, Limón. Their interiors are bright, cheery, and inspired by mid-century modern and 1960s Mexico City. The seven-room property books as one unit and can accommodate you and 13 of your pals. It includes a communal kitchen, an entertainment room, pool, and BBQ area. During your stay, let their staff take the wheel and plan your days. They can assist in creating the perfect stay, like a night out for a bachelor/ette party, a hot air balloon excursion, or a personal chef to cook for you and your crew.

For those looking for an intimate stay for two, try the adults-only hotel, Dive. It’s hard not to feel romantic in their elegant rooms inspired by the 1960s French Riviera. Personally, we fell in love at “free glass of rosé upon check-in.” During Valentine’s Day weekend they will up their complimentary glass by offering a complimentary bottle of French Pool Toy Rosé and two chocolate-covered strawberries per room.

You can’t miss Fleur Noire, with its black exterior that makes it stand out amongst Palm Springs’ otherwise brightly colored architecture. The interiors feel airy, modern, and are punctuated with wallpaper bearing large floral prints. The property consists of an array of casitas, studios, and standard rooms surrounding the communal pool. The hotel is near Palm Springs’ famed Palm Canyon Drive with shops and restaurants. However, if you want to stay a bit closer to your home-tel, you can access Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey through their back gate. Try their signature Black Mussels served with hijiki seaweed, scallions, and miso sake broth. On the Fleur Noire property, you can grab a drink at their rosé and champagne bar, La Boisson.

Aptly named Tiki Hotel is a nod to the 1950s & ‘60s affinity for tiki culture. If you don’t like kitsch and bold design, this is not the place for you. The 11-room property boasts island-themed decor, with vibrant colors and patterns galore. You can lounge by their pool or jump on one of the provided beach cruisers to explore the Palm Springs Design District and nearby shops and restaurants.

Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds
Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds
Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds

Try out the Palm Springs food scene

At some point you might want to stop taking your food and drinks poolside and head into a restaurant. Palm Springs has something for everyone and at least one restaurant for the dogs. Boozehounds makes you wonder: is this a dog-friendly restaurant or a human-friendly dog restaurant? Either way, we’re all in! The restaurant has a large patio perfect for your pooch or if you prefer to dine sans dog, they have an indoor dining area. They serve a wide selection of food, from Japanese yellowtail to a Double Cheeseburger, all inspired by Southern California. They even have a menu just for dogs. with items like a bowl of skirt steak, steamed rice, and sweet potato. As the name suggests, they have a great selection of booze in the form of cocktails, wine, and beer. Not to leave dogs out, you can order your fur baby a weenie-teenie, a concoction of chicken broth, chicken whipped cream, and a dog biscuit crumble. Non-alcoholic, of course.

Eat brunch or lunch outdoors at El Patio, a family-owned Mexican restaurant. Try the Breakfast Enchiladas that come with squash, spinach, corn, cheese, and topped with your choice of green or red sauce and two fried eggs. Or opt for the Bone-in Chicken covered with mole poblano and pipian sauces, garnished with red onion, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Make sure to save room for their churro cart that comes with three different dipping sauces and sprinkles.

One of the most exciting restaurants in Palm Springs right now is Bar Cecil. The culinary commander of the place is Gabe Woo, a Coachella Valley native and local celeb known for his dinner series at Sparrows Lodge and Holiday House that were hard to get into. Woo takes bistro-style foods and expands on it while using seasonal produce from local farms. We can’t promise you it’ll be easy to get a table but we can say that their bar area takes walk-ins where you can order a juicy, flavorful burger and a delicious pork chop with a hint of smokiness. Or order from their “Why Not” menu where you can find swanky items like their infamous $50 martini-Beluga vodka with a kiss of Alessio vermouth is poured tableside in a perfectly chilled glass. The drink is served on a silver tray with a Regiis Ova caviar-topped deviled egg and a bowl of sunchoke chips.

Seymour's
Seymour’s
Seymour’s

Grab a cocktail or two

Drink across decades at Truss & Twine, a cocktail bar that celebrates the history of drinks in America. The interiors may be dark and dramatic, but their staff are friendly and happy to share their knowledge on libations with you. We recommend trying one of their original cocktails like the Game Changer that comes with gin, lime, cucumber, sugar, onion brine, sea salt, and celery bitters. They also serve food that does not resemble typical bar food fare, like their Wagyu Oxtail Grilled Cheese with cheddar, caramelized onion, and green chile aioli. For a mellow night, take a trip to the local speakeasy Seymours, located next to Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. Enter through the unmarked side entrance and step into a bar with chill vibes, moody lighting, and an intimate atmosphere with extraordinary bartenders. They also offer outdoor seating. Try their Oaxcan Hemingway with mezcal, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, and simple syrup.

Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights
Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights
Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights

Take in the scenery

September through May, Fantasy Balloon Flights will show you the world… or at least the vastness of the Coachella Valley from the sky. Rest assured, the hot air balloon company has been at it for some time (since 1981 to be exact). For those that need a bit of liquid courage, champagne balloon adventures are available.

Hop on the world’s largest rotating tramcar at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The car takes you on a ten-minute ride up and along the cliffs of Chino Canyon for picturesque views of the desert until you arrive at your destination, Mt. San Jacinto State Park. At the top, there are places to grab food, observation decks, and over 50 miles of hiking trails. And if you go during the winter there’s a good chance there will be snow.

