Getting weird in Nevada with art, history, ghosts & clowns

by Jul 29, 2022Nevada


Traveling through Nevada there are a lot of very weird things to see, do and experience. It is a weird state that touts its weirdness with pride. Discover weird Nevada with me as I show you a few odd things you too will want to discover, from ghost towns to painted cars buried in the ground.

Being called “weird” may seem like an insult. Not so for Nevada. It is a state that embraces the moniker of weird, welcomes its weirdness, revels in its weirdness. That’s what makes weird Nevada attractions so entertaining on a road trip. If it’s weird, call it weird. Laugh, shrug, scratch your head, and move on to the next weird wonder. It’s all part of the Nevada travel experience.

I wandered by car through Nevada a few times during and after the COVID pandemic – “distancing” is the norm there with barely 28 people per square mile – and found myself seeking out odd things to see and do, mapping strange things to photograph, and gawking at some oddity that many Nevadans just seemed to accept as “normal” – whatever that is in that wondrous state. This is a state that even boasts the hashtag #weirdnevada to underscore it’s outlying, ode-to-odd character.

Rhyolite Bank Night Photo

The former grandiose bank building in Rhyolite is now but a shell of its former self in what is now a ghost town in Nevada.

Sharing the weird Nevada experience

Wanting to explore a little weirdness yourself? I’ll share. Can’t keep this road trip entertainment to myself. Know, however, that I’m just scratching the surface of strange in Nevada with this list. There is so much more. All of which I intend to explore on future Nevada road trips in search of The Odd and The Wonderful.

To help you find these oddities in Nevada – sometimes seemingly in the middle of nowhere, which can be said about much of the state — I’ll start from the south in and around the Las Vegas area. That makes a few of these weird wonders worth a day trip if you are in Las Vegas or even Death Valley. After that, my tour of weird Nevada will move mostly up through the western side of the state along Interstate 95. By the way, the travel gurus in Nevada call I-95 the “Free Range Art Highway,” which may scintillate your senses for some of what’s to come.

Exploring the weird, whacky, and unusual in Nevada

Lake Mead St Thomas Ghost Town

This building is one of the tallest structures still standing in what was the town of St. Thomas, which was inundated when Hoover Dam was built but is now reappearing.

St. Thomas ghost town – Not officially a ghost town, but I’ll take the liberty of calling it that since there is no soul remaining. As far as I know at least. St. Thomas was a bustling little town for several decades after it was founded by Mormon settlers in 1865. Situated at the confluence of the Muddy and Virgin rivers, the soil was fertile. I won’t go into the other crazy things that happened to St. Thomas, but its demise came in the 1930s when Lake Mead was created behind the new Hoover dam. St. Thomas was flooded. Meaning it wasn’t just deserted like most ghost towns but inundated by water.

Today, with the drought and receding waters, however, the ruins of St. Thomas have come back to life. Today, you can hike about two miles from an overlook in Lake Mead National Recreation area along the former lakebed and wander among the foundations and ruins. The National Park Service has even set up signs that tell you about the former townsite.

To get there: Enter Lake Mead recreation area from Overton, Nev., off 169 (pay park fees, please). A gravel road heads off left from there for about 3.5 miles where it dead ends at an overlook with informational signs. Park and follow the trail to the ruins. The park is closed after dark, but sometimes time gets away from you…. The road to the Lake Mead Overton entrance is about an hour east of Las Vegas.

Primm Bonnie And Clyde Death Car

Bonnie and Clyde gangster death car — Heard of 1930s criminals Bonnie and Clyde? Wanna see their so-called “Death Car?” That would be the gangsters’ bullet-riddled Ford Fordor Deluxe Sedan where they died after a police ambush in 1934. Ok, I got you covered: The car is hidden away in a smoke-filled casino in Primm, Nev., called Whiskey Pete’s (although sometimes the casino group moves it around to the others there, sneaky bit of weirdness). With such a sight, it was a surprise to not find signage out front – or even inside — directing you to the car. OK, this is weird.

