Sometimes, when your boss tells you to take a road trip to sleep in a “Clown Motel,” you take a road trip to sleep in the Clown Motel. Even if you’ve had a mean case of coulrophobia since your big sister made you watch It with her on VHS. Even if it’s been a decade since the last time you’ve driven a car. Even if said Clown Motel is directly adjacent to a late 19th-century miner’s graveyard, and all of a sudden you’ve developed a slight fear of mining zombies rising from their dusty graves and appearing in the door frame of your isolated room in a Clown Motel (is there a medical term for that phobia?).
But, when the desert highway, and the dead miners, and the sinister faces of 3,000 smiling clowns, and your boss all direct you to Tonopah, Nevada, you go.
Tonopah (pronounced TOE-nuh-PAH) is located halfway between Las Vegas and Reno along the Free-Range Art Highway road trip. You’ll know you’re going in the right direction if, on your way up from Vegas, you pass an Area 51 Alien Travel Center & Brothel and Rhyolite ghost town. Stop and get a coffee at one, and get out and see some stars at the other. If you end up on the Extraterrestrial Highway, you’ve gone too far.
Modern Tonopah gained notoriety in the spring of 1900 when a man named Jim Butler stopped at a spring for a rest. When he was ready to continue his journey, his rebellious burro refused to move from the resting spot. Butler picked up a small rock to toss at his burro to motivate its forward motion, but he noticed that it had an odd color and was oddly weighty. He took it to be assayed—that’s evaluated to determine its composition—in the then-booming silver city of Belmont. To his astonishment, the rock was almost pure silver. He went on to lay claim to one of the richest silver stakes in Nevada history.
What started out as a frontier town, where men were regularly put in the ground from gunshot wounds and women’s gravestones were marked with epitaphs like “life became a burden,” quickly boomed into the state’s wealthiest region. For a time, the Mizpah Hotel, a grand boarding house and saloon built in 1907, was — at five stories — the tallest building in Nevada.
A list of those who’ve visited the town reads like a Who’s Who of American West myths. Wyatt Earp and his wife came through (“The sagebrush was rapidly giving way to streets and buildings,” Josephine Earp wrote in her memoir). In the early 1900s, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey was robbed in a bar there after a $100 prize fight. In the ’50s, Barbara Graham, “The Butcher of Burbank,” passed some time in local haunts before heading to LA and committing crimes later depicted in a Susan Heyward movie called I Want to Live. During his reclusive Desert Inn years, Howard Hughes (or one of his lackeys) bought stakes in mines in nearby Manhattan, but as with most of Hughes’ late-in-life ventures, nothing much came from them.
Today, Tonopah still holds on to its frontier past, but as with lots of small towns in America, has evolved under the influence of economic shifts and tourism trends. Many residents have connections to the Air Force because the Tonopah Test Range served as top-secret operation grounds for F-117 stealth bomber research in the 1980s.
While you can quickly pass through Tonopah, it’s delightfully easy to spend a day or two exploring the area. In fact, the town, with its antique saloons, historic sites, and extended landscapes, feels like it’s poised to start attracting off-the-beaten-path weekenders looking for their next Joshua Tree or Marfa.
The surreal pole at the center of Tonopah’s magnetic allure is the Clown Motel. The sign marking its entrance — a 30-ft. candy-striped beacon, grinning down at passing motorists — rises off the highway and invites them to rest their heads with a mix of whimsy and horror.
The scariest part of a night at the Clown (as it’s known locally) comes at check-in. The wood-paneled lobby, full of overstuffed 80’s rec-room furniture, is decorated with 3,000 clowns. Three thousand. In about a hundred-square-foot space. Fast food clowns. Lego clowns. Porcelain clowns. Clowns playing the piano. Clowns with parachutes. A watercolor of a grease-painted hobo clown straddling the world. While the most intense concentration of clown collectibles is at check-in, the hotel’s 31 unique rooms and suites each feature a few pieces of zany clown art.
When the property changed hands in 2019 (under the terms that the clown theme would remain), it got a bevy of upgrades. Along with the addition of haunted and clown-themed suites, you’ll find that the beds are firm and the showers are hot. For the clown-phobic among us perhaps the best news is that you can deadbolt the door against any perceived terrors.
Whether you’re staying in Tonopah for one night or thirty, here is a shortlist of things you should check out in the area:
Breakfast at the Mizpah Hotel
The restaurant in this restored luxury hotel serves a “Lady in Red Bloody Mary”, named after the hotel’s resident friendly-ghost, affectionately called the “Lady in Red.” Legend has it that said lady was a “companion” to local miners, who was murdered by one of her jealous lovers. To this day, she makes her presence known by strewing pearls from her broken necklace on guests’ pillows. Those who prefer ghosts to clowns can stay overnight in suite 504 near where she was killed in a hallway. Named in her honor and themed around the fun (if somewhat spooky!) legend, suite 504 was once part of the Lady in Red’s former living quarters, which consists of rooms 502, 503, and 504. Although suite 504 is named in the lady’s honor, current Mizpah staff allege that room 502 is eerily more haunted.
