A leisurely drive through Washoe Valley
One of the best things about driving from Carson City to Reno is taking the time to jump off U.S. 395 and travel on Old U.S. 395 (also called Bowers Mansion Road) through Washoe Valley.
The eight-mile stretch from just below Lakeview (the hill at the north end of Carson City) to the rise at the northern end of Little Washoe Lake is one of the most scenic in Western Nevada.
So, while you could race on U.S. 395 through the middle of the valley, a far more leisurely and enjoyable trip can be found by along the west side of the valley.
To take this route, head north of Carson City on U.S. 395, then turn off on East Lake Boulevard (exit 44) and follow what some still refer to as Old U.S. 395.
Life immediately becomes less harried on the old highway, which now serves as a parallel frontage road. Rather than competing on the 395 speedway, this road encourages more casual travel.
As you drive along you begin to notice things such as the fact that Washoe Valley serves as transitional zone between the dry, high desert country that includes most of the state and the greener, more wooded eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Range.
To the west is Slide Mountain, which at 9,694-feet is the tallest peak in this portion of the Sierra Nevada range while the eastern side is bordered by the Virginia Range.
You can also see traces of a rural Nevada lifestyle that is rapidly disappearing in the northwestern part of the state as a result of increasing urbanization. A flock of sheep graze in a grassy field while a little farther up the road is a sprawling ranch with acres of fertile grassland and a half dozen horses huddled under a shade tree.
At about the three-mile point, you reach Franktown Road, a worthwhile side trip. Turn left and you will notice how the surroundings change even more dramatically. You leave the openness of the valley and drive through clusters of tall pine trees. Even the air feels cooler.
Ranches here seem to have more ostentatious names and the livestock becomes more exotic with some of the ranches raising Arabian horses and llama.
The homes also grow more impressive. Hidden among the tall trees are massive Tudor and Edwardian castles, sprawling country estates, and, in one case, a modern glass and wood monolith that boasts an entire wall of windows overlooking the valley and, inexplicably, a large statue of a Chinese lion.
It was also in Franktown, in the early 1920s, that western writer and illustrator Will James built a comfortable four-room cabin on five acres. During his four years living in Washoe Valley, James wrote many of his most famous books including “Smoky, the Cowhorse” and “Cowboys North and South.”
The Franktown area was one of the first to be settled in Nevada. In the early 1850s, Mormon pioneers established farms in the foothills. Within three years, a small community was laid out, which included one of the region’s first sawmills.
In the late 1850s, most of the Mormon settlers returned to Utah during a dispute between the church and the U.S. Government. Their lands were acquired, sometimes illegally, by the non-Mormon residents of Nevada that remained behind.
A large stamp mill was built in Franktown to process the gold and silver ore that had been discovered in nearby Virginia City. However, by the mid-1860s, the mine owners decided to shift ore-processing operations closer to the mines and the facility was dismantled.
Within a few years, most of the commercial development associated with Franktown disappeared and the area assumed the pastoral agricultural identity that it largely retains today.
Franktown Road rejoins the old highway after a five-mile loop. A state historical marker located near the intersection provides a brief but interesting history of Franktown.
About a mile from the Franktown intersection is Bowers Mansion. This impressive two-story building was built in 1864 by Lemuel S. “Sandy” Bowers and his wife, Eilley Orrum Bowers, who were among the first millionaires created by the fabulous mining wealth in Virginia City.
As if to compensate for their humble beginnings — Sandy Bowers was an illiterate Scottish prospector and his wife a former boardinghouse keeper — the Bowers’ furnished the mansion with the finest European furniture and art collected during several trips abroad.
Sandy died a few years after the house was built and Eilley continued to live there, even after the money ran out. Ultimately, she was forced to sell the mansion and return to Virginia City, where she was forced to eke out a living by telling fortunes.
The mansion was eventually sold to Washoe County, which developed a recreational complex around the house (which is open for tours) that includes a geothermal swimming pool, picnic areas, volleyball courts, and horseshoe pits.
A little farther up the road is another historical marker detailing the history of another of Washoe Valley’s ghosts, the community of Ophir. Today, all that remains of Ophir are stone walls adjacent to Washoe Lake.
From here, the road continues another mile or so before reconnecting with U.S. 395 and ending — far too quickly—this picturesque journey.
Rich Moreno covers the history of Nevada.