You know those places in America that you stumble upon randomly and you can’t help but wonder, “Why haven’t I been here before?” You get those “I really like this place” feels from the moment you arrive, and then it just keeps getting better? Those places that feel like a second home, almost instantly?
Carson Valley, Nevada is one of those places.
We just spent two incredible days exploring this beautiful valley, and we can’t believe it wasn’t on our radar until now. Being only 30 minutes from Lake Tahoe, and 40 minutes from Reno, we’ve driven past (or even through) Carson Valley numerous times, and never even knew what we were missing!
Carson Valley is rugged yet refined, history-filled yet up-and-coming, easy to get to yet remote, safe yet thrilling. Heck, Carson Valley is downright legendary. Here’s why:
THERE’S WILD HORSES. ENOUGH SAID.
Yep. You read that right. Wild horses. We had the opportunity to spend one morning with Carson Valley’s famous photographer and wildlife expert JT Humphrey, tracking down the wild horses and getting an up-close look at these surprisingly complex and downright fascinating creatures.
JT picked us up at our hotel (side note: we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Minden, which was clean, convenient, and served a delicious hot breakfast in the morning - AND they’re dog friendly), and we hopped in JT’s truck for a roughly 3-hour escapade.
As we made our way to the wide, mountainous land that the horses call home, JT shared more about the unique characteristics that wild horses possess - and why keeping horses truly wild is so important.
As people continue to make more and more demands for livestock and human use, the amount of wild horses has vastly decreased. In Carson Valley, they have around 100 or so wild horses, and you better believe that JT knows them all by name. Sure enough, we saw Zorro, Red, Blondie, and many, many more. We learned that wild horses group themselves in different herds (or “bands”), typically led by a dominant stallion.
The drama and politics and tension between these bands is enough to make your head spin (and to take up an entire blog post), so we won’t get into details. But it’s absolutely captivating, and JT is truly a legend. Add this to your bucket list.
CUISINE FIT FOR A KING… OR A COWBOY!
Because there’s so much to see in this scenic valley, we’re guessing people don’t head to Carson Valley solely for the food. But you could!! It’s safe to say we ate our way through the valley and we thoroughly enjoyed everything we tried. The restaurants and cafes in Carson Valley served dishes that were not only packed with flavor, but the places were packed with history, charm - and cowboys, too!
+ JT Basque Bar & Dining Room: Unlimited soup, bread, salad, french fries, red wine, entree of your choice, dessert… Basque food is the BEST. And this iconic (and historic) restaurant excels at it! They’ve been serving award-winning Basque food since 1955… and from the atmosphere to the service, the experience is still as authentic as ever!
+ The Pink House: Built in 1855 (and listed in the National Register of Historic Places), this charming restaurant serves a seasonal menu filled with fresh hors d'oeuvres, charcuterie plates, rotating entrees, and more. Grab a seat on their wrap-around patio, order a bottle of wine and few plates to share, and you’ve got the makings of a perfect afternoon!
+ Overland Restaurant & Pub: The latest prodigy from acclaimed chef Mark Estee, this neighborhood smokehouse is old-school country western with a modern flair, and we dig it. Order their Smoked BBQ Platter and be prepared to leave with lots of leftovers!
+ Minden Meat & Deli: What at first glance may appear to be your average butcher shop, is actually ANYTHING but average. With 31 craft beers on tap (and hundreds more available), made-to-order burgers and sandwiches, and locally made ice cream, this deli is more like a destination! Whether you grab a seat outside or sit at the bar, you’re sure to make a friend or two. And you might even meet a cowboy!
SPEAKING OF COWBOYS, THEY KNOW HOW TO DRINK!
You can tell a lot about a place by sitting down at a local’s spot and having a drink. One of our favorite pastimes when we’re traveling (or when we’re home) is finding a good happy hour, striking up conversations with the people around us, and learning more about the place we’re in from a local’s perspective. We did this twice during our stay in Carson Valley, and we learned so much! Not to mention, the drinks were awesome. ;)
+ The Corner Bar: When the weather is warm, and the sun is just beginning to set, this is where you want to be! While the inside is quaint and enjoyable, we fell in love with the outdoor seating at this neighborhood hotspot - and their happy hour deals are the best in town! (Our bill was $6.50 for TWO drinks!!)
+ Genoa Bar: You can’t beat the ambiance here, or the fact that it’s the “Oldest thirst parlor in Nevada”! Dating back to the 1850’s, this historical drinking establishment has seen its share of legends pass through their doors - everyone from Clark Gable to Theodore Roosevelt! If only these walls could talk! Our Genoa Bar recommendation? Order a cold one, sit back, and get to know the people sitting around you… Chances are they have stories to tell, too!
THE SCENERY IS STUNNING
It goes without saying that Carson Valley is beautiful. The snow capped mountains, lush, green fields, towering pine trees, wild horses (we will never get over them!) - it’s all so picturesque! We wanted to see as much of the valley as we could, so we did two epic excursions to give us a “birds eye view”, starting with:
+ The Genoa Loop Trail: Not only does this 8.2 mile trail provides jaw-dropping views of the Carson Valley, but there’s even a waterfall! You climb through several switchbacks, cross over glistening streams, and marvel at how high this hike can take you! But if you’re itching to go even higher...
+ Glider Rides: The most epic, thrilling, and exhilarating way to see the Carson Valley (in our opinion) is on a glider ride with the friendly folks at Soaring Nevada! You’ll fly more than 3,000 feet above the ground in an engine-free glider. It’s surprisingly peaceful and smooth, and the views are absolutely spectacular. We flew over mountains, the many quaint towns of Carson Valley, even over Lake Tahoe! It was a ride we will NEVER forget.
AND THE TOWNS ARE QUAINT
Genoa, Minden, and Gardnerville - three lovely towns in Carson Valley, each with their own personality and quirks. We found ourselves hopping around the different towns throughout the day, as they’re all extremely close and easy to get to.
+ Gardnerville: Downtown Gardnerville had us from the moment we arrived, with their old brick buildings and their colorful flower baskets lining the Main Street. There’s restaurants, antique shops, and galleries a-plenty, and we can only imagine how cute it is at Christmas. We might need to come back for that… ;)
+ Minden: Located right next to Gardnerville is the town of Minden, where adults can tour (and taste) some of the finest spirits in Nevada at the brand new Bently Distillery. (Unfortunately it was closed the days we were there, but it’s on our list for when we go back!) Kids can cool off (and get their wiggles out) at Minden Park’s new Splash Pad - and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t contemplate jumping in too!
+ Genoa: Nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada Range (and just seven miles away from Minden) is the historic - and adorable - town of Genoa. Known as “Nevada’s Oldest Town”, Minden is just as charming and picture-perfect as you would imagine, with quaint buildings and pretty parks, all with a distinctly country-western feel. It’s like something out of a movie!
+ Topaz Lake: While we drove through and briefly saw Topaz Lake, we didn’t get a chance to spend much time there. However, this is another beautiful part of the Carson Valley, and we’re planning to stop for some fishing and paddle boarding (without Sally) on our next visit.
Next time you’re roadtripping to Tahoe (or beyond), carve some time out of your drive for Carson Valley. Chase wild horses with JT, grab some mouthwatering sandwiches at Minden Meat and Deli, glide through the sky with Soaring NV, and have a drink (or two) at Genoa Bar…
Or keep it simple! Hike, relax, and enjoy the natural beauty that the valley has to offer. Whatever you do, we promise your time in Carson Valley will be nothing short of legendary.