Touring Reno's Neon

Apr 22, 2019

The best way to experience neon is to step into the night air, get up close and let the light sink in. Reno MoMo, or Modern Movement, is hosting neon walking tours that let everyday people do just that. The group takes curious guests through back alleys and down busy roads to share the tales of the neon. Holly Hutchings joined them on a recent stroll and has this story.

Over a dozen people gather inside the busy Renaissance Hotel in downtown Reno Friday night. They lace up their walking shoes for a two-hour urban hike.

Tour guide Will Durham primes his group of over a dozen people for a night tour of the city's neon.
Credit Krysta Scripter

“You guys ready? Let’s go see some neon,” tour guide Will Durham said.

We set out on our two-mile route, heading down the river walk and winding our way through downtown. The tour guides aim to celebrate modern architecture and have scoured the city for neon stories. They’ve kicked these tours back up recently because of public interest. They’re passionate about preserving the classic lights through raising awareness by exposing people up-close to properties and their stories. 

“It’s interesting wandering around downtown and just looking up because, usually, you’re just going somewhere and there’s so much stuff to see down here.”

That’s Judith Airey who’s lived here for 30 years.   

The group stares up at The Eldorado, which has a substantial amount of neon--2 miles to be exact.

The group marvels at an eye-catching design high on the casino tower.

The Eldorado in Reno glows brightly with over two miles of neon all over the building.
Credit Krysta Scripter

“Oh, I love it," said Jennifer Evans, who came from South Reno for this unique date night. "It’s like going down memory lane. You have forgotten all the iterations and it’s fascinating to be reminded of that now. It’s like walking through history, so this is great eye candy."

We hit about 12 stops and also do some drive-bys. The tour was designed by Will Durham, an avid neon collector and enthusiastic sherpa, and it’s pretty fun. The group is captivated, even in the very distracting atmosphere of partiers and tourists. We see gems of old businesses and hotels, and learn nuggets of often unusual history.

Will Durham points up at the Olympic Motel on Second Street in Reno, as his group of eager followers listen to the history of the building and sign.
Credit Krysta Scripter

Now, we’ve moved away from what is essentially casino row, and Durham points at a nondescript building that you would not know the history of. 

“This used to be The Riverboat," Durham said. "And they stripped off anything that made it kind of different. Now you could drive by this and not even care.”

But Durham says this is not a sad story. Even with all the neon that’s gone, there’s also a lot of promise with newer businesses integrating it in their designs.

Before we know it, we’re wrapping up the tour at a familiar finish line.

“This is the old Reno Arch. Originally it didn’t have neon," Durham said.

Feet are tired, but the energy is still high as a few participants linger, including Stacey Garcia.

“I think the tour was super cool. I’ve lived here for four years and driven around and seen all the neon, but didn’t really know the backstories and stuff like that," she said, "so it was nice to get a full scope of everything.”

Awareness of this historical treasure seems to be the big takeaway tonight. Organizers hope to plan more tours in the near future.

Hear more neon news by going to our series page, Sparked: Northern Nevada's Neon