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Interstate 80 - Nevada

Routing

Interstate 80 is the longest Interstate highway in Nevada, with just about 411 miles through the state. The busy freeway, which replaced U.S. 40 in Nevada, serves Reno, Sparks, Lovelock, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Carlin, Elko, Wells, and Wendover. Beginning in San Francisco, California, Interstate 80 crosses the Central Valley on its way to the Sierra Nevada. On the rainshadow side of the mountains, Interstate 80 enters the hamlet of Truckee and turns into the state of Nevada near Verdi. The freeway then crosses the Silver State first in a northeasterly direction through Reno to Winnemucca, then turns west to follow the Humboldt River through the Great Basin, passing through Elko. Turning southeast toward Wendover, Interstate 80 leaves Nevada and enters the Beehive State of Utah as the freeway enters the Great Salt Desert on its way to Salt Lake City and eventually into the high deserts of Wyoming. Interstate 80 serves Cheyenne, then crosses the Great Plains states toward Omaha, Des Moines, and Chicago. The freeway joins the toll road system in Indiana and Ohio before crossing Pennsylvania and ending near the George Washington Bridge outside New York City, New York.

Interstate 80 Business Loops

Each of the business routes along Interstate 80 in Nevada are former alignments of U.S. 40. Many of these business routes are also state highways, but not all of them are fully state maintained.

  • Verdi - Nevada 425
  • Reno/Sparks - Nevada 647 and Historic U.S. 40
  • Wadsworth/Fernley - Nevada 427 and Alternate U.S. 50-95
  • Lovelock - Nevada 396
  • Winnemucca - U.S. 95; Nevada 289; Nevada 794
  • Battle Mountain - Nevada 304
  • Carlin - Nevada 221
  • Elko - Nevada 535 and local maintenance
  • Wells - Nevada 223
  • Wendover - Former Nevada 224 (now locally maintained)

Highway Guides

Guide

Drivers along Interstate 80 tend to become fatigued from the long, tedious drive across the State of Nevada. As a result, some tired drivers have been involved with accidents. To alleviate this concern, the Nevada DOT is installing rumble strips in the shoulder that are one-half inch deep; this strips wake up any errant drivers. Another interesting feature along Interstate 80 in Nevada is that Nevada DOT marks its Highway Patrol turnarounds across the freeway median with blue reflectors. This practice makes it very easy to locate the turnarounds.

Interstate 80 enters Nevada as a mountain freeway. Between Sacramento and Donner Pass, Interstate 80 crawled from the fertile Central Valley region of Central California northeasterly to near the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, an elevation change of nearly 7,000 feet. Then Interstate 80 descended quickly into the quirky mountain town of Truckee. From that point until the California-Nevada State Line, Interstate 80 followed the twists and turns of the Truckee River through the narrow valleys.

Traffic along Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Reno has always been heavy. Frequent business trips, coupled with weekend excursions and visits to friends and relatives, have caused Interstate 80 to be very busy at nearly all times of the year. Even in the winter, when the Interstate is shut down due to snow storms, folks try to make the connection between the Central Valley and Washoe Valley. The road is two lanes wide at most points between Auburn and Reno. Plans to widen the road to three lanes in each direction have been discussed, but no action has been taken.

Upon entering Nevada, Interstate 80 and the Truckee River break free from the mountains and valleys and enter the unincorporated community of Verdi in Washoe County. Verdi is the location of the first non-Indian gambling casinos east of California. Boomtown, a large casino, hotel, restaurant, and gas station, is located at Exit 4 in Verdi.

Continuing east, Interstate 80 starts to enter suburban Reno-Sparks. The first batch of homes is at Exit 8, which serves the West Fourth Street exit (Junction Old U.S. 40 and Nevada 647). This area was completely devoid of suburban influences back in the 1980s. However, the traffic is now heavier than before as the Reno city center beckons. Interstate 80 expands to three lanes just after this exit.

