Historic Elko, Nevada
Taking a scenic drive through Northern Nevada during the winter season will reward travelers with snow draped Great Basin Desert landscapes and a chance to visit historic towns that offer plenty of old fashioned hospitality. Northern Nevada destinations, like Elko, offer an opportunity to escape the hectic pace of the the mainstream modern lifestyle and find comfort in a relaxed small town atmosphere that still has an old west theme.
Nevada covers a large portion of the west and the distance between points of interest can be several hundred miles. This is especially true in northern Nevada where communities can be more than 50 miles apart. During the winter season, it is easy to be mesmerized by the white color of the snowy landscape when traveling long distances on roads like I-80. This is not to say that the driving experience is like going “stare crazy” from sheer boredom, because the opposite is true. It is more like the pristine landscape of snow white color mountains, rolling hills and vast plains are so interesting to look at, that it is easy to slip into a dreamlike state.
After a while of driving in the bright white color of the wide open desert country during winter, one simply does not want to interrupt the endless dreamlike visual experience. Before you know it, the illusion of time disappears and hours pass by quickly, then the destination appears on the horizon sooner than expected. After being in the winter wonderland for so long, it takes a good five minutes to get the senses back in order before hitting the bricks.
Elko, Nevada is a great landing spot for winter season travelers on I-80. Elko definitely is an out of the way destination in the eyes of many tourists, but the highway commuters in this region provide a steady flow of traffic through town. There are only a few two lane state roads that lead to Elko, but traveling on the state roads can mean driving an extra 150 miles just to find a place to make a pit stop. The old country roads also take longer to clear after a big snow storm, so the major highway routes are a better choice during the winter season. Elko is about halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City on Interstate Highway 80, so this location is a good place to take a break when doing this long commute.
Elko did not originate as a pioneer town, even though the old California Trail was close by. Elko began as a railroad town in the late 1860’s, when the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was underway. Elko eventually became a major stopping point for travelers heading west and for those who had gold fever. Money flowed freely back then and Elko had some wild times back in gold rush days. As time progressed, mining, ranching and tourism became dominant in Northern Nevada and Elko catered to these industries, while retaining the character of an old west railroad town.
Elko is surrounded by open range cattle ranching territory, so this town caters to cowboys and cowgirls of all ages. There are some great western wear shops downtown and the saddleries are well worth checking out. Many rodeo stars come from Elko and a few of them perform at the Las Vegas National Finals Rodeo each year.
The Northeastern Nevada Museum is located on the main street area and the chamber of commerce is located a few blocks away in an old 1800’s home that was constructed with rough split timber. Relics of the old west, the Transcontinental Railroad and the mining industry can be seen at these two places. There is even a Western Folklife Center downtown and it was busy with elementary school group outings on the day that I visited Elko. Just like the sign says, the Western Folklife Center is “Cowboy Poetry Reading Headquarters” so be sure to check out this interesting cultural center while downtown!
The mountainous region surrounding Elko is renowned as being an outdoor sportsman’s paradise, because the Elk and Mule Deer hunting in this area is some of the best in the west. There are some great trophy and taxidermy shops in town. There are plenty of local hunting guides for hire too.
Elko is a northern Nevada gambling mecca and the casinos still value doing things the old school way. Customers are greeted with smiles and classic old school western hospitality is spoken here. Regional country music stars headline at some of the casinos. The slot machine payout schedules are pretty good and many of the poker machines pay better than 8 to 1 on a Full House. What this means is that a gambler can have fun playing for a longer time while in pursuit of a big jackpot and this is much more entertaining than watching the money vanish in just a few seconds at a modern casino that only offers short odds.
Culturally, there is a fairly large population of people in Elko that are descendant of Basque sheepherders from the 1800s. Sheep herding has been part of the Northern Nevada ranch industry for a long time and this cultural influence is part of the scene in Elko. Elko happens to be one of the few cities in America that has restaurants that specialize in traditional Basque cuisine.
After walking around taking pictures of the scenic sights for a few hours, hunger finally set in. I looked at plenty of restaurant and casino menus that were posted in windows around town. Comfort food fans will really like Elko, because it seems like almost every restaurant offers good old fashioned western diner style comfort food that is easy to recognize. This is the kind of food that cowboys like!
Later in the day while I was fiddling around with a poker machine in the Gold Country Casino, “Lady Luck” was present and I hit a small jackpot. I decided to give the daily special a try at JR’s Bar & Grill inside the casino. All I can say is that the Triple Decker Hamburger Club Sandwich with Tabasco Fries was an awesome munch for lunch!
Is it worth doing a long distance drive just to spend a little time visiting Elko? I guess that the answer just depends on how much one likes to drive in the wide open spaces or whether the need to just temporarily get away from the modern world is more important than all the gold in the world. Elko has plenty to offer, especially if being in a good old fashioned western style comfort zone is a high priority!