First things first: If you're visiting the 36th state in the Union, when you pronounce the name Nevada, that first "a" is short and sweet; stretching it out like you're saying "ah" for a doctor with a tongue depressor ("Ne-vahhhh-duh") is as unfortunate a mistake as assuming the only thing to see here is that infamous gambling mecca, Las Vegas. With vast stretches of moon-like desert, mountain peeks topping 13,000 feet, the turquoise beauty of Lake Tahoe, and an endless carpet of lush sagebrush in the east, Nevada offers a neverland of natural beauty and vacation possibilities beyond that of the craps table. Although, to be fair, Vegas has made great strides in shaking off its old shotgun wedding, dice-tossing rep. In fact, it may be as well known lately for its incredible dining scene boasting some of the biggest names in the culinary world, like Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Attracting outsiders, though, is how it all began. Nevada was originally Mexican territory, but early on, westward-bound settlers realized nabbing it for the expanding U.S. territories could prove a profitable (if bloody) endeavor. After the Mexican-American War in the mid-19th century, Nevada was on its way to statehood, which occurred during the American Civil War. Rich with silver, gold, and lead (the latter is still mined today), it became a prospector's paradise, and Virginia City became the most popular site in the state during the gold and silver mining boom. Silver and gold weren't the only currency, though -- multiple-colored gambling chips became more than simply a way to pass the time. In fact, gambling became such a big distraction that Nevada outlawed it in 1909. That ban didn't sit well with folks in the state, for both recreational and economic reasons. When the Great Depression as an impetus, gambling was legally reinstated in 1931. That, coupled with the start of construction on the Hoover Dam during the same year, brought much-needed cash and commerce into the state.
An odd fact of Nevada is that, despite its enjoyment of one of the largest growth spurts in the nation, over 80% of it is owned by the federal government because, in accordance with the Homestead Act of 1862, much of the land is desert -- the Great Basin Desert in the north and the Mojave Desert surrounding Las Vegas in the south. The Feds took advantage of this massive amount of open space to perform nuclear testing, a practice that was in effect until 1992. What remains in the soil is dubious, but what has been left behind is the Atomic Testing Museum, 755 Flamingo Rd., Las Vegas (tel. 702/794-5161; www.atomictestingmuseum.org), which chronicles Nevada's nuclear history through artifacts, film, and first-person narratives.
More heartening and far less scary, though, is the scenery of Nevada's byways, like Red Rock Canyon, the Great Basin, Angel Lake, and the Valley of Fire, which show some of the prettiest examples of Mother Nature's fine handiwork in the form of jutting red rocks, snow-dappled peaks, and rivers that run through much of it that are perfect for canoeing or just dipping a toe in after a long bike excursion.