Years ago, long before my family moved to Nevada, my husband and I heard cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell recite “The Old Prospector” — a tale of a man and his mule who headed to Elko “because he wanted to.”
So, when the opportunity arose to take my family to Elko, we packed up the car and headed north because, well, we wanted to.
Not having been to Northern Nevada before, we didn’t know what to expect. And our nearly 450-mile journey didn’t give us many clues. There is a lot of empty highway between home and Elko. (Make sure you stop in Ely for gasoline and other provisions; it’s 245 miles from Las Vegas.) But we were confident that the old prospector hadn’t steered us in the wrong direction and that we would find the answer once we arrived.
Visiting Elko is like stepping back in time. There isn’t much traffic on the main road through town, where the buildings look pretty much as they did when they were built decades ago. Small, family-owned businesses fill the storefronts, where everyone greets you with a smile or a wave and happily takes the time to extol the virtues of their city.
The main business area downtown can easily be explored on foot and is probably about the size of one of the resorts on the Las Vegas Strip. And instead of neon lighting up the streets at
night, the sky comes alive with thousands of stars.
Our trip, taken in early June, just happened to be in the middle of a statewide heat wave. Though we expected to enjoy cooler temperatures (June averages a high of 62.4 degrees), it was in the high 90s for most of our trip.
On the day we traveled to Lamoille, about 20 miles south of Elko, to hike, there was a major thunderstorm. So instead, we took a driving tour, stopping to see the Little Church of the Crossroads and a deer that wandered out of the nearby mountains.
This also allowed us to take advantage of the area’s museums and historical offerings.
The city is probably best known for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which is held at the end of January through the beginning of February. Mitchell, who was born in Elko County, is one of the founders of the event.
To learn more about the buckaroos (they’re not cowboys) who inhabit Northern Nevada, head over to the Western Folklife Center in the historic Pioneer Hotel on Railroad Street.
Built in 1913, traces of the hotel’s former life remain in the restored bar — complete with tin-tile ceiling — where special events are held. It also houses rotating displays and a theater/multipurpose room.
The center predates the gathering by about five years, said Charlie Seemann, executive director. He was working as a folklorist in California at the time when a casual conversation among friends and colleagues piqued the interest of enough people to make an effort to preserve the area’s heritage.
Seemann said they didn’t realize anyone would be interested in the buckaroos’ poetry and they envisioned a one-time event. It was scheduled for the middle of winter because it was a slow time for the cowboys, and Elko was chosen as the site because it was centrally located.
Only a few hundred people attended the first gathering, but several thousand are expected to attend January’s 30th anniversary celebration.
It also sparked a renaissance in cowboy music and culture.
“Elko is still a working ranch area, and poetry is very much a part of the local lifestyle,” Seemann said.
Just across the street is another must-see place: J.M. Capriola Co., which has been outfitting buckaroos and Hollywood stars since 1903 and is known for its custom saddles and Garcia bits and spurs.
The two-story establishment features nearly everything a working cowboy would need, from boots to hats and ropes to chaps. On the second floor, you can watch the experts transform plain leather into exquisitely tooled saddles. Capriola’s saddles are sought worldwide; they start at $3,800, and there’s a wait of at least a year and a half to get one, owner John Wright said.
In the center of town is the Northeastern Nevada Museum. Every aspect of life in Northern Nevada is showcased, including ranching, guns and weapons, rocks and mining and the Basque influence. The museum’s eastern wing houses the Wanamaker Wildlife Wing, a collection of taxidermy animals from around the world.
You’ll also find the denim tuxedo worn by Bing Crosby, Elko’s honorary mayor, and made especially for him by Levi’s. The story goes that he had been hunting in Canada and, when he went to check into a hotel, was turned away because he was wearing jeans so Levi’s made him a suit of denim.
