On our recent road trip up Highway 395, we extended our normal trip right out of California and on into Northern Nevada. This area north of the border and south of the state capital is known as Carson Valley. It’s tagline says it’s “Rugged, Relaxing and Reachable” which we found to be totally true. In addition to stunning snow-capped mountains and majestic horses roaming wild and free, there was an amazing array of restaurants serving up delicious, modern food that would hold its own in any big city in America.
Read on for our favorite things to do in Carson Valley as well as the best places to eat during your visit.
Where is Carson Valley?
Carson Valley is the area between the Sierra Nevada range and the Great Basin high desert. Carson Valley includes the towns of Genoa, Minden and Gardnerville as well as Topaz Lake to the south. However, in general the entire area is often just called Carson Valley.
The valley is surrounded by mountains that are often snow-capped providing gorgeous views no matter where you turn. And as a bonus, just over those snowy mountains is Lake Tahoe, just a 20 minute drive from Carson Valley.
During our visit in the late fall, the weather was pleasant with cool mornings and evenings and bright sunny days, making this a perfect destination for much of the year! Water sports in the summer are nearby at Topaz Lake and winter sports over the mountain in the winter with everything else you can imagine the rest of the year!
Check out SierraSafely for more information on how to experience Carson Valley during COVID, including a trail list with various businesses and activities to safely explore on your visit.
Top Things to Do in Carson Valley
Walk Around River Fork Ranch Nature Conservatory
A great place for a morning walk to spot wildlife is the River Fork Ranch Nature Conservatory. The Interpretation center isn’t open right now during COVID, but miles of trails are available for exploring. During our morning visit we saw golden eagles, a variety of birds and little critters around the river. Cool fact about the area – the nature preserve is also a working cattle operation that also supports the wildlife population in the area!
Tip: Sound like a local and pronounce Genoa correctly – “genoah” or as my son says Geknow you know.
Tour Genoa, the Oldest Settlement in Nevada
Genoa is said to be the oldest settlement in Nevada and is the perfect visit for an introduction into Nevada history. Our one day itinerary for Genoa includes: learning about Snowshoe Thompson, exploring the Mormon Station State Park Museum, grabbing a beer at the oldest saloon around and eating some goodies at the local Italian eatery.
We LOVED our time exploring Genoa. We learned about the Pony Express and Snowshoe Thompson’s role in this part of history as well as seeing artifacts from way back when in the small Mormon Station Museum. But the best of all was our stop in at Sierra Chef. This local cafe is owned by a descendant of the Ferris family (yep, the ones who invented the Ferris Wheel!). Here you can get a delicious affogato, homemade pastries or even lunch while also shopping around for unique gifts for the foodies in your life. A must visit on any stop in Genoa!
Before you head out, have a drink at the oldest “thirst” station in Nevada, the Genoa Bar.
Explore the Valley for Wild Horses
One of the best things to do while visiting Carson Valley is to go off roading in the local mountains in search of wild horses. One of the few areas of the US that still allow roaming wild horses, this is the place to experience it. We went on a half day tour with Carson Valley Tours who picked us up bright and early for our adventure.
It was so fun to feel like we were on safari again – this time looking for the majestic mustangs of Americana. Dwyane our guide, was world class. He knew so much about the history of the area and answered all of the questions my son could come up with! He’s definitely a great resource of knowledge about the area, it’s history and of course where to find the horses!
& Search for Birds of Prey Near Minden
As part of our wild horse tour, we also went in search of birds of prey near Minden. This was such a fun expedition. My son is in love with birds of prey and was so excited to learn more about all the birds we had been spotting even on our own before the tour. The area of Carson Valley is known to birders as a great place to spy out some really great birds during the fall season. From the elusive golden eagles to bald eagles to barn owls and more, we adventured around in search of the best photo spots of the coolest birds! This may not be the best excursion for all kids, but those who love birds will have a ball. In addition to Carson Valley Tours, another great option to check out is with JT’s Wildlife Photography tours.
Hike the Fay Luther Trail
No matter where we find ourselves we always have to get out on the local trails for a little outdoor recreation. Here in Carson Valley, the best trail for visitors and locals alike (including those on horseback!) is the Fay Luther Trail system. With a network of almost 9 miles of trails, you are sure to find something for everyone. We connected several different loops including the Interpretive Trail and other one way trails to create our own 3.5 mile hike. With a gurgling creek at some points and epic views other portions, this was a fun trail to explore while in town.
