Established in 1861, Washoe County was one of the original nine counties in Nevada. The original county seat was Washoe City when the territory was established, but it quickly switched to Reno in 1871 and has sat there since. The county is named after the Washoe people who initially inhabited the area before settlers moved west. The Reno and Sparks metropolitan area is the second most populous in the state, and as of 2017, Washoe was home to 460,587 residents (DETR, 2017). Washoe is uniquely located as its western border is shared with California and its northern border with Oregon. It is home to the University of Nevada, Reno, which is the oldest university in the state and enrolls over 20,000 students currently. The I-80 runs east and west through the heart of Reno and connects the area directly to San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Whether one is looking to plant roots or getaway, Washoe is full of beautiful landscapes, city living, and an abundance of cultures to experience.


After its original founding in 1864, Washoe was consolidated with Roop (originally called Lake) County. Washoe was called “a land of contrasts, extremes, and apparent contradictions; of mingled barrenness and fertility, beauty and desolation, aridity and storm” (History of Washoe County 31). Its earliest settlers included Mormon colonists and those who provided supplies to the region’s growing mining industry. Alongside counties like Storey, Lyon, and Douglas, the Comstock Lode had a heavy effect on Washoe. Early growth was dependent on the miner population as well as the rancher and farmer population that supplied them.

As Comstock Lode's activity dwindled so did Washoe’s population. In the 1860s during the heavy decline, the Transcontinental Railroad being built through northern Nevada helped another community of Washoe County thrive. The county seat at the time, Washoe City, was losing promise as the booming town of Reno gained traction. In 1870, the vote was passed to move the county seat to Reno, where the population was 1,035 residents, compared to Washoe County’s total population of 3,091 residents.

Washoe flourished throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. A prison was built as well as the fire department and the founding of the Reno Evening Gazette; and, in spite of deadly fires in the late 1870s, Reno remained Nevada’s most prominent city. All counties decreased in population between 1870 and 1900 save for Washoe, which increased by 300%.

In 1900, there was another mining boom in Nevada, which not only “lifted the state out of its twenty-year depression,” but also had Washoe continuing to grow throughout the beginning of the decade (History of Washoe County 33). Then, in the 1930s, the gambling restraints were lifted and residency requirements decreased from three months to six weeks. Since then, and post-WW2 when the Reno Air Base opened in 1942, Reno has bustled, which caused Washoe County to grow.

Most of this history comes from the condensed history provided by Washoe County. An extensive, precise account of Washoe’s history is available through the Wilbur D. May Center online.

Landscape and Climate

Much of Washoe sits well above sea level. In Reno, elevations sit at 4,500 ft. and reach as high as 10,000 ft at Mount Rose, which is the highest mountain in Washoe County. Near the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, elevations range between 4,000 ft to 7,000 ft. Washoe County spans over 6,500 sq mi, with 240 sq mi being covered by water. Land coverage in the county is similar to much of the state, as 42% of lands fall into the Shrublands category and 35% falls into the Grasslands category (NASA MODIS, 2006). These areas are described as having warm and dry summers with cold winters. A portion of the 1,000 sq. mile Black Rock Desert can be found along the northeastern border of the county, and is made up of lava beds and alkali flats.

Mountain ranges riddle Washoe land from the Fox Range in central Washoe to the Granite Range running along the eastern border of the county. Located northeast of Reno, the Pah Rah Range sprawls 20 miles and to the northwest, the Hays Canyon Range extends about 40 miles north and south. Southwest of the Reno and Sparks metro area one will find a portion of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range across the Nevada and California border.

With the many mountain ranges found within the county and winters that bring snow, run-off has created creeks, streams, and brooks all throughout Washoe land. Many of these can be found stemming off and through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the south. About 40 miles northeast of Reno lies Pyramid Lake, one of the largest natural lakes in Nevada. It spans 125,000 acres and is fully enclosed in the Paiute Indian Reservation. Directly south of Reno, Washoe Lake covers 9 sq mi and sits in the Washoe Valley. In northern Washoe, one will find New Year Lake and a small portion of Lower Lake. Smaller reservoirs can be found around the county, which include Little High Rock, Iveson, Squaw Creek, Wall Canyon, and Little Valley to name a few.

Community and Events

Arts and Culture: With the Reno and Sparks area leading the way, Washoe is home to a number of museums, performing arts centers, galleries, and public art displays. The Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum (“The Discovery”) is a hands-on science center and the largest in the state. Only one nationally accredited museum resides in Nevada: the Nevada Museum of Art, which is located in Reno. In Nixon, the Pyramid Lake Museum celebrates and displays the history and culture of the Paiute people and the area's natural history. Each year, the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts (a central venue for theater and orchestral performances in Reno) hosts Broadway shows, A.V.A ballet productions, the Reno Philharmonic and a number of other acts. Public art is on display throughout Reno, the most notable being the Sculpture Garden in Bicentennial Park in Reno’s Neon Light District, as well as throughout the Downtown and Midtown Districts. Reno is also home to Artown, which started in 1996 as a way to counteract suburban flight and revitalize downtown Reno by getting more people to visit the city center. Growing rapidly from its initial success, Artown today is a major annual production lasting throughout the month of July. In addition to local and regional talent, internationally known artists regularly perform at Artown. For those wanting to experience the nostalgia of the 50s and 60s, Hot August Nights provides throwback events such as its classic car parade and concerts. The original goal of Hot August Nights was to fill a void in tourism in Reno during the month of August and to raise money for local charities. In a similar vein, Street Vibrations is the last great motorcycle rally of the season in downtown Reno, Tahoe, Carson and Virginia City. There’s free live music on multiple outdoor stages, an unbelievable array of vendor booths, poker runs, scavenger hunts, major concerts, and a firework display in downtown Reno.