One of the area’s newest additions is the California Trail Interpretive Center, about eight miles west of Elko off Interstate 80. The center tells the story of those who traversed the country between 1841 and 1869, traveling west to seek a better life and stake their claim during California’s gold rush. Through interactive displays, multimedia exhibits and life-size dioramas, you learn about the day-to-day life of the state’s pioneers.
Outside the center are covered wagons and a Shoshone summer camp. The courtyard depicts the various trails that adventurous Americans traveled on as they made their way from the head of the Missouri River to California, with each change in the pavers’ color representing 10 miles of the wagon trains’ progress.
Inside you will find the provisions typically stowed aboard the wagons, learn how the travelers measured the distance they traveled, traded with the Indians and endured hardships. There’s also an area devoted to the ill-fated Donner Party.
The year-old center’s exhibits appeal to people of all ages, with plenty of hands-on activities to keep young children engaged. There are even two hiking trails, one of which is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, in case you are inspired to blaze your own path.
Everyone we talked to about Elko said we had to experience Basque cuisine. The Basque people moved to the area in the late 1800s to tend to sheep that grazed on the land. They brought with them their cuisine and their culture, which is celebrated with a festival each July.
For dinner, we headed over to Star Hotel, the most renowned Basque restaurant in the area and which was named one of six state treasures (for the second consecutive year) by the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. The Star (246 Silver St., 775-738-9925, elkostarhotel.com) serves family style and it serves big portions, so come hungry.
Before you even order, a big bowl of homemade soup will be put on the table. Then comes a salad with the Star’s house dressing.
We shared two entrees and everyone enjoyed all the side dishes (Basque beans, pasta, French fries and vegetables). Note that sharing is expected, but those who don’t order an entree will be charged $8 for children and $12 for adults.
Also on the menu and part of the Basque experience is picon punch, which really does pack a punch. Make sure you have a designated driver. True to the wry cowboy humor evident throughout Elko, Seemann told us “Picon Punch is a lot like women’s breasts. One is not enough and three is too many.”
Other great spots to dine include Luciano’s Bar and Restaurant, which serves wonderful and delicious Italian food, and JR’s Bar and Grill inside the Gold Country Casino, which serves hearty breakfast fare.
During dinner at Luciano’s, our waitress Tabrina Bystrom, who has worked there for two years, was friendly and attentive. She let us know that all of the pasta was handmade by the owner, as were the sauces.
My youngest daughter ordered spaghetti and meatballs (four) with a rustic marinara sauce. In her words, “It was awesome.” The meatballs were tender, well-seasoned and reminiscent of something an Italian grandmother would make in her kitchen.
A wrong turn on the way to our hotel, brought a surprise and a chuckle. Just around the corner was a small red-light district, home to Mona’s Ranch and Inez’s Dancing and Diddling.
Our home base at the Red Lion hotel and casino was conveniently situated near the middle of town and had easy access to U.S. Highway 80, the main route to nearby destinations.
We also stayed one night at the Hilton Garden Inn on the east end of town. While not as conveniently located, the hotel provided a comfortable and quiet night’s respite after a long drive. As a bonus, there were free freshly baked cookies and beverages in the lobby.
There are plenty of opportunities to travel to the smaller communities that make up Elko County, with fishing, hiking, skiing and other recreational activities available year-round.
Additionally, the city hosts a variety of events, such as the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, as well as a motorcycle jamboree, Basque festival, art show, car show, county fair and mine expo.
The annual Visitors Guide from the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority has all of the necessary details, along with suggested half-day and day tours of the area. Be sure to pick one up before your trip or shortly after your arrival in Elko.
With the state’s rich history ensconced in our minds, the drive home was like a journey back in time. The vast and empty desert landscape reminded us of all we learned on our trip. We could imagine how difficult it was to traverse the rough terrain, having to hack away at desert scrub to forge a path in uncharted territory.
It gave us an understanding of how easily you could fall in love with the countryside and feel that you had found your home.
If the opportunity ever arises for you to visit Elko, you should. Why? Because you’ll want to.