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SAGEBRUSH SALOONS

Nevada’s backcountry bars offer history and a whole lot of local flavor.

WRITTEN BY SYDNEY MARTINEZ
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JEFF ROSS AND SYDNEY MARTINEZ

Drinks 353 mm fl

Every great place offers compelling experiences in nature, exceptional dining establishments, and fascinating history. Nevada has an abundance of spots with these attributes, along with another fabulous feature: an intense preponderance of good, old-fashioned saloons. Why? Early pioneers and mining. There’s nothing like caravanning 40 miles a day or slinging a pickaxe for hours on end to make you want to throw back a frosty beverage, or six.

While many boomtowns have come and gone, pockets of Nevada’s alluring, rough-and-tumble past have remained in backcountry saloons peppered throughout the state. A sense of unwavering hardiness emanates from every pool table, red oil lamp, and crevice in the weathered wooden bar counters.

Lucky for us, the saloons have endured so that we can luxuriate in living, breathing, tangible pieces of history. Genoa Bar & Saloon in Genoa is no exception. In fact, she’s the crown jewel, the ringleader of them all. Why, you ask? Perched in the heart of Nevada’s oldest settlement, Genoa Bar is a whopping 163 years old. This means she’s the oldest saloon in The Silver State and has some seriously cool anecdotes to prove it. At these back-road saloons, you often won’t find craft cocktails or even signature drinks. That said, a few spots offer tasty beverages you should sip as you journey through their history. For instance, at Genoa Bar, do yourself a favor and order one of the tasty Bloody Marys right quick.

Nevada’s first saloon

The town of Genoa sprung to life after a handful of Mormon missionaries staked their claim to the area in 1851. It wasn’t long until a multitude of businesses popped up that made the settlement an official town, including a church, community center, and, in true Nevada fashion, a saloon.

The building you see before you today was erected in 1853 as Livingston’s Exchange, which operated as a gentleman’s saloon. It maintained first-class standards, which included serving fine wines, liquors, and cigars. The bar changed hands a few times throughout the next 140 years (12 owners, to be exact), until Willy and Cindy Webb purchased Genoa Bar in 2000. The kicker? Willy bought the bar with a small group of friends, completely sight unseen.

“It was a lot of money for us at the time, and I didn’t know anything about bars,” Webb says, laughing. “I’d built them throughout my career as a carpenter, but I didn’t know much about running them. It was a real roll of the dice.”

Before stepping away from carpentry entirely, Willy leaned on the owners of other Nevada greats, such as Virginia City’s Bucket of Blood Saloon, to learn the tools of the trade.

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Star status

Genoa Bar, also known as Genoa Thirst Parlor, certainly oozes an infectious Wild West vibe, but through the years it has drawn bikers and golfers and is what Willy considers to be a cowboy bar. The vibe at Genoa Bar is so perfect, in fact, that countless movies and commercials have been filmed here, including John Wayne’s The Shootist and Stephen King’s Misery. A handful of U.S. presidents, actors, and musicians have stepped through the saloon’s legendary threshold, too.

Some celebrities even have been compelled to leave behind personal articles to mark their visitation, such as Raquel Welch, who donated her leopard print bra under one condition: that all the other brassieres hanging throughout the saloon be taken down. In addition, Willie Nelson left his hat dangling from a pair of antlers. Plus, Webb says Genoa Bar is a pretty good place to fly under the radar.

“Clint Eastwood came in here and sat at the end of the bar for hours a couple years back,” he says, “and he was completely unrecognized for the entirety of his stay.”

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Notable antiques

Of all the décor the diamond dust mirror, which prominently is displayed behind the original bar counter, is Webb’s favorite artifact.

“There are so many things in this place worth talking about, but the diamond dust mirror is one of the largest and rarest of its kind, as far as I know,” Webb says.

This gigantic mirror originally was shipped from Glasgow, Scotland, in the late 1840s “around the horn” and through what would later become the Panama Canal.

“The bartender will shine a light in the reflective glass where you can see actual dust from diamonds,” Webb says. “It’s just incredible.”

Despite having owned the place for the better part of two decades, Webb says it’s difficult to grasp how deeply the history runs at Genoa Bar.

“A few years back a woman came into the bar in her Sunday best,” Webb says. “She had to be over 90, so she, of course, stood out a bit.”

Eventually, the woman called Webb over and said, “My name is Abigail. I worked here when I was 16.”

Instantly fascinated, Webb began to do the math, calculating when she must have worked at the saloon, and finally asked what it was that she did there.

