Beauty in the Sierras

Vanessa Day

When was the last time a destination surprised you? I was eager to revisit a place that exceeded my expectations: Reno-Tahoe.

The Reno City Plaza was empty on a cool Monday morning in January, and I had the place to myself, free to admire a sculpture that stood tall against the blue-gray sky—seven steel structures rising 12 feet high, with hundreds of perfect bird shapes laser cut into the metal, the letters spelling one word: Believe.

The sculpture got me believing in the beauty of Reno-Tahoe, whose leaders are working hard to move the area beyond the familiar slot-machine rattle and neon lights of historic casinos. The sculpture in front of me is a piece of that venture. It adds to other elements throughout the area, from the homages to Reno-Tahoe’s past, to the contemporary touches framed by the dramatic Sierra Nevada mountains and turquoise-blue waters of Lake Tahoe.

Artistic excellence

Sculptures from the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada’s Black Rock Desert—“Believe” from 2013—have found a new home along the Playa Art Trail in Reno. Courtesy of

Reno purchased the Believe sculpture, created by artist Laura Kimpton, after she unveiled it at Burning Man in 2013. The annual festival, dedicated to self-expression and revitalization, takes place every year in the Black Rock Desert and is the largest venue for interactive art installations in the world. Reno so fully embraces the event that the city is called the “Gateway” to Burning Man.

Pieces from the festival are sprinkled throughout the city, adding new color and character to the streets, while still managing to complement the neon signs that have decorated Reno for years. A few blocks from Reno Plaza is Reno Playa Art Park, where several Burning Man installations are on display. This once empty plot of land now serves as a free open-air exhibit and an aesthetically pleasing playground. Along the Truckee River, I discovered a flowering tower of steel called the Portal of Evolution. The massive yet delicate butterfly atop the metal cocoon revolves slowly in the wind while the metal enclosures at the base encourage guests to step inside and become part of the experience.

The official Playa Art Trail leads visitors to all of the Burning Man sculptures—permanent and temporary—providing a compelling introduction to Reno’s public art scene and the beautification efforts throughout the region.

Culture and cuisine

Sculptures from the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada’s Black Rock Desert—“Space Whale” from 2016—have found a new home along the Playa Art Trail in Reno. Courtesy of VisitRenoTahoe

While the creative, large-scale pieces of Burning Man have brought new life to the city, the booming culinary scene has certainly lit a fire in Reno-Tahoe. I consider myself a foodie, and Reno-Tahoe supremely satisfied my palate everywhere I went.

During my visit, I had the privilege to dine at a Reno classic: the AAA Two Diamond-rated Louis Basque Corner. The Basque people originate from a tiny region in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. They immigrated to the United States and settled in Nevada and Idaho, where their culture has been fully embraced and openly shared with visitors.

Awaiting us at the bar was a Basque cocktail and the signature drink of Nevada—the Picon, made with Amer Picon, grenadine, club soda, brandy, and lemon peel.

We took our drinks and sat at a long table with a checkered tablecloth, our eyes widening as plates of food arrived, one after another: hefty entries, like top sirloin steak, roast leg of lamb and filet mignon, plus the soup of the day (we enjoyed a chorizo, spinach and potato mixture that I could not stop eating), French bread, salad, Basque beans, dessert, and a glass of house wine.

Up the road from this culinary gem is a more modern eatery. The Depot is housed in a building that served as the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad Depot for decades, welcoming locomotives from all over the country to Reno. Today, it’s been refurbished into a brewery, distillery and restaurant. It brews up some well-developed beers, while also serving fun spins on comfort foods like cornbread fritters and mac & cheese bites.

Something else I learned about Reno is that you can get all-you-can-eat sushi practically anywhere. One of the best places in town happened to be in my own hotel, the AAA Four Diamond-rated Peppermill Resort and Casino. This place is known for having some of the best restaurants around, and none of them are chains. I dined at the AAA Two Diamond-rated Oceano, where unlimited rolls of spicy tuna, soft shell crab, yellowtail, and tempura shrimp landed on our table until our stomachs could take no more.

The gastronomic adventure didn’t end when I left Reno. In South Lake Tahoe, renowned eateries are all over town. I savored traditional Italian fare, followed by a hilarious magic act at The Loft, an entertainment venue and restaurant. On my last night in town, I toured Ski Run Boulevard, a popular roadway where you can find some of the best restaurants in town. We started the night with coconut-crusted tofu and lamb tostadas at Blue Angel Café, then drank with a famous Wet Woody frothy cocktail at Riva Grill and finished with an ice cream dessert at the AAA Three Diamond-rated Café Fiore Ristorante Italiano.


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Outdoor adventures

I didn’t come to Lake Tahoe just for the food—though it was a nice bonus. Reno-Tahoe is renowned for its stunning landscapes and mountain views, especially the ones overlooking the stretches of bright blue water. The region is also a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Tahoe has the highest concentration of ski resorts in the country, and most are a quick drive from Reno, making it convenient to experience several in one visit. I spent my time at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe. My home for two nights was the elegant Edgewood Tahoe Resort Hotel, located right on the water and a short shuttle ride from Heavenly Village. After a warm welcome that included a glass of Champagne, I strolled through the spacious lobby decorated with modern wooden accents and headed outside to get a look at the heated pool and firepits. I knew where I would be soaking my muscles after a day on the mountain. I settled into my room for a relaxing evening, lounging in front of an in-room fireplace and taking in the sunset from the cozy attached patio.