Reno is known as the "Biggest Little City in the World." Lying in an area known as Truckee Meadows, Reno sits along the cool, clear Truckee River (which flows out of Lake Tahoe toward Pyramid Lake). The gambling center is located just south of Interstate 80 along Business U.S. 395 (Virginia Street). Neighboring Sparks lies just to the east of Reno and has more casinos adjacent to the freeway and a large industrial area toward the eastern end of the metropolitan area. Many highway signs pointing to the region will point to "Reno-Sparks" rather than just one city name or the other.

The railroad gains prevalence as we enter Reno, including the Feather River Route coming in from the northwest. From Reno all the way to Chicago and beyond, Interstate 80 stays close to the railroad system. It is especially evident in the Western states, as the railroad closely parallels Interstate 80 and is clearly visible from the freeway.

Expansion of the freeway through Sparks is difficult due to the elevated viaduct and close proximity to the Nugget, a major casino. Interstate 80 was built through a rather narrow corridor and is elevated in places through Sparks. Traffic can be a problem in the commuting hours and whenever the road construction causes lane closures.

In the middle of the Reno-Sparks metro area is the interchange with U.S. 395, which is also known as Interstate 580. As of spring 2012, Interstate 580 remains unsigned with the exception of the regular black-on-white mile markers along U.S. 395. However, the planned summer 2012 opening of the Interstate 580 extension between Mt. Rose Junction and Washoe Lake may change the signed designation and bring Interstate 580 into prominence. The Interstate 580/U.S. 395 expressway provides easy access to Carson City, Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, and Susanville, California.

East of U.S. 395, Interstate 80 proceeds through Sparks, past the Nugget, and leaves Truckee Meadows, right after the McCarran Boulevard interchange. At that point, Interstate 80 enters a valley-like area alongside the Truckee River, passing by rock outcroppings and canyon walls. With the exception of small suburban enclaves, there is not much out here. But there are some interesting exits and facts about this area. The fabled Mustang Ranch, known nationally for its legalized prostitution, is located right off the freeway in neighboring Storey County. The Tracy Power Station, which seems out-of-place in this desert valley, is a mess of powerlines and turbines towering above the freeway.

Interstate 80 continues along the Truckee River all the way to Exit 23. Before leaving civilization entirely, travelers are afforded final services at the community of Wadsworth and city of Fernley via Business Loop I-80 (partially Nevada 427 and Alternate U.S. 50-95). At this interchange, Alternate U.S. 95 joins Interstate 80 for the journey en route to U.S. 95 (Exit 83). The Truckee River swings north toward Pyramid Lake, leaving Interstate 80 without an adjacent waterway for the first time since leaving the Sierra Nevada.

Fernley also marks the beginning of the 40-Mile Desert between Fernley and Lovelock. There was, and is, very little water for the pioneers, so they used to stock up prior to making this leg of the journey. Interstate 80 has very few exits between these two points, and the land is as stark and barren as anywhere along Interstate 80, with some areas left as salt flats on a much smaller scale than the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah.

In the middle of the 40-Mile Desert, Interstate 80 joins with two branches of U.S. 95. The first is Alternate U.S. 95, which merges onto Interstate 80 east at Exit 46 in Fernley. The mainline U.S. 95 merges with Interstate 80 at Exit 83. Signing of the aforementioned alternate route is inconsistent along on the freeway overlap, with signs along Interstate 80 east reading either "Alternate U.S. 95" or just "U.S. 95" without the "Alternate" banner. If traveling along westbound Interstate 80 at Exit 83, there is no sign stating that Alternate U.S. 95 south begins straight ahead on Interstate 80 west. One may not realize Interstate 80 is also Alternate U.S. 95 until passing Exit 83..

The U.S. 95 exit in the 40-Mile Desert has a basic truck stop and rest area, but no other services. Interstate 80 near the junction with U.S. 95 in Nevada lies on a very remote site in an area of the Nevada desert called the Humboldt Sink. The water drained into this area through small natural cut, through the Humboldt Bar, then into a slough, flowing to the west toward the sink. The sink area is just west and south of U.S. 95, which heads toward Fallon.1 The 330-mile long Humboldt River ends its journey here, having traveled across the northern tier of Nevada. An east-west river, the Humboldt River parallels Interstate 80 from here east to near Wells, where it begins at a spring. The Humboldt River has no outlet and does not reach either ocean.

