People throughout history have underestimated the Nevada desert and its so-called attainable fortunes that lie buried deep in the earth's surface. Nevada's relentless "boom to bust" heritage led many men by a string, some led to their dooms while others were led to their prosperity. Reno and Washoe County still seems to put that concept to the test. Comprised of what I like to call "faces and places", Washoe County holds three distinct places, each place uniquely different from another, and more importantly, uniquely different than any other place in Nevada.
First Face of Washoe: Timeless Places
The first "face" is a timeless place, a land that rests quietly not in Nevada, but in a Nevada "state-of-being". Here, the term "Nevadan" meant solely native Nevadans. These native Nevadans were the men and women of ancient times who left behind ancient messages for us to comprehend. In this place, the ancient people in Washoe County lived off the land, fished for giant trout and wandered about the region's mountains and deserts. These same native Nevadans much later met the white man, specifically an explorer who named both a giant body of water and a great river. Still later, Nevada's only Indian War took place upon in this land where battles were fought among the arid bluffs that line this "great place", this great river named Truckee. Further north, the same place catered to men and women seeking fortune and new beginnings, a time and place where emigrant trails and their graffiti still exist in the remote canyons and range country known as High Rock. Inscriptions in High Rock's walls, "Lloyd R, November 1846", remind modern man traversing this lonely country that he is tiny against the earth today just as he was back then. Of course, this is just one face of Washoe County, a land comprising of the extreme northern half known thoughtfully as "the forgotten northwest corner." The only outposts in this remote and unpopulated sector of Nevada are places like Wadsworth, Nixon and Gerlach, an open region that seems to forever find refuge from Reno's hungry metropolis. Today, there are still only a few reasons why the average person would venture into this region. One is to see Pyramid Lake, described as "America's Most Beautiful Desert Lake", and to savor in the thrill of catching a unique and endangered trout found nowhere else in the world. The other reason is to see the desert and still another reason is to see, "The Desert"... the Desert known as the Black Rock Desert. Here on the Black Rock, even the most basic of rules shouldn't be ignored; things like common sense stand most important in this very remote region of the Silver State. Here among this face of Washoe County, a single man is still, as he was back then, his only companion.
Second Face of Washoe: The Glitz
In comparison, the second face of Washoe County seems to retract Nevada's typical lifestyle. Instead, Reno does as she has always done -- break the rules. This sector of Washoe seems to be its own world, a place of perplexing progression combined with pride and power. The second face of Washoe loves to be called "Nevada's City," crowned with the catchy motto, "We love this place!" Reno, as she always been called, is still the place to come. Dubbed the "biggest little city in the world", Reno enjoys its nickname, not for the sake of sporting a spunky catch phrase, but because Reno savors its distinction as a "rural city." "Reno-ites", as they like to be called, enjoy their proximity to the mountains; locals find comfort and shelter on the flanks of Mt. Rose. When a person can ski, fish, hike, camp, 4x4 and backpack within minutes from home, why be anywhere else? For starters, Reno thrives with a busy night-time scene. People worldwide can partake in Reno's gambling, suitable for both high-rollers and low-betters. Better yet, Reno fancies itself on not just its neon, but also its simple ways of pleasure. People can stroll along the Truckee River, gazing at the mountain's backbone, with just a mere thought of everything else that a big city has to offer. Reno is a clean city with character, sass, reservation, and excitement all rolled into one. But, Reno does have problems. The realization that California is only a few miles away does not help the city's identity. As more and more "spillovers" decide to make Reno home, a "Reno-ite's" ruralty is put to the test. However, throughout history, Reno has always been a problem-solver. After all, when other states prohibited divorce, Reno became the "cure," rebelliously stepping in by allowing divorce via a three-month residence rule. Even when prohibition loomed over the heads of America, Reno was the answer with its speakeasies and basement casinos. Even during the Comstock, Reno held its ground in innovation by providing the only means of crossing an impassable river. Byron Lake's bridge, known simply as "Lake's Crossing", allowed horse and wagon traffic to the Truckee Meadows and up the grade to Virginia City. No doubt, Reno has earned its spot as an important community in Nevada. Just don't forget: there is much more to Washoe County than just the big city.
Third Face of Washoe: Tranquil Pastures
Washoe County's third face is a meeting of the minds. Most "Reno-ites" have strong ties to Incline Village and the Tahoe Basin. Gerlach, Wadsworth and Pyramid Lake stand alone as bystanders away from the rapid growth throughout Washoe County. But, there is something special about Washoe Valley. Washoe Valley needs no introduction, or overplay of words to describe its state of being, a valley where life either passes through or passes by. In Nevada, Washoe Valley is simply Washoe Valley, with no special destinction or instructions required. This may be because its residents relate more to Carson City than the rest of Reno and its namesake county! Washoe residents fight for what's right, yet carefully keep to themselves in a sleepy valley in between Reno and the Capitol. In the words of one local ... "Not a whole lot happens here."