There’s an entire display of information about Bonnie and Clyde, and the car is protected behind smudgy glass so you can’t get too close. Try to ignore the tacky mannequins holding fake guns. There are letters in glass cases attesting to this car being the “authentic” death car. And don’t miss Clyde’s alleged “death shirt” with bullet holes and blood stains. Although the car sometimes goes on tour, the gangster mobile riddled with 100 or so bullet holes from an FBI spray of gunfire is normally in Primm (formerly called Stateline because it, yes, sits at the California-Nevada border).

To get there: Primm is south and west of Las Vegas about 45 minutes. Not much there except three casino hotels. Look for Whiskey Pete’s. Take my advice to avoid too much casino craze and go in the doors to the far left of the entrance on the other side of the tram station. From there, walk straight back to the exhibit. It’s at the rear left of the casino floor – if it’s not been moved to the Primm Valley Casino. In that case, you’re on your own.

Primm Nevada Dumont the lion Scared

Dumont the Lion insists he was not scared in Primm, but merely primping inside his little sleeping bag cave. But I suspect he was really hiding until we left Primm.

Primm, Nevada – Now that I’ve mentioned that funky weirdness, above, of the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car, what about where it is? In Primm. This is one strange, contrived place. Not really a city, but an unincorporated area that has no real services except three gigantic casino-hotels, a golf course, an outlet mall, and a roller coaster called “Desperado.” No, really, a roller coaster that threads around and THROUGH the Buffalo Bill casino (sorry, folks, it has been closed since 2020, just as Buffalo Bill’s has been, thanks COVID). I was in Primm for a few days during the pandemic and what struck me is that there are no restaurants, other than in smoky casinos or fast food, and no markets other than convenience stores. I even stayed at one of the casino hotels – not my happiest experience and to be avoided if possible. Carry your own food and gear, as well as plenty of disinfecting wipes. One of my traveling companions, Dumont, the normally very brave lion, pictured above, was a little afraid to come out of his sleeping bag.

Primm is set up so all those gamblers from Southern California can get in their fix an hour closer than Las Vegas. In fact, this odd enclave became reality in the 1990s by entrepreneurs who hoped to rake it in from those Southern California gamblers desperate to pull the arm on a bandit asap. But long story short, there is no there there. Just some rather tacky casino hotels in dire need of upkeep.

To get there: Well, if you must…. Head out Interstate 15 from Los Angeles til you get to the Nevada border. You can’t miss the place rising out of the desert. Go see the Bonnie and Clyde car, then leave. You can always find a room about 45 minutes away in the Las Vegas area.

Amargosa Opera House Death Valley

Amargosa Opera House and Hotel – The weirdest thing about this is that Marta Beckett’s Amargosa Opera House and Hotel is actually in California … by about seven miles. But Nevada still claims it. Anything weird is worth claiming, I guess. There is a sweet, albeit strange story behind this place situated in the middle of what you really could call nowhere: Dancer and artist Marta Beckett wanted to be a star but wasn’t getting the opportunity she wanted.

On tour in 1967, she and her husband went for a drive and found this rundown theater and hotel that had been built for miners in 1923 but abandoned since 1948. Beckett spied it and decided for goodness-knows-whatever-reason that her future was there. They bought it, moved in, did some renovations, then Beckett started doing shows. But being in the middle of a dusty desertscape, there wasn’t always an audience. So, she started painting the walls, as seen in the photo, above, because she wanted the feeling there was a full house. Amargosa Opera House and Hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Beckett gave her last show in 2012 at age 87 – sitting down – and passed away in 2017 at the age of 92.

Amargosa Opera House Hotel Courtyard

Don’t expect landscaped gardens at the Amargosa Hotel: This is the hotel’s front … um … courtyard. There are a couple of picnic tables amidst the desolate landscape.

You can still stay at the Amargosa Hotel, if you dare (there are haunted tales of spirits in the night). I did stay, and it’s not a bad base to explore some eastern areas of Death Valley National Park, although a bit desolate. Or make it a stopover when passing through since it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than any of the Death Valley resorts. Just bring your own grub. Remember, this is a hotel that is nearly crumbling back to the dust it came from, so don’t expect the Ritz. Or even Motel 6. This is not just an old hotel, but one with plaster, wiring, pipes, plumbing and most infrastructure that seems to date back to the ’20s to ‘40s – and it hasn’t been updated but kind of patched together to keep it upright. It is what its quirky self is.