After leaving the U.S. 95 rest stop, Interstate 80 braves the desert until it reaches the city of Lovelock, which has a business loop serving it between Exits 105 and 107. This farming community provides the first full services along Interstate 80 for over 20 miles. Lovelock is a good place to stop for food, gas, and lodging on the long ride between Reno and Winnemucca.

Near here, the Humboldt River flows into Humboldt Lake. Humboldt Lake is a semi-dry lake area that fills during the winter months, and it flows through a slough toward the original Humboldt Sink area west and south of U.S. 95.1 This makes this particular region rather fertile, despite the lack of rainfall. Irrigated water is piped into this area from nearby Rye Patch Reservoir (Exit 129). Lovelock was originally built to utilize the remains of the Humboldt River water, but it was not enough to support the barley, oats, alfalfa, and wheat production. Irrigation was constructed to allow farming to flourish here. The Humboldt River thrives on snowmelt that comes from mountains near Interstate 80, including the Independence Mountains, Jarbidge Mountains, and Ruby Mountains (near Elko).

Northeast of here, the desert resumes again. As a result, the population thins and the exits get spread out a bit more, with more "ranch exits" that connect to local ranches and publicly owned lands. Even with all of the desolate space through the northern tier of Nevada and a maximum of 13 miles between exits, Nevada has managed to put a unique name on every exit, even if the name relates to a distant place accessible only by locally maintained dirt roads. Wyoming has done the same thing with most of its rural exits. Other states, such as South Dakota and Utah, use generic names for exits with no nearby town and no named crossroad. UDOT uses "RANCH EXIT," meaning that, without exit numbers, there is no way of differentiating all of the "RANCH EXITS." The South Dakota DOT sometimes provides an exit number with no description at all.

One such uniquely named interchange is the Coal Canyon Exit 112 off Interstate 80/U.S. 95. Exit 112 is signed as a "major exit"; that is, advance exits signs begin a full two miles before the interchange. In typical Nevada DOT practice, two-mile advance exit signs are reserved for the first interchange with the town's business loop. In spite of this signing, there's really nothing of interest at this exit -- no community, no real services. In fact, the exit is not even for a state-maintained highway. Another oddity here is that parallel U.S. 95 is not signed in either direction along Interstate 80 when leaving this interchange (true at least as of 2005).

Contrary to popular belief, the speed limit on Interstate 80 is not 75 mph all the way across Nevada. The speed limit stays at 65 mph from the California line into the Reno-Sparks metro area and eastward all the way to Milepost 23 near the Mustang Ranch. From the Mustang Ranch to Fernley, the speed limit jumps to 70 mph. Then from Fernley all the way across Nevada, the speed limit increases to 75 mph. However, there are sections of 65 mph through Winnemucca, Carlin (including through the tunnel), and Elko. These sections of 65 mph average eight miles in length each. Finally, the speed limit decreases to 70 mph over the Pequop Summit.

Interstate 80 is also noticeable for its destination and control cities in Nevada. Destination cities are usually the first line in a mileage sign, while control cities are the second line in a mileage sign. Heading westbound, most mileage signs indicate the next major town/city (that is, the next place with a business loop) as the destination, with the control usually being Reno-Sparks. The first time Sacramento, California, appears as a mileage destination is 258 miles away, near Exit 138 (Humboldt). For eastbound traffic, the destination city is determined in the same manner as westbound traffic. Salt Lake City is listed as the control city at the Interstate 580/U.S. 395 junction in Reno, but the first time mileage appears is at Battle Mountain, 297 miles away. Elko is the control city otherwise.