Bon Vivant Palm Springs
Bon Vivant Palm Springs
Bon Vivant Palm Springs

Load up on new and new-to-you goods

Look for retro wares in the land of mid-century modern majesty. Palm Springs may not have invented the style but they sure do embrace it. Go on a vintage crawl on Palm Canyon Drive and gander at shops like Bon Vivant, Modernway, and Revivals. There you can find eccentric accents and mid-century modern furniture to buy or give you major design inspo. While you’re around, you might as well spruce up your wardrobe at vintage boutiques like The Frippery, Iconic Atomic, and Bazar.

If you prefer to be the first owner of your items, check out the Mojave Flea Trading Post. Contrary to its name, the indoor department store features about 95% new and 5% vintage goods. Browse the stylish works of 40+ local artisans and find art, jewelry, clothes, natural beauty products, home goods, and more.

Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret
Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret
Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret

Support the LGBTQ community

For a bar that has a mission statement that is as good as its food, try Blackbook. Named after the black book in Nevada, a list of notorious people not welcomed in casinos, owner Dean Lavine explains, “We like to think that everyone has been on a blacklist at some point in time. Gay, bullied, racially excluded, Raiders fans, etc.” The bar prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming to all, with some of the best food in Palm Springs. We’re partial to their Palm Springs-style nachos, a version they invented that ensures every chip has cheese so no one is left with a cheese-less chip when sharing. We can’t forget about their drinks. They have a full bar with the largest whiskey selection in the valley, with over 450 different bourbons, ryes, scotches, and international whiskeys, along with beers and other adult canned and bottled beverages.

After eating, sing your heart out at Quadz, where VJs are playing clips of beloved musical theater. You will have a great time at this lively bar even if musicals aren’t your “thing.” However, after a few of their notoriously strong and affordable drinks, you may be belting out Streisand with the best of them. Reserve a spot at Toucans and see a performance at Palm Springs’ longest continuously running drag show. Drag shows are Thursday-Monday with a different theme each night. No matter what day you go, it’s always a good time at Toucans, making it a favorite for tourists and locals alike, but pro-tip: Monday nights are free.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum

Get your art and culture fix

It may be hard to peel yourself away from basking in the sun, but take a break and explore the Palm Springs Art Museum. You can find modern and contemporary art, architecture, and design objects that reflect Palm Springs’ unique history, culture, and place.

Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa
Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa
Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa

Recharge at a spa

Between work, existential crises, and living through a global pandemic, we all could use a relaxing spa moment. Book a massage at the Ace Hotel’s Feel Good Spa. Try their Rose Goodness, where a masseuse will use quartz massagers to get deep into your muscle tissue. The use of rose quartz is said to help replace toxic emotions and blockages to the heart chakra with loving energy. Release tension and stress and gain clarity through a holistic treatment at The Spa at The Colony Palms Hotel & Bungalows. They offer a wide range of services, including massages, facials, body treatments, vibrational sound healing, and acutaping.

Big Wheel Tours
Big Wheel Tours
Big Wheel Tours

Go on a tour

Cruise through the desert landscape on two wheels (or by Jeep or by hiking) with Big Wheel Tours. If your interests are more architecture than nature, check out Modern & More Bike Tours and see architecturally and historically significant homes in South Palm Springs.

If biking is not your style, hop in Palm Springs Mod Squad‘s van and take part in a mid-century modern architecture tour. Choose the martini option to learn more about the cocktail and cap off your tour with James Bond’s favorite drink. Their expert will explain why martinis are shaken and not stirred. They also offer socially distanced options for those that prefer to stay in their own car.

Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon
Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon
Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon

Hike historic trailheads

If you prefer to see the desert terrain by foot, Indian Canyon Trails offer a plethora of hiking options that include cool streams and lush oases. You may even see a BigHorn Sheep. Indian Canyons is the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and you can learn more about their history through preserved rock art, irrigation ditches, and food preparation areas.

The Living Desert
The Living Desert
The Living Desert

Explore desert plant life

See desert animals and plants thriving at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. The world-class wildlife and botanical park has almost 430 animals, including cheetahs, giraffes, and camels as well as creatures native to the area. After that, head to Moorten Botanical Garden aka Cactus Castle, and explore over a dozen arid biomes and thousands of specimens sourced from all over the world. Plus, see rocks, crystals, fossils, gold-mining relics, and desert tortoises. If you feel inspired to become a plant parent after your visit, Moorten’s has a nursery for you to take home your own prickly bundle of joy.

Palm Springs Windmill Tours
Palm Springs Windmill Tours
Palm Springs Windmill Tours

Take a windmill selfie

The rows and rows of wind turbines off the I-10 on your way to Palm Springs are almost as iconic to the area as palm trees. If you’ve ever been curious about what they do, reserve a tour with Palm Springs Windmill Tours to see these 300-foot behemoths up close and learn how they power the entire Coachella Valley.

The Lights at Indio GC
The Lights at Indio GC
The Lights at Indio GC

Tee off after the sun goes down

If you burnt too much daylight at the pool or on hikes and weren’t able to get a round of golf in during the day, The Lights at Indio Golf Course has you covered. The Desert’s only night-lit course allows you to hit the links after dark.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Keisha Raines is a LA-based freelance writer born and raised in the Palm Springs area with a tattoo of the San Jacinto mountains to prove it.

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