Do take one of the tours into the actual Opera House offered many mornings and evenings. If you want to experience the place overnight, you must book a room in advance since the nonprofit that runs the complex and the 268 acres it sits on only rents about 12 of 24 rooms. And it does sell out most of the time.

To get there: This is another stop when heading up or down I-95 or to or from Death Valley. It is located at so-called Death Valley Junction. But don’t put it off: Without a big infusion of money to update it, the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel will disappear soon back into the dust of Death Valley Junction.

Rhyolite Ghost Town Nevada

From the main road, you can see the ghostly remains of Rhyolite on the right side and a few sculptures from the Goldwell museum to the left.

Rhyolite and the Goldwell Open Air Museum – Rhyolite ghost town and the Goldfield Open Air Museum go hand-in-hand since they are side by side — although they were established about 80 years apart. And they are an odd couple, indeed. Located about five miles west of Beatty, Nev., Rhyolite is an abandoned relic of a ghost town (I can’t guarantee ghosts) that is worth exploring day or night. It boomed into life in 1904 when gold was discovered and busted into oblivion by about 1916. At one point, it had several thousand residents.

I found Rhyolite particularly mesmerizing at night (see photo at top), when there is not much more than a whoosh of a passing tumbleweed to be heard. Take a blanket or jacket whatever time of year, and don’t forget water or snacks since there are no services anywhere nearby.

Goldwell Museum Weird Nevada Sculpture

The Ghost Rider sculpture was done in 1984, allegedly by draping a person in plaster-of-paris soaked cloth. They remained until it dried, and then crawled out. Spooky in the dark!

What about this Goldwell Open Air Museum? Shoulder to shoulder with Rhyolite, Goldwell is mostly a memorial to a Belgian artist named Albert Szukalski. His first outdoor sculpture there was installed in the mid-80s, and the tiny little museum and non-profit were organized in 2000. The open-air museum has a number of rather odd sculptures, some of which feel as if they will come alive and spring out at you. BOO! If you want weird Nevada then get yourself to Goldwell – especially at night when everything seems to come alive. Ghosts? Maybe. If you like dark skies and night photography, this is your place to explore.

To get there: Best bet, once again, is to stop in on a road trip up or down Interstate 95. If you are visiting Death Valley National Park, the site is a great day trip. No matter where you are coming from or going to, expect some driving. There isn’t much nearby.

Weird Nevada Car Forest Goldfield

International Car Forest of the Last Church – Harboring a passion for night photography, I rushed this “car forest” to the top of my must-see places in weird Nevada. I mean, what person collects old vehicles of all kinds, paints then wildly, then sticks them in the ground in kind of a haphazard forest? Only here. Started about 20 years ago by a local artist, the so-called International Car Forest of the Last Church sits on about 80 acres with about 40 vehicles in some state of disrepair or another plopped here and there. It is open 24 hours/7 days so drop in whenever you like. There is some informational signage – hand scrawled that looks as weird as the forest of cars – at the entrance, plus a lock box to stuff in a donation for your visit.

I planned to get there at night and asked around if this odd, rather lonely, quite weird place in Nevada was safe. I was told everything from, “yea, no problem,” to “oh, it’s really spooky, I wouldn’t go alone.” Of course, I went. Never saw another soul – that I know of. But before the moon rose, it was dark, really REALLY dark. So dark that after I set up my tripod for some night photos, I walked for a bit and then couldn’t make my way back without a little stumbling about. This site is now a Nevada state non-profit since 2020 so it’ll be interesting to see how that formality changes its casual, artistic strangeness in weird Nevada.

To get there: The International Car Forest of the Last Church sits just a half-mile off the main road (Interstate 95) as you enter Goldfield from the south.