Billboards appear along the Interstate that advertise the next major city, Winnemucca, by banking on its unusual name. These signs permeate along Interstate 80 between Lovelock and Winnemucca (eastbound) and between Elko and Winnemucca (westbound). This is akin to the Little America signs in Wyoming and the Wall Drug signs along Interstate 90 in South Dakota and on other highways across the Great Plains.

There are also some interesting highway signs along this stretch of Interstate 80 too. One such sign is the "TRUCKS USE LEFT LANE NEXT 24 MILES" sign, which we saw in the late 1990s southwest of Winnemucca. We thought that maybe it was due to poor pavement in one lane, so we tried both lanes and noticed no perceptible difference. According to Nevada DOT's Ed Wilson (retired), areas marked with this sign are side wind areas. Using the left lane allows truckers more room to compensate for gusts. In the mid-1980s, it used to read "NEXT 110 MILES" but now it is only 24 miles.

Exits 149-151 (Mill City/Dun Glen/Unionville) provide access to the community of Puckerbrush. Cruising by at 70+ mph, all you'd see is a large truck stop. The frontage road (old U.S. 40) between Exits 149 and 151 has a sign indicating that this is a real town with 28 people. However, the State of Nevada does not recognize this "town" at all it is just a ploy by TA (formerly Burns Brothers). But it is a nice place to stop and gamble! And with that, we are in Winnemucca.

Like most Nevada Interstate 80 towns, Winnemucca is home to lodging, food, gas, truck stops, and so on. Although the pass-through travelers help the economy, there is also a strong mining base here. Mines are littered throughout this region of the state. Winnemucca also possesses some strange items, including the largest piece of driftwood ever collected (1,500 years old) and the Buckaroo Hall of Fame and Heritage Museum.

Plenty of mining sites dot the terrain between Winnemucca and Battle Mountain, which is the next major city along eastbound Interstate 80. The freeway levels out a bit through here -- it no longer trending northward. The geography changes again, as Interstate 80 begins ascending and descending several north-south mountain ranges between Winnemucca and Wendover. The first such mountain pass is at Golconda Summit (elevation 5,145 feet above sea level). Normally, Nevada DOT does not provide a third truck climbing lane unless it is an exceptionally long or steep grade. Luckily there are two rest areas (Button Point and Valmy) that will allow motorists to stop and take a break from the drive.

Interstate 80 enters the unincorporated community of Battle Mountain (in Lander County) from the northwest and passes to the southwest of downtown. This community is again notable as an Interstate stopover and a mining town. As is common in other Western cities and towns, the town's initials -- a large "BM" in this case -- are carved/painted into the mountain looming above the town.

Continuing east, we resume the ascent and descent of mountains. About 20 miles west of Elko, we approach Carlin ("Where the Train Stops and the Gold Rush Begins"). Another business route follows Old U.S. 40 into town, and all motorist services are available in town. The downtown area lies south of the freeway. Soon after the eastern business loop interchange, Interstate 80 will pass through its only tunnel in Nevada to avoid following the Humboldt River through a narrow canyon. These tunnels are comparable to the Interstate 80 tunnels that pass through Castle Rock in Green River, Wyoming.

Next up is the city of Elko ("The Heart of Northeast Nevada"), which follows quick on the heels of Carlin. Elko is the largest city in Northeastern Nevada (population 18,297 as of the 2010 Census) and seat of Elko County. A regional center, many amenities are located here including Great Basin College, Elko Regional Airport, the National Weather Service, and all motorist facilities and services. Historically, mining and transportation have fed the economy of this city.

Leaving Elko, we again see more mountainous terrain. The Humboldt River, which had followed Interstate 80 much of the way between Elko and Lovelock, begins in the mountains east of Elko, near Wells. Unfortunately, travelers on Interstate 80 will not see the headwaters, or the beauty of the mountains, because highway engineers placed the Interstate on the a more direct route across Northern Nevada (thus avoiding the mountains and leaving them pristine). The Ruby Mountains and Lamoille Canyon are just south of Interstate 80 (follow Nevada 227 south to Spring Creek) and offer great mountain scenery. Even Great Basin National Park, located along the U.S. 50 corridor, provides stunning views not seen on the freeway.

