“We never have snow in September!” our hotel clerk said in disbelief.
We’d driven up from Mammoth Lakes the night before on what started out as a beautiful day but by the time we got to Tahoe the clouds were ominous. By morning the snow was falling and the landscape looked like winter – NOT the last day of Summer!
I’d had visions of Lake Tahoe excursions that involved beaches, boating, and hikes – that was out – so what to do in Lake Tahoe when the weather forecast is rain, hail, and snow?
Virginia City, Nevada
Virginia City is only about an hour’s drive from Lake Tahoe and walking around the historic mining town sounded like a great idea to escape the bad weather in Tahoe.
Viginia City – a Silver Boom Town in 1859!
Gold was the first precious ore mined for in Virginia City, but it was the silver discovered in what became known as the Comstock Lode that made Virginia City a boomtown practically overnight.
Miners from all over the WORLD flocked to the area to stake their claims.
Fun Facts: Did you ever hear of an old TV series called Bonanza? The Ponderosa Ranch was supposed to be next to Virginia City, but it was really filmed at Incline Village in Lake Tahoe.
There were 6 major bonanzas (yeah, THAT’s where the old TV series got its name!) at the Comstock Lode – huge finds of silver deposits – and the Comstock Lode was the first major deposit of silver ore found in the United States.
Our first stop was the Visitor’s Center where they sell tickets to several tours in town at a discount.
The Ponderosa Mine
There are several mine tours in Virginia City, but the easiest to get to without driving away from the main street is the Ponderosa Mine.
Fascinating and fun, it’s in the back of what used to be a bank, just down the street from the Visitor Center
The tunnel isn’t long and the tour is only about 20 minutes, but you won’t be disappointed with this tour!
Interesting Factoid: The land all around Virginia City never had any forests, and they needed lots of lumber to shore up the soft earth of the mines. All that timber – by 1881 more than two billion board feet of it – was stripped from the forests of Lake Tahoe.
The Trolley Tour
We opted for another 20 minute tour, this time around the town on the Trolley Tour, a bus tour full of fun facts about the mining days, the well-to-do and ne’er do well citizens, the history, and pointing out the landmarks and places to visit in the little town.
One of the recommendations was to visit the historic cemetery, but the weather just wasn’t cooperating for traipsing around tombstones.
Tip: The trolley tour is inexpensive and a great way to start a visit to Virginia City!
The Birthplace of Mark Twain
Did you know that it was in Virginia City that Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain? He’d come west to work as a private secretary for his brother Orion, who had a new position as Secretary of the Nevada Territory, but that didn’t work out so he started writing for a local paper, The Territorial Enterprise. That’s when he first started signing Mark Twain on his columns.
The Way It Was Museum
At the end of the main street, the Way It Was Museum is packed full of Virginia City history, plus some short films on the town (we love that!)
Fun Fact: In its heyday, Virginia City boasted a population of 25,000, had an opera house and fine dining restaurants – a very civilized town! Despite the present day actors staging shoot-outs in the streets, the locals say that just didn’t happen here.
One of the many fascinating things about mining in Virginia City is the depth and scope of the tunnels. The Comstock Lode had a shaft that was 3,250 feet deep – football fans just think of 11 football fields end to end!
In and Out of the Saloons in Virginia City
The trolley tour driver mentioned that a lot of the saloons on main street have historic photos inside – great excuse to go in and out of the places lining main street.
One of the quirky famous sights is the Suicide Table in the Delta Saloon, claimed to be cursed and responsible for the deaths of 3 of its owners. The first owner Black Jake lost $70,000 one evening and shot himself, the second owner couldn’t pay off his losses in one nights’ play and either committed suicide or was offed by his creditors. Stored for years because no one would deal on it, the dark history was forgotten and a new owner converted it to a 21 table. The story goes that a drunken miner stumbled in and had a streak of luck, winning everything the owner had in the world – and there’s the third suicide.
There’s a few supposedly haunted places in town, and one of them is The Silver Queen Hotel. We didn’t see any ghosts but we did see the famous Silver Queen herself, a 15 foot tall portrait of Lady Luck with a dress of 3,261 classic Morgan silver dollars, a belt of 28 $20 gold pieces, and choker and bracelets made of dimes.
Scenic Loop Drive Back to Tahoe
We spent a few hours in Virginia City, but when the snow we’d left in Tahoe caught up with us it was time to get over the mountain pass back to Lake Tahoe.
Instead of going back the way we came, we took the longer, curvier and more scenic route out of town to the north shore of Lake Tahoe.
Going out of Virginia City the opposite direction from where we came in, we took the Geiger Grade road (Highway 341) and then over the Mount Rose pass (Highway 431) to the north end of Lake Tahoe.
The disappointing thing about a drive around Lake Tahoe is the limited number of places you can stop to see the views. But we found a few, and the prettiest were south near Emerald Bay.
Tip: A drive from the north shore to the south takes about an hour.
A Great Excursion With Fascinating History
Virginia City was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1961, and well deserved! It’s a fascinating place to visit with plenty of tours for the history buff and plenty of shops, restaurants and bars to make everyone happy on a day tripping excursion from Lake Tahoe.