Goldfield Weird Nevada Living Ghost Town

Goldfield living ghost town – Goldfield isn’t really dead, but to be honest it’s not really alive either. Founded in 1902 after the discovery of gold, the town once had 20,000 residents and was the largest in Nevada with all the trappings of a big city. Now it officially lists a population of less than 200. I can’t tell you, when I passed through mid-week, that I saw anybody, except a couple of older gents hanging on a sagging porch who gave me a wave. The saloon was closed, the stores were closed, and if you wander off the main drag, well, there are a lot of half-buildings, shuttered windows, collapsing structures, and empty lots filled with mining paraphernalia.

But weird is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and the Goldfield Historical Society is actively promoting the town. You can download a tour of town to all the places worth seeing (or not). And many of them actually have little markers. So do take the time for a walkabout. Maybe those two old gents will still be there to give you a wave, too.

To get there: This little burg with the International Car Forest, above, is about 30 minutes south of Tonopah, see below, or 2.5 hours north of Las Vegas. Certainly worth a look when humming down Interstate 95 between Reno and Las Vegas.

Weird Tonopah Nevada Clown Motel

Wanna sleep in this bed at the Clown Motel? Nooooooo, me neither.

Clown Motel, Tonopah – Tonopah is what I would also call a “living” ghost town. Just sort of living, although it does have a few cafes and stores and seems to be regaining some life. Off the main street, however, there are still crumbling shacks reminiscent of its silver mining heyday starting in 1900. A couple of really nice hotels – Mizpah and Belveda – have been renovated (to the tune of many millions) and are the heart of the main street. Or what remains of it. There are about 2,500 residents today but in its heyday, there were upwards of four times that. When I was on my weird Nevada tour, however, I didn’t want to stay at newly ritzed-out boutique hotels. Oh, no, I wanted to stay at the epitome of weirdness – a motel filled with clowns and things that go bump in the night.

Honestly, the Clown Motel is totally weird and very fitting of weird Nevada. The current owners, the Mehar family, acquired it in 2019, and are the third since the motel was opened in 1985. The owner Hame told me he bought it because he just loves clowns. He has since stuffed the lobby with tens of thousands of clownie things, from dolls to paintings to toys. He has also painted many of the pieces you see in rooms, like the ones in the photo, above. His collection of clown bits and bobs is so huge that he was expanding the lobby when I was there in spring 2022 to accommodate it all.

I have to be frank: The motel itself is a little – how do I put this politely? – on the ragged side, with a mishmash of obviously cut-rate furniture and outfittings, what looks like construction grime in corners, and mismatched curtains and decor. But Hame knows his marketing and takes every chance he gets to promote the motel as “The World Famous Clown Motel,” touting alleged paranormal activity, and encouraging today’s social media vloggers and influencers to post stories and photos. Rooms have themes from scary movies like “IT,” “Halloween,” and “The Exorcist.” He also boasts that its next to the historic Tonopah cemetery to promote the haunted tagline. One stay was entertaining, but enough. Next time I’ll go for the boutique hotel.

To get there: Tonopah is about four hours south of Reno and three hours north of Las Vegas, making it the typical stop for those going to or from on Interstate 95 since it offers gas, restaurants, and other services. There is a bit to see in the area, so an overnight is not a bad idea. You decide if it’s the Clown Motel or one of the others.

Exploring weird Nevada could take a lifetime, in part because there is new weirdness appearing all the time here and there across the state’s expansiveness. What you define as weird is up to you, of course. I found a restaurant in Overton named “BL&P,” which stands for “breakfast, lunch & pizza.” I found that strange. But certain things in life are essential, and I guess pizza is one of them.

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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Passionate traveler, wordsmith, photographer, and observer of people and place, Therese lives a life full of all the above. Trained as a newspaper journalist and a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news team, she now applies those skills to feed her globe-trotting curiosity – and hopes her storytelling in photos and words encourages others to do the same. Winner of multiple awards for photos and stories, Therese loves to get outdoors, be personally immersed in adventurous experiences, and have a front-row spot with her camera and notebook to document stories that offer authentic insights about a place or its people. And she’s never met a cheesecake she doesn’t have to taste, a ghost town that doesn't demand exploration, or a trail that doesn't beckon.