“And in her little-old-lady-grandma voice,” Webb says, laughing, “she said, ‘I was a prostitute!’ I couldn’t believe it. She told me that they used to take men out back to a barn that no longer exists, with bathtub gin they used to distill in the basement. There weren’t any beds, so it was a literal roll in the hay.”

Distance from Reno

56 miles, 1 hour travel time

2282 Main St., Genoa

775-782-3870 • www.Genoabarandsaloon.com 

Loneliest road respite

Another one of Nevada’s iconic bars sits on the Loneliest Road in America: Middlegate Station. Considered to be one of the nation’s last great roadhouses, the joint’s roots stretch back to the 1860s when it served as a changing station for Pony Express riders. It later became a refueling spot for weary pioneers who depended on it as they made their way west. It became Middlegate Station in the 1940s and was an ideal layover for folks traveling Highway 50, the first transcontinental highway in the U.S. Today, it remains a reliable place for travelers to grab frosty mugs of beer and even take a whack at the Middlegate Monster burger challenge (win a T-shirt if you finish the triple-decker, 1-and-1/3-pound Angus beef burger on a sourdough bun with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, pickles, cheese, peppers, and olives, as well as a large pile of fries). Throughout its history, it seems Middlegate Station has had one guiding principle: to deliver some damned good drinks in a no-frills atmosphere. Don’t be surprised to find dollar-bill-lined ceilings, walls chock full of armed forces patches, and some mighty fine conversation with locals. When it comes to specialty drinks at Middlegate Station, take solace in the basics and order up a Miller draft with two olives, also known as the Nevada martini. Then soak up 156 years of history at this storied pit stop.

Distance from Reno

110 miles, 1.75 hours’ travel time

42500 Austin Hwy., Fallon • 775-423-7134

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Best saloon for 100 miles

Life in Kingston slows to a satisfying roll, and Zach’s Lucky Spur couldn’t be a more qualified establishment to set the pace. A mere 100ish folks call Kingston home, which is about a half hour south of Austin on Highway 50. Everything about the Big Smoky Valley is satisfying. The hot springs, Miles End B&B, the reservoir, and backcountry skiing collectively cast a backcountry spell over visitors. But what seals the deal is what Men’s Health magazine considers the “best bar in the middle of nowhere”: Zach’s Lucky Spur. And you’d better believe that this place actually is as good as it sounds.

Here, you can drink in one of the most sweeping views of the Big Smoky while owner Mike Zacharias (aka Zach) himself roosts behind the bar, ushering in guests and slinging beverages until the wee hours. He’s not afraid to pour a stiff drink, but a usual local favorite is Buckaroo Brew. The reason? It’s produced by Ruby Mountain Brewing Co., the longest-standing microbrewery in The Silver State. Zacharias prides his saloon on being a gallery of sorts. Count on seeing walls lined with traps, taxidermied trophy animals bagged in the surrounding Alta Toquimas, and of course, spurs, all of which Zacharias hand selected. At Zach’s Lucky Spur, a minute lasts every bit of 60 seconds and it’s not just about the libation you’re drinking, but the panoramic views and unmatched company, too.

Distance from Reno

203 miles, 3.25 hours’ travel time

306 Kingston Canyon Road, Austin • 775-964-2000

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As a major outdoor enthusiast and all-things-Nevada lover, Sydney Martinez is TravelNevada’s content manager. Since graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno with a photojournalism degree, she often is dubbed a professional tourist as she works to reach the highest peaks, discover hot springs, and teach people how to do Nevada.

RESOURCES

More rustic Nevada stops

Paradise Valley Bar & Grill
Pro tip
Order the Pendleton Water
Distance from Reno
205 miles, 3 hours’ travel time
95 S. Main St., Paradise Valley • 775-578-3090

Gold Hill Hotel & Saloon
Pro tip
Order the Cemetery Gin (produced by Frey Ranch in Fallon)
Distance from Reno
28 miles, 45 minutes’ travel time
1540 S. Main St., Gold Hill • 775-847-0111, www.Goldhillhotel.net 

Jiggs Bar
Pro tip
Order a Twisted Tea
Distance from Reno
322 miles, 4.75 hours’ travel time
Jiggs • 775-744-4311

Dirty Dick’s Belmont Saloon
Pro tip
Order a Coors Original
Distance from Reno
272 miles, 4.5 hours’ travel time
82 Main St., Belmont • 310-779-6004, www.Dirtydicksbelmontsaloon.com 

Outdoor Inn
Pro tip
Order a 7&7 (Seagram’s 7 and 7Up)
Distance from Reno
390 miles, 7 hours’ travel time
Main Street, Jarbidge • 775-488-2311

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