The Deeth/Starr Valley (Exit 333) and Welcome/Starr Valley (Exit 343) exits offer links to old alignments of U.S. 40. If you have the time, take this road to get a feel for the old highway. The next major town along Interstate 80 is the city of Wells, which is so named for its deep underground springs. Wells is a good jump-off point for side trips up U.S. 93 to the mountains (Angel Lake, Great Basin, Ruby Valley, Secret Pass, etc.) and to Idaho. Alternate U.S. 93 begins in Wells and is routed along with Interstate 80 southeast between Exits 352 and 410 (all the way to West Wendover). However, Alternate U.S. 93 is not very well signed near Wells, nor is it acknowledged as being cosigned with Interstate 80 until around the Pilot Peak exit.

The Interstate travels over Pequop Summit (elevation 6,967 feet above sea level). Westbound travelers will have a steep upgrade between mileposts 376 and 373. Heading eastbound, look for milepost 408. There is a View Area here for Horizon View (name courtesy of Mary Lu Kost). One can see the curvature of the earth as it relates to the twin-carriageways of Interstate 80 across the Great Salt Desert - the lanes appear curved, but they are actually straight and level. The pools in the distance are evaporating pools used in the production of potash.

One of the newer exits on Interstate 80 is Exit 407 at Ola, which opened in 2000. While one can connect to West Wendover Boulevard (Old U.S. 40) via this exit, it is not signed as Business Loop I-80, as that designation only runs from Exit 410 to Utah Exit 2. A central Wendover interchange was added at Exit 1, just east of the state line with Utah.

Wendover is actually two places: the city of Wendover, Utah, and the city of West Wendover, Nevada. West Wendover is the only town in Nevada that is in the Mountain Time Zone. The time zone boundary is located west of the first Wendover interchange. Notably, many of the cars in the casino-resort parking lots have Utah license plates. There are a few Wyoming plates, but by and large most folks come from the Salt Lake Valley for a quick and easy gambling fix. Finally, for travelers heading east or west, this is also the last town of significance for the next 120 miles, so Wendover is practically a "must-stop."

The Utah-Nevada State Line marks the division between West Wendover, Nevada, and Wendover, Utah, in the same manner most stateline towns (such as South Lake Tahoe and Primm) are divided in Nevada. The huge casinos are on one side of the line, and everything else is on the other side of the line. Look for the giant cowboy waving hello (or goodbye) in Wendover along Business Loop I-80 and Utah 58.

The flats of the Great Salt Desert lie dead ahead, and the High Plains of Wyoming are only 200 miles further down the road. You are closer to Evanston, Wyoming, than you are to Reno. To continue along Interstate 80 east into Utah, see Interstate 80 Utah.

Scenes Pertaining to Interstate 80
This older trailblazer shield aseembly for Interstate 80 east and west is found in western Verdi near Third Street (Business Loop I-80 and Nevada 425). Photos taken 07/18/09.
Lincoln Highway Scenic Area (Exit 6 on Interstate 80 East)
This freeway entrance shield assembly is posted at the eastern end of the truck parking area (Exit 6) along eastbound Interstate 80 between Verdi and Reno near Mogul, next to the Truckee River historic marker sign. Photos taken 09/05/10.
This series of pictures showcases some of the unique artifacts from the old Lincoln Highway that can be viewed by eastbound travelers at the "scenic area/truck parking" located at Exit 6. Most of these items were transported from other areas along the Lincoln Highway and placed here for display to the public. A separate historic marker informs travelers of the significance of the Truckee River, which closely parallels Interstate 80 between Truckee and Reno. Photos taken 09/05/10.

Footnotes:

  1. Lawrence K. Hersh, Publisher, Central Pacific Railroad Across Nevada, personal email, "Interstate Nevada 80, Humboldt Sink," May 13, 2004.
  2. Return to the Nevada Gateway

    Page Updated July 16, 2012.