Family Fun in the Sierras… Safely

Like many families in our community, mine is feeling the side effects of a reduced social calendar, absent extracurriculars, and increased homebodying (probably not a word, but oh well). What are our options, really? I’ve realized how much we rely on events and crowded spaces to keep us busy.

As we grew further stir crazy, we’ve been searching for ideas for things to do, but that were safe and responsible for my family and our larger community. We’re eager to get past the COVID era, but know we need to get a little creative in the meantime. We wanted to get out of the rut that is staying home, but didn’t really want to travel or spend and lot of time and money going out of state. So, where better to go than our own backyard… Nevada.

As I know any resident already knows, we’re spoiled to have some of the best outdoors in the nation within driving distance – Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains and valleys. So, we packed up our face masks and hit the road for a weekend of (safe) fun.

Carson Valley

In the heart of the Carson Valley is Minden and Gardnerville. It’s really a great mix of wide open outdoors and unique city amenities and attractions. As a longtime Reno resident, I’ve been to the Carson Valley countless times (my wife and I even got married here), but infrequently with the intent to make a full weekend out of it. I’m glad we shifted our thinking.

Good Eating

One of our favorite things to do in Reno or any place we travel is to check out local restaurants and snack shops. Of course, many families are avoiding restaurants because of the risk of being in an enclosed area with your mask off. As such, we opted for take-out as much as we were able to. Pro tip if you go the takeout route on a trip – pack some extra paper plates, napkins and plasticware just in case. Pro-tip for families with kids like mine – bring ketchup packets, too.

We found some excellent food choices! We had a take-out meal from Cook’d – they had all sorts of great options from pizza and pasta to burgers and options for the kids (thank goodness!). Cook’d also had one of my favorite desserts, which I’ve never seen in a restaurant before – banana pudding (with Nilla wafers and sliced bananas). Lunch brought us to Overland Restaurant and Pub, which we’ve already decided we need to get back to right away. Partly owned and influenced by Mark Estee (whom Renoites likely know), it had an interesting and delicious menu of choices (I scarfed down the pork belly mac n’ cheese). They were so careful about distancing tables/people and keeping things clean that we decided to eat at the restaurant (which we hadn’t originally intended to do). We also enjoyed a take-out dinner from J.T. Basque Restaurant, which has a rich history in this community and a tradition of serving up tasty Basque meals. If you love Nevada and Basque food, put them on your list of places to try. We know there were several other restaurants that caught our attention, but we’ll have to check those out during our next visit.

While visiting the historic town of Genoa, we tucked into Sierra Chef for a snack. There was no shortage of food choices, but we had a sweet tooth so we grabbed some Italian sodas, cookies, and brownies. They had cannolis and biscotti and all sorts of freshly baked pies. What really caught my wife’s eye was that they also offer small cooking classes, including some specifically for children. We’ll plan on checking those out!

The Great Outdoors

One thing we’ve found in spades is that this pandemic has pushed us into a healthy dose of enjoying the beauty and fun of the outdoors in Nevada. It’s really been a blessing to reconnect with outdoor activity, and it has the added bonus of built-in social distancing, making it a super-safe option during these times.

We were fortunate to have local legend and outdoorsman extraordinaire, Dwayne Hicks, to serve as our personal tour guide. We’ve actually never had an experience like this before – we’ll typically go out exploring by ourselves. However, that really limits us to what we know. Dwayne showed us places we would be incapable of finding on our own (although there is plenty for any family to explore on a self-guided tour, as well; you just won’t find the secret spots).

Dwayne took us up into the hills, only minutes from Main Street, in search of wild horses. While in the vehicle, we all kept our masks on and often had the windows down to enjoy the fresh air (it was a warm and pleasant day, especially for December). Dwayne wasn’t just a glorified driver – he knew the terrain and the area’s history like the back of his hand. He’s spent his life all over the world, and ached to get back to the Carson Valley as he retired (well, sort of retired). The funny thing about wild horses is that they’re wild – so, sometimes they make it easy to find them and other times they give you a challenge. Dwayne is the local horse whisperer (well, I’m giving him that title) – when people want to know where to find wild horses, they turn to him. They’ve been a big part of his life for many years – he knows their names, their personalities, their backstories. He’s even had the privilege of naming several newborn foals. He regaled us with stories as we followed the trail of “road apples” (horse poop, which the kids found very entertaining) to see what we could find. It was clear that Dwayne had a deep respect for the land and its many inhabitants.