Stay in Style at the Belvada Hotel
If history with a side of luxury is more your speed, The Belvada Hotel in Tonopah should top your list. Originally built in 1906 as the Nevada State Bank & Trust, it features elements of both Classical Revival and Chicago style, with red brick, expansive first-floor windows, and textured stone accents. Since, it’s housed the Nevada First National Bank of Tonopah, Nevada Club Saloon, Miners Drug Store, Sweldon Clothing Shop, and a barbershop, just to name a few. Locals Fred and Nancy Cline, who also own the Mizpah, purchased the property and began its top-to-bottom renovation in 2017. Officially reopened in 2020, the boutique restored to its former glory (and then some!), with 40 hotel rooms and suites.
Hiking the Mizpah Mine
The best way to gain perspective (both historical and physical) on Tonopah is to head into the hills. The Tonopah Historic Mining Park offers a few miles of self-guided trails and plenty of old facilities to explore. Staring down one of the open shafts, you’ll start to understand what these mines must have been like to work in during the heyday of their production and why the nearby cemetery is full of its former employees.
Searching for Gold in Goldfield
Just 27 miles south of Tonopah via US-95, Goldfield is worth a visit. Dubbed “The World’s Greatest Gold Camp,” following a significant precious metal discovery in 1904, it became the largest city in the state. All told, the mines there yielded a jaw-dropping $86 million in gold. Now modern visitors can explore its “rich” history up close.
The Many Cars and One Boat of Goldfield, NV
The best way to experience Nevada is by car, a point made evident by the multitude of makeshift altars and abandoned car sanctuaries that dot the landscape. Though the area is full of rusted relics that will play to your Mad Max fantasies, the most striking of the bunch is the International Car Forest of the Last Church. Started by local artist Mark Rippie, whose goal was to break the Guinness World Record for the world’s biggest car forest, this spot is now one of the state’s largest open-air galleries. Free to visit, this attraction that’s just 30 minutes down the Free-Range Art Highway from Tonopah features 40 cars adorned with the work of a variety of artists.
Downtown Goldfield, once known for its gold rush, is now experiencing a resurgence of another kind of treasure: art. Evidence of this local art renaissance can be seen in Rocket Bob’s Art Cars, a fleet of ornately decorated art cars that make a yearly sojourn up the Black Rock playa, as well as at Enigmata Esoterica, an art destination manned and curated by two local artists who also oversee the International Car Forest. While you’re there, venture across the street from the Santa Fe Saloon, and take a look at Goldfield Historic Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad Yard, filled with vintage train cars from the Wild West era.
A Glimpse at the Goldfield Hotel
The Goldfield Hotel, named for the city where it stands and built in 1908 as one of the West’s most lavish hotels, has sat empty for more than three decades. For years it was faithfully looked after by local resident Virginia Ridgeway, who was known as “the keeper of the keys.” While she was living, she used to give occasional tours to allow guests to see the abandoned hotel’s splendor first-hand. She retired in 2016 and passed away shortly after. She once told a newspaper that she planned to join the pantheon of ghosts reportedly haunting the grounds. While you can’t take a tour inside, this spot is worth a stop to see the grandeur of yesteryear.
If you’d like to visit a spot where you can explore inside, saunter over to the nearby Santa Fe Saloon, the state’s longest continually operating saloon. Opened in 1905, this Wild West bar was a fixture for local miners, whether they’d had a rough day or struck it rich. When you order a pint (or something stronger), you’ll sit in the very same environment where famed local resident Wyatt Earp ordered his spirits. While you’re in town, make time to see a few other key sites, including the Goldfield Historic Cemetery (where Wyatt’s older brother Virgil was once buried), take the Florence Mine Tour for an intimate look at the challenges of pulling precious metals from the earth, and try your hand at mining for chalcedony, serpentine, and more at Gemfield.
Stargazing in the Cemetery
Even if you’re getting out of Dodge (or Tonopah as the case may be), try to stay at least until nightfall. The sky here is huge and it takes ages for the sun to set, but when it does, wander into the Old Tonopah Cemetery. Though the highway runs right past it and small houses dot the surrounding hills, the cemetery, with its sunken graves and hand-made headstones, will transport you out of place and time. You’ll be so distracted by the myriad stars, that you might not even notice that the only other illumination is a 30-ft. clown sign, shining through the darkness.
This story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.
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