Outdoor Recreation: Whether one is looking to get out and adventure, play a round of golf, or see a game, Washoe has them covered. Lake Tahoe is a short drive from downtown Reno and provides outdoor activities year-round. In the winter one can enjoy the slopes of Mt. Rose or Diamond Peak. As the weather warms, the lake’s patrons can take advantage of the sun with a plethora of hiking trails, fishing, and boating opportunities. Similar warm-weather pursuits can be found at Pyramid Lake, Washoe Lake, and New Year Lake in northern Washoe. There are 22 golf courses in Washoe County, and thousands take advantage of the numerous options every year. Every summer the PGA Tour makes a stop in Washoe, and as of 2020, the tournament will be held at Mountain Club’s Old Greenwood, which was designed by Jack Nicklaus. For the rock-climbing adventurist, Lake Tahoe is home to Lover’s Leap, Eagle Creek Canyon, and Big Chief, all of which boast walls of 90 ft. or higher. In Reno, one will find the BaseCamp at Whitney Peak, which is the world’s tallest artificial climbing wall at 164 ft.

Family Activities: Reno is known as “The Biggest Little City in the World,” and Washoe is home to 106,982 families (ACS, 2017). There are hundreds of family-friendly events taking place each year to accommodate all age ranges. Many of the activities mentioned in the Arts & Culture, as well as in the Outdoor Recreation section are great for families. The Reno and Sparks metro area is home to the Reno Aces, the triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Aces play their home games at Greater Nevada Field, which is a venue that holds over 9,000 patrons and is perfect for families looking to catch a ballgame. Considered the “Wildest, Richest, Rodeo in the West,” the Reno Rodeo (established in 1919) is a great opportunity to experience bull riding, team roping, and many other rodeo staples. This is a 10- to 11-day event that brings in over 140,00 fans each year. Other events great for the family are the National Championship Air Races in Stead and the Great Reno Balloon Race, both of which are held in September.

Nightlife: There is no shortage of nightlife opportunities, especially those found in the Reno and Sparks metropolitan area. From nightclubs, bars, and breweries to fine dining and gaming experiences, Washoe provides it all. For those looking to have a night out and enjoy cocktails or a craft brew, Verdi Local Distillery is a short drive from downtown Reno. Also, in the heart of town, Seven Troughs Speakeasy, 10 Torr Distilling and Brewing, as well as the Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery offer local beers and spirits. Dancing and nightclub venues can also be found in the Reno area such as LEX Nightclub and Novi Lounge, which provides line dancing lessons Saturday nights. The Reno and Sparks metro area is also the hub for the county when it comes to concerts and live music. Each year hundreds of indoor and outdoor shows take place within the region. Finally, the casino and gaming industry is strong in Washoe and neighboring areas. Lake Tahoe is home to the Hard Rock, Harvey’s, and Harrah’s, which are some of the premier names in gaming and can be reached from downtown Reno in about an hour. Running along Sierra, Virginia, and Center streets in Reno one will find the Plaza Resort, Circus Circus Hotel and Casino, El Dorado Hotel and Casino, and a number of others. Directly off Interstate 580, one will find the Grand Sierra Resort, which provides gaming and nightlife opportunities for all ages. The Peppermill and Atlantis Resort Spa Casinos, two of the larger casinos, are also on Virginia Street, further south of downtown.

Food: Washoe hosts a wide array of food competitions, one of which being the Best in the West Rib Cook-Off. Often referred to as the Super Bowl of rib competitions on the national BBQ competition circuit, the annual Labor Day Weekend event spans more than 6 city blocks in the heart of downtown Sparks, Nevada. Two dozen of the country’s best BBQ teams compete for nearly $20,000 in prize money alongside ample bragging rights. It’s estimated that 350,000-400,000 BBQ enthusiasts take part in the festivities each year, consuming more than 250,000 pounds of ribs during the 6-day festival. If ribs aren’t enough, THE ROW and Downtown Reno also host the Biggest Little City Wing Fest, wherein 2019 the chicken cookers served up close to 30,000 pounds of their unique and tasty wings.

Sources Used

The NEAP is an ongoing project that greatly benefits from community input. The authors wish to express that If any information here on the county is inaccurate or any impertinent information is missing, an email may be sent to with information, additions, or edits.

B. Borden, J. Lednicky 2021, Washoe County Cultural Overview, Extension, University of Nevada, Reno

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Nevada Economic Assessment Project (NEAP)

The Nevada Economic Assessment Project focuses on providing Nevada’s counties, state and federal agencies, and their partners with quantitative and qualitative baseline data and analyses to better understand the counties’ demographic, social, economic, fiscal and environmental characteristics, trends and impacts. The data can be used for land use and project planning, grant writing and overall policy assessment.