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Shuffling the Deck in Nevada

“There is gaming in 48 states today, so the gaming model isn’t unique anymore.” Christopher Baum, president and CEO of the Reno- Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, is clear about what modern Reno is — and isn’t.

“People constantly think of Reno as a small Las Vegas, but it really isn’t,” he said. “We’ve repositioned ourselves as a year-round destination resort. We have a terrific natural setting that supports that very nicely.”

Nevada may have made its name in tourism on the back of the Vegas casino scene, but as legalized gaming has become ubiquitous around the country, Nevada destinations have gone back to their roots to offer visitors authentic, exciting experiences that extend far beyond the casino f loor.

For groups traveling in Nevada, this means a wealth of opportunities await in various corners of the state. The Reno and Tahoe area has plentiful natural attractions and activities, and nearby Virginia City offers a glimpse into an Old West mining town. Authentic cowboy experiences await in Elko. And in the southern tip of the state, Laughlin invites travelers to explore the Colorado River and its scenic surroundings.


Mountains and Museums

Reno enjoys a number of treasures, including nearby ski mountains and the famously picturesque Lake Tahoe. There are 18 ski resorts in the area surrounding Reno, and Lake Tahoe offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation during warmer weather.

Groups can also enjoy an outing on the Truckee River, which runs through the middle of town. Outfitters offer kayaking, paddleboarding, fly-fishing and other excursions that begin in the city center.

Reno’s location also affords groups the opportunities to view wildlife.

“If you want to get away from it all, you can drive to the edge of town and see wild horses running free,” Baum said. “We have the largest population of wild horses in North America. They’ve been here for more than 300 years. There are thousands of wild horses with crazy, long manes.”

Reno also has a healthy cultural scene. The Nevada Museum of Art is the only nationally accredited art museum in the state, and features exhibits of contemporary, historical, local and national artwork.

The National Automobile Museum has earned a reputation as a local treasure. Built on a car collection donated by the Harrah family, the museum features more than 200 vehicles. Visitors will see a 1906 electric car and a classic Rolls-Royce valued at more than $1 million.

Reno is also making a name for itself with a lineup of special annual events that highlight area art, culture and cuisine throughout the summer and early fall.

“We specialize in stuff that you can’t see or experience anywhere else — big, meaningful events,” Baum said. “I’ve worked in travel for 40 years, and I know of no other destination that has more large special events than we do.”

The fine arts take over Reno in July during a series of events collectively known as Artown. This festival features 400 to 500 art exhibits, interactive arts programs and musical performances, many free of charge.

Another local favorite, Hot August Nights, has become one of the world’s largest automobile events, drawing more than half a million people to see hot rods, muscle cars and a world-class auto auction. And Nugget Rib Cook-Off, a five-day celebration of barbecue, seeks to identify “The Best of the West” each year in September.

This October will mark the entrance of a new festival, the Blue Genes Jam. This Western-lifestyle celebration will highlight the story of the invention of riveted blue jeans in Reno in 1871 and will feature live music and high-end-denim exhibitions.


History Preserved

Groups exploring Reno should take a day to visit Virginia City. Located just 25 miles from Reno, Virginia City offers visitors a completely different experience. “Virginia City was a mining town; gold and silver were discovered here in 1859 and put us on the map,” said Patrick Gilmore, tourism and marketing manager for the Virginia City Tourism Commission. “There was a great fire in 1875, and the entire town was rebuilt after that. Today, we have a large historic district; 95 percent of the buildings are the original ones, rebuilt after the fire.”

Each year, Virginia City attracts more than a million visitors, who come to sample a bit of Old West history. They are greeted by the Virginia City Living Legends, a group of about 150 volunteer docents that roam the city in costume and serve as step-on guides.

For groups, the best way to start getting to know the area is with a half-hour narrated trolley tour, which takes passengers to historic sites and highlights around town. Gilmore said most groups also take time for a 45-minute ride on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad.

“They get the history of the original restored passenger depot that they depart from in Virginia City,” he said. “They see several of the famous mines, and it stops at the Gold Hill Hotel, one of the oldest operating hotels in Nevada.”

The railroad owns a number of authentic 1930s Pullman cars, and groups can arrange to have a private event in one of those cars as part of their experience.

For a more immersive experience, visitors can venture to one of two decommissioned mines in the area that are open for tours.

“At Chollar Mine, you’re met by the mine owner and walked 200 yards into the bowels of the mine,” Gilmore said. “You see all the mining equipment. They turn off the lights and light a candle, and show you what the miners saw when they were working with crowbars and sledgehammers.”


A Cowboy Calling

Further east, the town of Elko remains a leading gold-producing mining area. But Elko is also a large ranching community, and its cowboy credentials have earned it a lot of attention.

People from far and wide travel to Elko to attend the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an event hosted by the Western Folklife Center.

“We have some world-renowned poets that come to the gathering,” said Tom Lester, tourism and convention manager for the Elko Convention and Visitors Association.“We were the original poetry gathering, and we do a lot of shows and music throughout the event.”

Groups that visit during the January celebration can catch plenty of great performances, as well as browse special exhibitions of cowboy memorabilia and Western wear. And exhibits at the Western Folk Life Center give insight into the history and lifestyles of Nevada cowboys, no matter what time of year people visit.

The cowboy culture isn’t the only one on display in Elko, however. The area has a significant Basque heritage, which it showcases during he first weekend in July.

“A lot of Basque sheepherders came over here from Spain,” Lester said. “We have a huge Basque Festival in July. There is a large parade and a lot of different competitions. They have dancing competitions, wood chopping and weightlifting games.”

At the California Trail Interpretive Center, exhibits and interpreters teach guests about the pioneers who traveled through the Elko area on their way to settle in California. The $20 million museum opened two years ago.

“It walks you through the whole wagon-train journey from the Midwest to Gold Country in California,” Lester said “They do a lot of talks in period costumes, and they have a Donner Party theater there that talks about the Donner Party and their struggles.”


Riverfront Revelry

At the southern tip of Nevada, the town of Laughlin sits on the banks of the scenic Colorado River.

“The Colorado River is the key feature of Laughlin,” said Meg McDaniel, spokeswoman for the Southern Nevada Regional Office of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “People enjoy it, whether they’re on the river itself or viewing it from their hotel room, a restaurant or even in some of our gaming venues. We consider it Laughlin’s Main Street.”

Laughlin has nine large casino resorts, eight that sit on the riverbank. A river walk connects seven of those properties, and water taxis provide transportation up and down the riverfront district.

McDaniel said groups often explore the area on one of two riverboats — the Celebration and the USS Riverside — that offer sightseeing cruises.

“They offer narration and history about how Laughlin came to be and the history of the area,” McDaniel said. “It’s really enjoyable and very relaxing.”

The Celebration also operates dinner cruises and is available for chartered cocktail cruises.

For a more fast-paced experience, groups can book a ride on the London Bridge Jet Boats. These flat-bottom boats take passengers to see the London Bridge at Lake Havasu in Arizona via the Colorado River, reaching speeds of more than 40 miles per hour.

“They go through some very scenic canyons,” McDaniel said. “They stop and point out petroglyphs along the way, and they love to stop and point out wildlife. You can see some bighorn sheep, some wild burros or maybe a bald eagle.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.