With the largest amount of open space of all metropolitan areas in the contiguous United States and excellent year-round climate, Reno is a hiker’s paradise.
The Western United States is blessed with an abundance of public lands. There are many remote places that offer complete isolation. For many of us though, we need the other opportunities and services of a city. Reno offers entertainment and cultural amenities in excess of similarly-sized cities. What is truly special though about Reno is the vast quantity of public land accessible just outside the city limits. In fact, Reno contains the most amount of public land in its vicinity out of any metropolitan area in the lower 48 states. Combine that with a mild four-season climate with abundant sunshine and beautiful landscapes in all directions, it is easy for us to claim that Reno is hands-down the best city in the United States for hiking.
Nowhere are the expanses of open space more obvious than in the Great Basin Desert that extends east of Reno and across most of Nevada. Nearly 60 million acres of land in Nevada are owned by the federal government, or 85% of the state’s area. This is by far the largest share of federal land ownership among the 50 states (the runner-up is neighboring Utah with 65%). With the exception of a few military jurisdictions, all of this land is open to the public for hiking and outdoor activities. Because of its remoteness, few people explore the interior of Nevada. However as we show in Base Camp Reno: 101 Hikes from Sage to Snow, even close to Reno, there are limitless hiking opportunities in the Great Basin.
It is hard to overstate the amount of open space in Nevada. Out of the 50 states, Nevada ranks as the ninth least populated state. This statistic though does not tell the whole story. Just over 3 million people live in Nevada. Three-quarters (2.3 million) of those folks live in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, a distant 7 hour drive away from Reno. Another half a million live in the Reno metropolitan area. The third and last metropolitan area in Nevada is Carson City, which has a population of only 55,000.
If you subtract out the population of the metropolitan areas from Nevada and do the same analysis for the other states, it becomes clear just how empty most of Nevada is. By removing the largest metropolitan area from each state (e.g. Las Vegas for Nevada, Boise for Idaho, etc.), the population density of Nevada becomes roughly the same as Wyoming, the least densely populated state in the lower 48. Going further and removing the two largest metropolitan areas from the totals, Nevada becomes the least densely populated state in the lower 48! If we go one step further and remove all three metropolitan areas from Nevada’s total and remove the largest three metropolitans from all the other states, Nevada’s population density is similar to that of Alaska!
All of this proves that almost nobody lives in the rural parts of Nevada. While most of rural America is covered in farmland or ranchland, rural Nevada is essentially empty. Drive on any road outside the major highways in the interior of Nevada, and you may not pass another car for an hour or more. Get out and hike anywhere in the interior of Nevada, and you are unlikely to see another hiker ever!
While the open space of the Great Basin is certainly the most striking, the solitude surrounding Reno is not just confined to the east. The Sierra Nevadas to the west provide phenomenal hiking opportunities and their own large swaths of wilderness. Even though the Sierra Nevadas reside mostly in California, this is among the least densely populated portion of California. Take for example Alpine County, which borders Nevada south of Lake Tahoe, and is both the least populated and least densely populated county in California. We estimate that the population density of an eighty mile radius of downtown Reno is roughly the same as Nevada as a whole. So even though California is the most populous state, the portions of California adjacent to Reno still are largely wilderness, and if you stay away from popular tourist destinations, it is easy to achieve solitude.
The net result is that Reno offers unparalleled and varied hiking adventures in all directions. This is truly unique for a metropolitan area in the United State. There are many great hiking cities along the coasts, but an ocean makes hiking destinations unidirectional. Boulder, Colorado is a fantastic city for hiking, but all of the public land is in the Rockies to the west. Missoula, Montana is beautiful, but with an average temperature below freezing six months of the year, it is too cold for most. Reno is the only metropolitan area with a 360° outdoor year-round playground.