Perhaps that's why Washoe receives a gold star for greatness. Historically, Washoe has earned its name in the history books, yet most people often forget or simply don't care about its impact on Nevada. In truth, "the Valley" earned its reputation in Nevada history as a shipping locale for the Comstock Lode in the late 1870's; Washoe City, the first ever seat of Washoe County grew into an important freighting community that utilized a unique shipping system on the shore of Washoe Lake. Lumber was shipped by log flume from the Tahoe Basin and the adjacent mountainsides and then loaded and freighted across the lake. From the east side of the lake, the lumber was then sent up by rail or mule up the Virginia Range to the Comstock mines. This brief era was about the most excitement the Valley ever received. After Virginia City's prosperity came to a halt, Washoe City shriveled up and the seat of Washoe County was moved to Reno. Ever since, Washoe City has been thought as nothing more than a bottleneck for commuters on the busy US 395 highway. Most commuters in between Reno and Carson have no idea, or no care in the world that Washoe Valley contributed greatly to Virginia City's place in history. Little do they care that Washoe Valley could be the last remnant of Reno's ruralty, a place where mountains meet desert and the population's hearts still beat with the land. Here, there are no busy city lights, jaws of crime, or traffic jams. If nothing else, at least Washoe Valley makes a nice demarcation line between Carson City and the Reno metropolis, a true boundary between city and rural. Either way, you bet on one thing: Washoe Valley is proud to be a part of neither.
Which Washoe are you?
When you think about it, Washoe County is one strange duck -- an elongated piece of Nevada ground that stands alone in the west. Washoe is a place both untouched by modern-day hands, cleansed thoroughly by desert vastness, or alpine fragrances in a mountain bowl of dense forest and azure blue water. Yet, Washoe is also a place that prides itself as a bustling metropolis. Washoe County is a rarity in America, where a person one can be trapped in the "spaghetti bowl" at rush hour or crawling past the Reno Arch and in only a few hours, may be left speechless among the vast emptyness of its remote northern deserts. If I care to elaborate further, in one day a person can begin his day by standing along the shores of Lake Tahoe or amongst the alpine tundra atop Mt. Rose; he can record the differences he sees all day, by then driving through Reno and its glowing jungle of urban confinement, then northward only to find himself blankly staring at an austere Pyramid that seems to float above the waters of Pyramid Lake. At the end of the day, he can stand alone on the Black Rock Desert, and finally walk in awe without any pattern in his steps beneath the red ramparts of High Rock Canyon. Truly, one can experience several unique worlds all rolled into one county! Perhaps this is why the people of Washoe are also just as colorful. It might be regular for a city slicker from Reno to be stared down upon if he dares to ask for a mocha at Bruno's "Country Club." Or laughter may occur as a young snowboarder from Incline Village butts heads about life and liberty with an old timer from Wadsworth or a rancher in Washoe Valley. Such unique "faces and places" define Washoe County, holding reserve in its identity. Such variety prevents everything from from molding into Reno and Sparks. Of course, a Washoe Valley resident will always see heavy traffic through his valley while a Gerlach native will see only a few cars from the people he knows. Nevertheless, Nevada's second largest city is always a thought away.
Markers of Reno-Sparks Metro Area (24)
View Reno Historical Markers in a larger map
With that in mind, my ramblings above should at least hint at what you're in for as a marker hunter. Not only is Washoe County home to the most historical markers in Nevada, it's also a county with loads of possible experiences. With a new marker addition in 2007, Washoe County now has a total of 42 markers! To acquire all 42 of these landmarks, you will need one thing: patience! About eighty percent of all the markers found within Washoe County are located within the limits of Reno and Sparks. To aid in your conquering, I have provided a mini-map of the city. In my conquering of Washoe, I took two days to tackle these urban residents accounting for traffic, breaks and pit stops. Even though Reno and Sparks aren't terribly difficult to navigate, the markers' distribution make conquering urban Washoe a challenge. Expect quite a few instances where you're forced to double-back. Therefore, my advice is to follow the route of McCarran Blvd ...
Markers of Washoe County (42)
View Washoe County Historical Markers in a larger map
... Start in the south portion of the Truckee Meadows and work eastward on McCarran; follow McCarran as it circles both cities, allowing ample opportunities to bounce off the four-lane boulevard in search of the markers. As you approach northwest Reno, branch off onto I-80 and tackle the stragglers in Verdi. On your return trip, this will provide you the chance to tackle the cluster of markers surrounding UNR and downtown. Of course, when you're finished, the rest of Washoe's markers quietly await your conquering in the the county's rural areas. Keep in mind that there are a few markers that lie so far off the beaten path, you may need to plan in advance on how to tackle them. #149, High Rock Canyon, is one such marker. #149 was MIA as of my conquering in 2008-2009, and just as it was for me, the average hunter will find that it can only be reached via a two hour's drive on well-maintained dirt roads, specifically, old SR 34. Although Washoe County is northern Nevada's urban county, the typical rural face of Nevada awaits those you leave Reno and the Truckee Meadows. Needless to say, conquering all 42 of Washoe's markers is an experience not to be forgotten, even though you will spend most of your time cruising the streets of Reno. With a little patience, the conquering of Reno is still enjoyable and often rewarding. Look for Washoe County's markers on cemetery grounds, one way streets, beneath high-rise buildings, city parks, riversides, desert floors, amidst pine trees, the shore of an alpine lake, old ghost towns, and railroad sidings.