Ranches and History

Later in the day, we reconnected with Dwayne to tour a few ranches and photograph some birds. What was really fun is that Dwayne gave the kids a camera to let them really get into the moment. I hadn’t thought about doing that before and it’s probably a technique I’m going to steal often in the future. They just had a blast (plus, it’s really cool to see the experience the way a kid sees it). We got to see some amazing birds of prey (which are pretty common in the valley), including 3 barn owls and a great horned owl (which I didn’t even realize we had in this region).

One of the ranches that we visited was the historic Danberg Ranch – whose namesake is from the region’s most prominent family. It’s since become a public park and museum. This property and its buildings date back to the late 1800s and you can actually walk through and check out historic items. The main museum part is closed (due to the pandemic), but there are a couple other buildings that remain open and were really interesting. It reminded me a bit of touring through Bowers’ Mansion, if you’re familiar with that. It’s a huge property and makes for some really great photos, as it’s nestled at the foot of the towering Carson Range.

This trip reminded me of all the Carson Valley holds and was a great change of scenery for the family.

South Lake Tahoe

Let’s not forget that we have one of the world’s most beautiful alpine lakes just a stone throw away in Lake Tahoe. Now, it’s no secret to those living in the Reno/Sparks area. I know I’m not revealing a hidden hot spot, but it’s a good reminder that there’s more than just skiing and snowboarding at the Lake during the winter. What some people don’t realize, either, is that the Nevada side is still open and functional!

Snow Play

Right now there’s still plenty of snow in South Lake that you can walk paths all the way down to the lake without needing snowshoes (although I do recommend boots). One of the trails we checked out was Rabe Meadow (Lam Watah Nature Trail) which snakes down to Nevada Beach. There are all sorts of side trails that splinter off, and plenty of snow for periodic snowball fights (or, if you’re my sons, snowball fights every 20 feet). It’s great exercise, a safe and socially-distant outdoor activity, and a beautiful scene.

MS Dixie II

We’d been on the MS Dixie numerous times during the summer, but we simply never thought about it during the winter. It’s too bad, too, because it was breathtaking. Take a look at some of the photos below and you’ll see what I mean. The snow-capped mountains all around Lake Tahoe were fantastic and the tour takes you right into Emerald Bay which is arguably one of the most stunning parts of the lake.

I do recommend bundling up with all the classic winter attire. The cool air coming up off the water can nip at your skin a bit, but it’s worth it for those views. Fortunately, should you ever get too cold, you can duck inside and enjoy some food and drink in the warmth and still soak in the view of the lake through the window. I recommend the grilled cheese and tomato soup – perfect for any cold day.


In the afternoon, we wanted to make sure we got our snow sports in so we found a place for some inner-tubing. Now, there are obviously a lot of options around the lake to find a hill and hop on a tube or a sled. But, we found this hill on the edge of downtown South Lake, across the street from MontBleu, that had both tubing and snowmobiling. It was run by Tahoe Snowmobiles. It was perfect for us. They require reservations, which is great because it allows them to limit how many people are there at the same time – safer from a COVID-sense and also from a potential injury sense (much better when the hill isn’t overcrowded). The other added benefit of limited time slots is that you get to go down the hill so many more times. We never waited more than a few minutes for our chance to go down the constructed hill.

Even better, they have employees controlling the flow and taking requests for a simple push down the hill or a spinning tube down. We were all smiles the entire time and the kids are already asking when we can go back. I highly recommend checking it out. You don’t need to bring your own sled. In fact, you’re required to use the tube that comes with your reservation (and they’re excellent quality).

Sierra Safely

What this weekend reminded us is that there’s a lot to do nearby and it feels like a getaway. And while it feels familiar, there’s so much we had never experienced – between food, the outdoors, and fun attractions. Even better, we were able to still do it smartly, responsibly, and safely. There’s actually a whole website dedicated to things you can do in this area in a safe way, and to keep you informed about how to best navigate the area responsibly.

Note: Portions of this experience were arranged for us and some costs reimbursed. However, there was no payment for any of this and all of the thoughts and ideas represented in this article are my own. I love Nevada and the Carson Valley and Lake Tahoe areas, and can’t get enough of them!

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