The next morning, I grabbed my snowboard gear and met my mountain guide at the top of the mountain. We spent the morning carving the slopes and taking in those million-dollar views of Lake Tahoe. I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life, and mountain scenery is nothing new for me, but that shimmering lake at the base of the Sierras was nothing short of breathtaking.

Even if you don’t ski or snowboard, there are plenty of other activities to enjoy at Heavenly and South Lake Tahoe. An impressive tubing hill, located at the top of the Gondola, was filled with families and young kids laughing as they raced down the 500-foot runs. Down in the village, groups of people glided around an open-air skating rink, while others browsed the many stores and galleries.

There are several other ski resorts to visit around Lake Tahoe, and many of them provide special offers or discounts to visiting skiers and riders. Visitors who show their boarding pass at the ticket window can get a free pass at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics; or they can grab a discounted ticket at Mt. Rose – Ski Tahoe. Reno-Tahoe is not limited to skiing, and there’s so much more people can do here. I would have loved to snowshoe along Chickadee Ridge, watching as the colorful birds ate seeds from my hands; or attempted to scale the largest outdoor climbing wall in the country at the AAA Three Diamond-rated Whitney Peak Hotel in Reno. I guess I’ll save those activities for next time.

Historic treasures

A 1932 Lincoln is parked outside the Palace Theater within The National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection), located in Reno, Nev. Courtesy of

Between sampling local delicacies and tackling the slopes, I did manage to discover some of Reno-Tahoe’s significant landmarks. A 45-minute drive from Reno took me to the old hillside mining town of Virginia City, dubbed the richest city in the world. It got that moniker from the silver boom in the 19th century. It looks and feels like you’re in the Old West. The buildings and boardwalk sidewalks exude that mining-town atmosphere.

The trolley car tour takes you up and down the main streets, pointing out significant structures and locations that played a role in Virginia City’s rise and fall. The tale of how it was named is quite interesting. Legend has it that when James Fennimore, “Old Virginny Finney,” tripped and broke a bottle of whiskey on Gold Hill, he christened the spot Virginia City. A fitting beginning to a city that, at one point in history, became home to almost 100 bars. Today, Virginia City is a living history museum dedicated to telling the story of Nevada’s mining industry.

When I ventured down to Carson City, Nevada’s capital, I found even more attractions linked to the region’s excavation history. The Nevada State Museum built a replica of a silver mine, giving guests a glimpse of what it was like to walk through the dimly lit tunnels. After emerging from the exhibit, I proceeded through several more rooms collecting tidbits of Nevada information.

I had no idea Nevada was the divorce capital of the country for many years thanks to its lenient laws and quick legal process; or that the state is home to the most ghost towns in the U.S. Several old casino and gambling artifacts are on display, along with rare firearms, a skeleton of a Columbian mammoth found in the Black Rock Desert, and the formidable Coin Press No. 1. If you take a behind-the-scenes tour, you’ll get a glimpse of the museum’s Native American basketry storage vault, where intricate pieces crafted by women of the Washoe Tribe are stored in a climate-controlled environment.

The Nevada State Railroad Museum, also in Carson City, boasts one of the largest collections of rail cars in the country, many of which were used to connect the east and west. These engines brought people to the region, expanding the population and the economy, helping Reno-Tahoe develop into a booming metropolis and gambling capital.

One of the pioneers of the gaming world, Bill Harrah, of Harrah’s Hotels and Casinos fame, spent some of his wealth on an impressive automobile collection. The National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection), located in Reno, houses more than 200 vehicles, 175 of which belonged to Harrah. The museum is a AAA GEM—Great Experience for Members. I explored the exhibit rooms at my leisure but guided and audio tours are available. Each room showcases cars from different periods throughout automotive history. I’m not an automotive expert, but I couldn’t help but be enthralled by these delicately detailed machines.

Too few days

As I drove to the Reno-Tahoe airport, I saw Reno Star, another Burning Man sculpture, that resembles high-desert plants found in northern Nevada—the statue serving as a reminder that there is more to Reno-Tahoe than I had expected, more than I had time to experience. I’ll be back soon, because I Believe Reno-Tahoe will inspire me anew.

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AAA in the community

Since 2014, AAA employee volunteers have helped beautify some of Lake Tahoe’s most scenic beaches. Working with the League to Save Lake Tahoe (known for its “Keep Tahoe Blue” slogan) and the State of Nevada, dedicated volunteers devote hours to picking up litter. These seasonal cleanup activities often remove hundreds of pounds of waste in a single outing, helping preserve Lake Tahoe’s natural beauty for millions of annual visitors. This year’s volunteer effort removed debris from Sand Harbor, one of the most magnificent locations on the lake’s North Shore.

AAA Connection

Visit and search for AAA-rated lodging, dining and GEM (Great Experience for Members) attractions in Reno-Tahoe, or visit a Travel Agent at any of AAA Colorado’s 11 retail locations.

Vanessa Day is a Denver-based freelance travel writer and blogger. She has worked in the travel industry for almost 10 years, including her time with AAA Colorado, and has visited 30 countries