Taking its cue from Mother Nature, the town is putting its outdoor adventures front and center.
BY MEGG MUELLER
Sometimes, to know the heart of a town, you need to look from the outside in. Staring down into the town of Ely, located in the state’s northeastern region, I see the requisite historical buildings that dot Nevada. I see the intense landscape that flanks the area, mostly the verdant and hardy scrub brush that thrives in the clear, dry air, and the towering Egan and Schell Creek mountain ranges that soar high above the town which itself sits at more than 6,500 feet elevation. I see kids in parks, riding bikes and skateboards, and ranchers and farmers traversing the streets in the omnipresent pickup truck. There are people jogging and riding bikes, parents taking their children to visit the ducks at the in-town pond, shopkeepers opening their doors for another day of business along U.S. Route 50, the so-called Loneliest Road in America. I see a bustling community, rich in history and in the promise of its exciting future. Nothing here looks lonely to me.
Ely sprang to life in 1870, not as a mining town, but as a stagecoach stop and post office along the Pony Express’ Central Overland Route. The town was designated the White Pine County seat in 1887 and supported surrounding mining camps such as Cherry Creek and Osceola. But Ely’s real development was a result of its own mining; in 1906, copper mining took hold and the population boomed as the state’s gold mines were beginning to fade, driving hungry miners to White Pine County’s new bounty. The boom led to the construction of the Nevada Northern Railway (NNRY), which connected Ely’s copper mines to the Southern Pacific Railroad. The copper was mined in Ruth, smelted in McGill, and shipped in Ely. It was a geologically perfect trifecta.
The geography of the area plays no small part in the fervor Ely lovers have for the town.
HISTORY AND SO MUCH MORE
“This is a year-round mountain town, with all the charm, major events, unique arts, and history, plus the best outdoor recreation in the state,” Kyle Horvath replies quickly when asked what is the allure of Ely.
Kyle is the director of tourism for White Pine County, so while he may be biased, he’s not wrong. Ely has long been an outdoor paradise for hunters, sportsmen, and nature lovers. According to hookandbullet.com, there are about 338 ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and reservoirs within 12 miles of Ely, giving ample places to fish and recreate to your water-loving heart’s content. Elk are prolific in the area; so much so there’s an elk viewing station just 11 miles south of town.
For all the outdoor recreation opportunities, Kyle is keen on keeping the origins of the town ever-present for everyone to enjoy. The history of the town is best honored, he says, by continuing to tell the story in new ways and there are some great synergistic opportunities to that end:
• Signage at the new 18-hole disc golf course at Ward Mountain Recreation Area includes information about birds golfers might encounter while on the course.
• NNRY will act as a bike shuttle, taking riders directly to the Garnet Hill trail head 6 miles outside of town. The Trains to Trail program started in June.
The train shuttle is one that both Kyle and Mark Bassett, president of NNRY, are particularly excited about. The history of the railroad in Ely is central to the town’s identity and can be experienced in many ways at NNRY, and by visiting the East Ely Depot Museum for a deep dive into what it took to keep a railroad going back in the day. Adding the element of adventure to an already cool train ride, the train-bike shuttle is a match made in heaven for anyone seeking something beyond the usual outing.
COMMITTED TO GETTING OUTSIDE
There are hundreds of miles of dirt roads in any direction around the city which is a boon to the avid Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) users that live in and visit Ely. Access to these trails is so important that, in 2018, the city approved the use of OHV on a number of city streets, basically making downtown the perfect trailhead.
“Riders can leave from their hotel parking lot and access all these trails,” Kyle says.
For some of us, seeing dirt roads and miles of trails sparks the desire to discover where the road leads, but if you have the desire but not the OHV, it can be a serious bummer. In Ely, however, that problem is easily solved by Eastern Nevada Adventures.
Bruce Eldridge is a lifelong White Pine County resident, growing up on the family ranch and returning there after college. He’s worked in both ranching and mining, but he and his wife Amanda decided to start Eastern Nevada Adventures OHV rentals in early 2018.
“We felt there was a need for a new recreational activity in Ely that allowed visitors a new activity or reason to stay another day,” Bruce says.
Whether it’s visitors itching to explore the incredible scenery, or a local family who’d rather leave their truck at home, renting a Kawasaki Teryx4 is the perfect option for those seeking adventure without the big price tag of buying a side-by-side.
“People are looking for the wind in their face,” Bruce says. “They want to get outside, and it’s not about power or speed. Lots of families are renting, and they take a cooler, have a picnic, and talk to each other. It’s a way to reconnect.”
