Relive the Wild West outdoors, in safety, and take remote learning to the highest level in Virginia City. At its peak a bona fide frontier boomtown, this hilltop village is located in Nevada’s starkly beautiful high desert among the Sierra Madres. It is under an hour from Reno and Lake Tahoe and approximately three hours from San Francisco making it an ideal road trip overnight on a tour of the region.
Although it’s close to modern diversions, a visit here feels like a step back in time. When the Gold Rush hit in the mid-19th century, then silver was discovered at the Comstock Lode, people from around the globe flocked to Virginia City. They were assured a good income working in the dangerous mines and could dream of striking it rich.
Experiential Learning at its Finest
Today, very little has changed in Virginia City and that’s what makes it such a distinct attraction. Many families are already acquainted with visiting historic sites, but perfectly-preserved Virginia City is experiential learning at its finest.
The kids will be having such a ball in the Wild West, they’ll never notice how much learning is taking place. Although there are museums, time spent here is not about examining artifacts in glass cases. Did you know that Samuel Clemens began his writing career at the local newspaper? There’s a museum celebrating him and his storied career as Mark Twain, too.
Virginia City is special because it’s an immersive living history experience. Every storefront showcases what life in a prosperous 19th-century mining town was actually like. The spirit is genuine so don’t expect an amusement park atmosphere.
Authentic Flavor of the Wild West
Stroll down C Street, the town’s main drag, and you’ll see how Virginia City has held onto its Victorian-era past. Called The Boardwalk, the sidewalks are mostly old wood planks held in place by dowels, though “modern” repairs mean some have been replaced with railroad ties.
Saloons, old-fashioned stores and attractions line the pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare. Men in cowboy attire and women dressed in frocks with parasols strut as casually as if they were wearing 21st-century jeans and T-shirts. Some are costumed interpreters, but others are just local folk who enjoy period fashion. Rent costumes at the tourist office or the local photo studio and join the fun.
Historical Impact of an old Mining Town
Virginia City’s reach was influential. In its heyday, it was one of the wealthiest cities west of Denver. A bonanza of revenue from the silver mines helped to build San Francisco and even helped finance the Civil War. The area was so rich in mineral wealth that President Lincoln gave Nevada a fast path to statehood. He knew that the Nevada tax revenue would supply an infusion of cash into the war effort and could help seal the Union victory.
Virginia City is Festival Central
In a normal year, Virginia City hosts a variety of festivals and special events. Food festivals, parades and Christmas on the Comstock are just a few of the many events on the local calendar. The most popular is the International Camel and Ostrich Race held each September, but there’s something scheduled nearly every weekend.
This year is an exception, of course. However, Virginia City has so much to offer families that a visit any time is well worthwhile.
Great Family Attractions
The following attractions are on or just off C Street, the main street of town. Note that all visitors are expected to wear face coverings. Hours may have changed and some attractions may require advance reservations to enforce limited capacity and social distancing guidelines. The Virginia City’s Comstock Adventure Pass enables families to get a discount on several of the top attractions from May to October, including the mobility-friendly Virginia City Trolley (a narrated 20-minute tour) and many of these:
Virginia & Truckee Railroad
In the 19th-century, trains hauled millions of dollars worth of gold and silver from Virginia City. These steam and heritage diesel locomotives are now a popular attraction with visitors who want views of the mountains and of the city’s most famous landmarks. The 35-minute narrated excursion gives riders a comprehensive history lesson, but is short and interesting enough to keep restless kids entertained.
Chollar Mine Tour
If your kids have ever wondered where gold and silver comes from, look no further than the Chollar Mine. A leading producer of gold and silver ore back in the day, the mine is now open to the public. A 30-minute guided tour takes visitors 400 feet into the main haulage tunnel. Old equipment is still scattered around the tunnel and the guide even demonstrates how ore is removed from mine walls. The tour isn’t for everyone -— the tunnel is narrow and dark, not suitable for young kids or anyone with a back problem. The Ponderosa Mine Tour offers a similar experience.
Dancing Crystals Mining Company
Kids of all ages will enjoy mining for real gold and gems that they may take home. It makes a great do-it-yourself souvenir but is currently closed.
Virginia City Outlaws
This live show re-enacts kitschy Western scenes, such as bank robberies and hold-ups. A loud gunshot sound goes off during some shows, so kids who are easily frightened by noise might want to skip this. Most school-aged kids will love it.
Bucket of Blood Saloon
Despite its sinister name, this saloon is an oasis of good clean fun. Yes, the old-fashioned bar serves a potent Bloody Mary, but families will enjoy cooling off with a soft drink and listening to live music, starting at noon each day. Talented pianist Squeek Steele plays thousands of tunes completely from memory, ranging from American classics to Scott Joplin ragtime hits. Although face coverings are required, parents may not feel comfortable in this popular spot.
The Way It Was Museum
Virginia City is the perfect example of “the way it was” and this museum only adds to the city’s reputation. It boasts the most complete collection of mining artifacts from the area as well as rare photographs, lithographs and maps of the booming “Bonanza” period.
Silver Terrace Cemetery
A cemetery might not sound like the ideal vacation site, but Silver Terrace is so full of history that you should consider a stop. It is the final resting place for a diverse group of miners—Irish, Chinese, Mexican and more -— who spent their lives working the Comstock Lode in Virginia City. The colorful headstone inscriptions tell their thought-provoking individual stories.
Fourth Ward School Cultural Center
Built in 1876, the Fourth Ward School was the learning center for hundreds of Virginia City students until the 1930s. While kids no longer attend classes there, plenty of children show up every year to tour the four-story museum and cultural center. The 19th-century classroom is a winner. Note that the schedule has been curtailed to curtail the spread of coronavirus.
Shopping in Virginia City
Unique shops, many with swining saloon doors, abound in Virginia City. Barrel-O-Candy, Reds’ Candies and Grandma’s Fudge Factory sell yummy retro sweets that will give everyone an afternoon energy-boost.
Our favorite store was the Pioneer Emporium and Virginia City Hat Maker. Dashing young Frenchman Pascal Baboulin fabricates wonderful made-to-order hats. It’s fun to watch this elegant craftsman at work, and his adorable bilingual tots are frequently on the scene.
There’s plenty of snacks, ice cream also good dining at Del Rio, a Mexican place; the Firehouse BBQ and for a night out, at The Cider Factory in Edith Palmer’s Country Inn.
Time Travel Overnight in Virginia City
Viriginia City is especially popular for weekends, so you’ll have to book ahead in most seasons. We had a fun stay at the Sugarloaf Mountain Motel, a baby blue string of attached cabin rooms at the quieter end of town. Simple and rustic, its convenience and friendly owners help it stand out from a dozen other roadside motels.
The Gold Hill Hotel claims to be the oldest hotel in the state and its location near the Ponderosa Mine seems to verify that. It offers cozy rooms and spacious but simple cabins just a mile outside of town. There is an excellent restaurant on the premises.
To plan your family’s “step back in time,” go to Visit Virginia City NV.
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