Cowboy poets, Basque culture, and glacier-carved canyons meet in northeastern Nevada.
It is said that the Central Pacific Railroad’s Charles Crocker liked naming railhead towns after animals. Apparently he hoped to ease the pronunciation of "elk" by adding an "o." Whether or not it rolled off the tongues of those early settlers, the town of Elko had its name.
Elko got its start in the last week of 1868 as a small community of tents, a beginning shared by many Old West towns along the soon-to-be-completed Transcontinental Railroad. By March, 1869, it was the county seat of the newly created county of the same name. The railroad’s completion in May helped the town grow as a major freight terminal serving the region’s vital mining industry. Nearly 125 years later, Elko was named the country’s number one small town in Norman Crampton’s book The 100 Best Small Towns in America.
At 5,060 feet, Elko enjoys a temperate climate. Encouraged by the high desert’s open expanse, cattle ranching soon became as important to the region as mining. It wasn’t long before the cattle ranchers, used to having the grazing land to themselves, began butting heads with some new arrivals in the West, Basque immigrants hired for their shepherding skills. After a few armed conflicts, calmer heads prevailed and decided that compromise over who got what would better serve all those involved.
The Basque people hail from the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France; their language is unlike any other in Europe. The Basques gather in Elko annually in July to celebrate their culture at the National Basque Festival. Events include folk dancing, weight lifting and wood chopping competitions, a talent show, and the Irrintzi (war cry) contest.
You’ll get a good overview of Elko’s history at the Northeastern Nevada Museum, 1515 Idaho Street, (702) 738-3418. Exhibits on mining and Basque culture are complemented by an art gallery, wildlife displays, and an impressive collection of historic firearms. Near the entrance stands Elko’s oldest structure, an 1860 Pony Express Cabin relocated from the Ruby Valley.
A stroll around town reveals other historic buildings, including the 1869 Dewar Home, the 1910 County Courthouse, and the 1929 Henderson Bank Building. The Chamber of Commerce can provide walking tour information.
For those looking for one-arm bandits and other gaming (this is Nevada after all), there’s Stockmen’s Casino, Red Lion Casino, and Gold Country Casino. In addition to catering to gamblers, the 120-year-old Commercial Hotel has the distinction of displaying Nevada’s largest stuffed polar bear.
The legacy and imagery associated with cowboys and buckaroos are brought into focus at the Western Folklife Center, 5th and Railroad streets, (702) 738-7508. Formerly the Pioneer Hotel, constructed in 1912-13 for the impressive sum of $50,000, the center hosts several art and photography exhibits, concerts, and cultural events throughout the year. It sponsors the famed Cowboy Poetry Gathering in late January. A week of workshops, music, stories, and, yes, poetry, the Gathering is enormously popular. It’s not too early to make reservations now if you plan to attend next year.
Southeast of town, the high desert gives way to the aspen, spruce, and piñon of the Ruby Mountains. Nicknamed the "Alps of Nevada," the Rubies run through part of the Humboldt National Forest. The peaks are snow-covered year-round, standing sentinel over alpine lakes, glacier-carved canyons, and high-mountain wildlife.
For a dramatic sampling of the Rubies, visit Lamoille Canyon which shares its name with a small town on its northern edge. Though three years older than Elko, the hamlet of Lamoille lacks much of the hustle and bustle of its neighbor. The 1907 Presbyterian Church, with its alpine backdrop, is one of the most photographed churches in the state. Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski, (702) 753-6867, which helicopters skiers into the mountains to tackle virgin snow, is also based here in winter.
A National Scenic Byway, the 12-mile-road into the canyon climbs past fields of wildflowers to more and more far-reaching vistas. Along the route, interpretive stops explain the glacial forces responsible for the canyon’s creation, a short nature trail highlights area flora, and a few hiking trails take off. At 8,800 feet, the road ends at a parking area where one may continue on foot or horseback.
From the end of Lamoille Canyon, the Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail traverses along the mountains, at times rising above 10,000 feet. Sharp eyes may spot deer, mountain goats, or bighorn sheep. Extending to Green Mountain and Harrison Pass Road, some 40 miles to the south, the trail’s first 5 to 10 miles tend to be most popular for day hiking. Fishing enthusiasts will find brook, rainbow, and lake trout waiting in quiet isolation in more than 20 alpine lakes that dot the range. The high meadows are rich with wildflowers—paintbrush, lupine, primrose, and sunflower among others.
Melting snows feed a vast area of lakes, springs, and marshes on the east side of the range. There, the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the state’s premier bird viewing areas. The 37,000-plus acres of marsh, meadow, and grassland lie within the migration flyway of over 200 species of birds and waterfowl—among them egrets, sandhill cranes, ducks, falcons, eagles. Camping, boating, and fishing for plentiful bass and trout are permitted. The Ruby Lake Refuge Headquarters is open daily 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Those with a reliable 4WD vehicle, and a full day to explore, can loop around the mountains by taking SR 228 south along the western side of the range, crossing Har-rison Pass (7,300 ft.) to the east side north of Ruby Lake, then returning north to SR 229.
A note of caution: much of this route is on dirt roads with few or no services. Inquire locally before setting out.
Photography courtesy of Famartin/Wikipedia
This article was first published in May 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.