One of the most explosive of the Nevada silver boomtowns, Austin was the second-largest city in Nevada in the 1880s but now boasts a population of less than 200. In its heyday, this town 250 mi/400 km northwest of Las Vegas was home to several hundred mining companies (including the Methodist Mining Company, run by the local church).

As you drive through town, look for the International Cafe (formerly home to the Sazarac Lying Club, famous for the tall tales it created) and Stokes Castle (a rich man's bizarre folly—it's supposed to look like a Roman battlement).

Another landmark is the Gridley Store, whose owner helped originate the Sanitary Fund Flour Sack. After losing a bet in 1864, he had to carry a sack of flour down Main Street. The sack was then auctioned—many times over and all across the country—eventually raising US$275,000 for charity.

South of Austin is the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, an unusual combination of ancient and more recent history. On one hand, the park preserves significant fossil finds, especially of gigantic ichthyosaurs—whale-sized marine reptiles that inhabited Nevada when it was covered with water more than 200 million years ago. The fossils, which have been named Nevada's state fossil, are now displayed in an enclosed building.

On the other hand, the park is home to Berlin, a tumble-down mining village that's perfectly deserted and spooky—one of Nevada's must-see ghost towns. The ranger-led tours of the park are essential: They will help you experience both aspects of this out-of-the-way window to the past. The 1,153-acre/467-hectare park has hiking trails and campgrounds.

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