Carson Valley Museum & Cultural Center
A must stop on any visit to Carson Valley is the adorable Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center. This museum offers a great overview of the area from its inception. As homeschoolers, this was a great place for us to get a visual on the Emigrant route into California, see exhibits on the Indian groups that called this area home as well as more modern day inventions that are still very old to my 10 year old! Think old time refrigerators, washing machines and more. This free museum is worth a quick visit to get the lay of the land and to get more information from the visitor center on things to do in the valley.
Did you know? Spanish and French Basques people roamed this area as sheepherders and later settled as restaurant owners, continuing to play an important role in the history of this region.
Dangberg Home Ranch
One of the more unique stops in Carson Valley is the Dangberg Ranch. This was once the home of Carson Valley’s most prominent family. On our tour with Dwayne at Carson Valley Tours he regaled us with stories of the family and their history in the valley. If you visit the ranch during non-COVID times, do take a the historical tour which will help you understand more about the valley and how it came to be. Otherwise, pop in for a quick visit and if you happen to run into the few employees, have a chat to learn a bit more. If no one is around, there are informative sign boards around the property to guide you.
Ride Horses in Gardnerville
We didn’t have time during our visit to Carson Valley to ride horses, but I checked out a few options and we had Sheridan Horse Stables on our list. They offer trail rides as well as lessons for kids and families. If you have some time and want more time with horses, this is a great family friendly activity for your itinerary. Otherwise, for the grown ups, make sure to take a stroll around the historic area of Gardnerville and pop in the various boutique and antique shops in town.
Where to Stay in Carson Valley
As many people are just driving through this beautiful area, there aren’t a ton of options on places to stay. That said, the few options that do exist are great choices for families and for those without kids. During our visit we stayed at the well positioned Holiday Inn Express & Suites that was conveniently located right off the 395.
Some other great options to explore include:
- Carson Valley Inn – located in Minden off Hwy 395, this hotel/casino is a popular spot for locals and visitors!
- David Walley’s Resort (Holiday Inn Club Vacations) – located off the beaten path a bit with views of the Sierra Mountain Range. The resort has hot springs, luxury surroundings and more!
- The White House Inn – This lovely little place located in Genoa offers beauty in a historical space!
Regardless of where you stay, you can count on COVID safe options such as cleaning services only on request, masks worn indoors, limited buffet options and more.
Where to Eat in Carson Valley
There are surprisingly a great number of places to eat in Carson Valley that are well worth stopping in for. Below are some of the places we checked out on our visit and would highly recommend!
This adorable coffee shop/ cafe is the perfect spot for lunch in Genoa. Get an Italian Creme Soda for sure to sip with your soup and sandwiches. If you have room, try an affogato which is espresso and gelato. It’s delicious!! If you aren’t ready for lunch, there are plenty of great pastries as well as cool foodie gift items.
Minden Meat & Deli
The Minden Meat and Deli is a cute family owned business specializing in craft beers, tri-tip sandwiches and made to order sandwiches. Inside they also have a great selection of artisan cheeses, meats and crackers to purchase for your own little picnic! Outdoor patio dining is also available.
We loved Cook’D. While they didn’t have a patio open during our visit, they do have several different rooms making social distancing much easier than many other indoor restaurants. My son and I were able to eat in the middle dining room all on our own. The food was amazing. There are also TVs to watch sports in the back bar area. The food ranges from excellent pizzas to homemade Italian dishes and American favorites like hamburgers and tacos. Make sure to order the cinnamon roll with ice cream for dessert.
This is a locals favorite. Cafe Girasole offers delicious sandwiches and soups, wraps and more. The adorable cafe offers indoor and outdoor seating with amazingly friendly staff! We loved the Thai wrap and Turkey brie sandwich. Yum!
Overland Restaurant & Pub
Locally sourced food in a large warehouse type building oozing with character. The high ceilings and spacious surroundings are perfect for socially distanced indoor meals. And the food is to die for! We ordered a selection of favorites from Pork Belly Mac n Cheese to roasted brussel sprouts. Everything was delicious.
Looking for more articles on your trip to Nevada?
If you are extending your trip up Hwy 395 to Carson City, we have you covered on the best things to do in Carson City as well as the surrounding area.
If Tahoe is your destination, there are a ton of great ideas for things to do in Lake Tahoe for all seasons!
For those in southern Nevada, check out these great nature escapes outside of Las Vegas.
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