Bruce says the Success Loop near Cave Lake just southeast of town is probably the most popular destination, and he offers trailer service so people can get the OHV where they want it. In-town pickup offers many nearby options, but for those looking to ride around Ward Charcoal Ovens Historic State Park or search for elk near Cave Lake, having the vehicle delivered makes the experience all the more seamless.
Kyle and I met Bruce at his office, which is right on Ely’s main street. After some safety tips and driving instructions, we headed out of town to see how far we could get up Ward Mountain after the recent snowfall. As we neared the top, a snowdrift turned us around. No matter: the Kawasaki had delivered us to a breathtaking vantage point, and we set off toward further adventures, just in a different direction.
The ability to find outdoor recreation within a few minutes of your front door is one of the draws of Ely, Bruce says. His business is seeing clients from all over the globe, all looking for a way to navigate the gorgeous terrain that surrounds Ely.
If you prefer going up a mountain under your own power, the mountain biking around Ely is perfect for all levels of riders.
“We have 50 miles of world-class singletrack,” Kyle says. “We will have 100 miles all accessible to downtown, thanks to a 30-mile trail expansion on Ward Mountain by the Nevada Division of Forestry, and a partnership between the Bureau of Land Management and the International Mountain Biking Association for a 21-mile trail expansion on Garnet Hill.”
Riding up just a small part of the Ice Plant Canyon trails—where the annual Tears, Fears, and Beers enduro ride has happened for 15 years—I can see why “Adventure Sports Journal” wrote that Ely was “On Track to Become the Next Mountain Biking Mecca” in its April issue. The trails alternate between smooth single track with consistent climb, to downhill-only trails that reward the ferocious climber with sweet dips, manicured berms, and enough jumps to satisfy even the most hardcore downhiller. Maps are available all over town for both the biking and OHV trails (hikers, don’t feel left out…there’s plenty of room for you, too). Kyle tells me more signage is in the works to augment the maps and give users the best experience possible.
Once the lure of the trail has been sated, there’s still plenty to do. Ely is home to the most remoted 18-hold golf course in the U.S., and you know how much Nevadans love our remote spaces. Beautiful greens coupled with Ely’s elevation, and you might just have your best day on the links. The pandemic had significant impact on Ely’s other golf course, but it actually improved it. Kyle, dealing with the quarantine of 2020, started to work on improving the existing 9-hole disc golf course. Now an 18-hole course with new tee boxes, baskets, and signage, you haven’t played disc golf until you’re shooting through the juniper that dots the course.
The elevation is just one more attractive thing about a visit to town, Kyle mentions.
“Sitting at 6,500 ft, it’s a great way to beat the heat while the rest of the state is cooking,” he says.
IF YOU BUILD IT…
Like many outdoor recreation destinations, the town is aware that supporting the community of adventurers they hope will flock to the area is just as important as building trails and offering rentals. The infrastructure has to support tourism, and Ely is answering the call. Thanks to mining’s consistent presence the town of about 5,000 people has more than 1,000 hotel rooms awaiting guests, plus plenty of options for both dry and RV camping.
Restaurants run the gamut from a few chain locations to local pizza parlors, myriad international eateries, swanky steakhouses, and cozy cafes. The Hotel Nevada has an impressive craft beer selection at its casino bar, while Taproot offers more flavored caffeinated beverages than I previously thought possible. The centrally located Taproot has been open about a year, and already has a devoted following for its delicious coffees, pastries, bagels (with organic almond butter, if you like), ice cream cones, shakes, fruit smoothies, and wide selection of boba teas. It’s the perfect before and after adventure spot.
Giving other businesses a chance to shine and be a part of Ely’s outdoor tourism effort was important to Bruce and Amanda, also.
We wanted to have a business located in downtown and provide an opportunity for some other businesses to set up,” Bruce says.
To that end in the parking lot of Eastern Nevada Adventures, some say the best sandwiches in town can be found at Shorty’s Food Truck, the city’s longest running food truck business. Bruce adds that Perigo Beef has a pop-up beef selling station every few weeks, and an out-of-town food truck—Fire-Up Creations—comes on various weekends.
CHECKS ALL THE BOXES
Trails galore, natural splendor, a comfy place to lie your head, and plenty of options for tasty dining and imbibing. As a trail junkie myself—biking, OHV, hiking, you name it—these are the criteria that make me choose an outdoor destination. How well towns pull off the amenities the adventure traveler seeks is what separates the gorgeous scenery you just drive through and the places you know you need to stop for a few days.