Take a break from Lake Tahoe’s slopes and Reno’s casinos with a visit to nearby family-friendly Carson City, Nevada, celebrated for its namesake legendary frontiersman and scout, Kit Carson. The city’s rich history is found in its state capitol building and in sites that date back to the ca.1859 Gold and Silver Rush. But Carson City is perhaps most embraced as a family-friendly tourist destination for its economical lodging and activities, all within 14 short miles from the elite Lake Tahoe and 30 miles from the bright lights of Reno. With proximity to winter and spring snowsports, summer festivals, museums, culture and, of course, casinos; Carson City offers an often overlooked alternative to the typical Nevada vacation.
Rails & Arts Attractions for All Ages
Kids with brains for trains will enjoy the Nevada State Railroad Museum, (12180 South Carson Street 89701, 775/687-6953) home of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad collection of locomotives, rolling stock and artifacts. Model railroads, exhibits, and equipment guidebooks are available and offer a detailed account of the history of trains. Guests can even sign-up for the class Become a Motorman, a 3-day class teaching motorcar orientation, safety and operations.
Theater buffs should check-out the Brewery Arts Center (449 West King Street, 775/883-1976) for live entertainment including theater, music, festivals, and comedy. Built in 1860 from the same native limestone that built the state’s capital, the building once housed the Carson Brewery Company. It later became a thriving cultural community center in 1975 and recently featured Romeo and Juliet and the Jazz and Beyond Festival. The center also boasts a strong children’s presence, offering performances through BAC Stage Kids and BAC to Broadway Kids. Adult and kids’ acting, pottery, and art classes entice aspiring artists and performers as young as 6-years old. During our stay, we were treated to a partial performance of Cinderella by a group of the city’s young talent.
The Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada (813 N. Carson St 89701, 775/884-2226) is always a popular choice for families with small children looking for some hands-on fun. Little ones with the acting bug can take in a show at the museum’s Wildhorse Theater. Recent performances included a depiction of the beloved children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The red brick museum also fosters family relationships through a variety of innovative programs. Baby Signs helps parents ‘talk’ with their babies through signing and Kindermusik explores communication and child development through the love of music.
Step Back in Time
The The Nevada State Museum (600 North Carson Street 89701, 775/687-4810) is popularly known for its working mint press and live demonstrations, held on the last Friday of each month. Minting coins since 1870, it first pressed the Seated Liberty Dollar and can currently produce 1 medal in 10 seconds with 200 tons of striking pressure. Since its inception, it has pressed the Nevada Bicentennial medals in gold, silver, copper and bronze, and has struck nearly 200 million coins to date. I didn’t anticipate the minting would be so interesting, and watched in awe at how quickly and forcefully the machine produced perfectly minted coins. But it’s not all about minting at the museum. Visitors can also explore a walk-through ghost town and underground mine, learn about Nevada’s Native American heritage and frontier history. Guests can also visit the world’s largest, exhibited mammoth skeleton, a walk-through Devonian Sea and view a plate tectonics video. During our visit, live demonstrators including a Kit Carson reenactor entertained with stories of the old West.
The Capitol Building (Carson Street, downtown) was once the largest building in the Carson City until the Ormsby House Casino was erected in 1972. The capitol hosts a portrait gallery of every Nevada governor, historic legislative chambers describing the construction of the building, and impressive 19th-century detailing throughout. Our visit included a reenactment by Abraham Lincoln discussing Nevada’s history and importance to the country. Tours are available with advance notice by calling 775/687-4810.
History buffs, architecture enthusiasts and those just wanting to see more of the city can take a walk down The Kit Carson Trail, paying homage to the famed explorer with a 2½-mile tour through Carson City’s residential homes district. A painted blue line and bronze medallions dot the sidewalk to mark the route and highlight stops at 1800s-era Victorian-style homes, museums and churches. More than 60 landmarks are featured along the trail; call 800/NEVADA-1 for more information.
Trip Planning Details
Carson City has a variety of family-friendly restaurants to choose from without compromising your budget. Red’s Old 395 Grill (1055 S Carson St 89701, 775/887-0395) earns its bragging rights with a wide selection of barbeque and ribs. My slow-cooked, rubbed chicken was tasty and lacked the overwhelming dripping effect I’m accustomed to in my barbeque endeavors. Other fare on the menu included hamburgers, salads, pizza, and limited vegetarian options and a special children’s menu. Other family picks in the area include Heidi’s, Grandma Hattie’s and Applebee’s. Keep in mind that Carson City is undergoing a downtown redevelopment project, and expect to see an up-springing of new boutiques, dining, and entertainment options.
Carson City also offers a significantly cheaper lodging alternative than its neighbors Lake Tahoe and Reno, with rates averaging just $60-$100 a night. While The Gold Dust West Casino (2171 Highway 50 East 89701, 775/885-9000) may not be an obvious family choice for hotels, it is an ideal location for parents looking to try their hand at gaming and still keep their children occupied with fun activities. (Nevada refers to the industry as gaming, not gambling; giving it a softer approach. The state also adheres to strict gaming standards and code of ethics). The Gold Dust West offers all the traditional gaming, casino entertainment, an RV park, outdoor swimming pool, spa, and a bowling center with video arcade. The 32-lane bowling center is kid-friendly and even has its own bowling league, special bowling packages, parties, and private lessons. The bowling center’s current manager also teaches bowling in the community. Rates based on double rooms sleeping two adults and two children start as low as $59 and average out around $99 a night.
There’s a variety of family-economical lodging options; a complete list of hotels and visitor’s information can be found at The Carson City Convention Bureau site.
Don’t forget Carson City is just a short drive from the attractions at Lake Tahoe and Reno. Kids as young as 3-years can take ski lessons at Tahoe’s Squaw Valley and enjoy a day at the slopes, rides on the gondola, and find plenty of age-appropriate activities. Other must-sees include Reno’s free kayaking at Wingfield Park (First Street and Arlington Avenue 89501, 775/334-2417) and old-fashioned magic shows at the downtown Magic Underground (100 S Virginia Street 89501, 775/324-6007).
I missed out on the nearby Virginia City, about 15 miles northeast of Carson City. The area offers 100-mile mountain views, historical silver and gold mine tours, museums, Old West-style saloons, and rides along the V&T Railroad. I’m also eager to take another stab at skiing and snowboarding at the nearby Heavenly Resort or Northstar in Lake Tahoe.
Whatever you do on your Carson City adventure, make sure to say Nevada with the appropriate Ne-VAD-ah pronunciation as opposed to the popular, yet misguided, tourist favorite Ne-VAH-dah. Locals won’t hesitate to correct your failed attempt, so impress them with your vernacular know-how.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.