To begin to understand the texture of this increasingly cultured cowtown, it helps to set foot inside Cowboy Joe Coffee.
The popular coffeehouse at 376 Fifth St. immediately engulfs you with intoxicating scents of grand grinding. In addition to the traditional cups of Joe, the daring can order lattes with names such as Funky Monkey, Hummingbird, honey vanilla, Malibu, Rodeo Clown and Nutty Englishman.
Take a moment away from the lattes and espresso options to remind yourself this place exists in the Northern Nevada town with a hard-core reputation for ranching and mining. And, sure enough, you’ll find pickup-driving ranch hands in line next to the Subaru and Saab set. At Cowboy Joe, a fellow in a broad-brimmed hat waits in line next to some mountain bikers fresh from the trail.
Approximately 440 miles north of Las Vegas and 290 miles east of Reno, Elko isn’t what it seems to the casual visitor traveling on Interstate 80. The Humboldt River meanders through the place that in 1868 provided a rest stop for westering pioneers along the California Trail. Elko became a camp for the Central Pacific Railroad, and by its 1917 incorporation it already had a long and colorful history.
Northern Nevada’s booming gold mines keep Elko bustling these days. It’s truly a town that mixes tradition with a new sensibility.
“It’s a busy little town, especially with the mining industry,” city finance department employee Shelley Petersen says. The eight-year resident is like a lot of Elko residents, who appreciate the town’s traditions but enjoy the new things it offers, whether it’s a Wine Walk through the downtown area or the Harley heaven of the annual summer Motorcycle Jamboree.
With the majestic Ruby Mountains nearby, Elko has no shortage of outdoor activities whether you’re hiking, mountain biking or planning a hunting or fishing trip.
“From my own point of view, Elko has a lot of outdoor recreation that people might not know about,” Petersen says.
Elko will surprise you with its mix of traditional and new experiences.
For tradition, nothing tops a trip to J.M. Capriola’s, a must-see Western store that not only features boots and hats, but Garcia spurs and bits and renowned custom saddle making on the property. There’s even a historic saddle exhibit on the second floor.
Then there’s the Duncan Littlecreek Gallery at 518 Commercial St., which features the work of regional artists in a variety of mediums. Elko’s annual Art in the Park gathering offers another opportunity to see the truly impressive and eclectic variety of work being done, whether the artist is on a ranch or working downtown.
Although you might need to pack a parka, winter can be one of the best times of the year to visit Elko. For instance, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which for the past 28 years has drawn roping, rhyming ranchers and cow-punchers for a January festival that celebrates their uniquely American heritage, artistry and craftsmanship.
Elko also has a long connection to the Basque shepherd culture of northern Spain, and for more than a century it has played host each July to the National Basque Festival. The traditional food and wine is enough to make you want to don a beret and join the traditional dancers — or perhaps even run with the bulls.
To learn more about Elko’s crossroads of culture, a trip to the Western Folklife Center is essential. Housed in the historic Pioneer Hotel, the regional nonprofit center is dedicated to chronicling and celebrating the region’s unique story and people.
Those seeking the traditional Nevada menu of gambling, drinking and big steaks will find such things in abundance at the Stockmen’s Hotel &Casino and the historic Commercial Casino at 345 Fourth St.
At the Commercial, the 10-foot-4-inch “White King” polar bear greets visitors just inside the door. The bear was bagged more than 60 years ago in Alaska, but it’s a relative newcomer in a casino and rooming house that first greeted customers in 1869. The Commercial is all about tradition, but it manages to keep up with the newer kids on the block.
But no trip to Elko is complete without a visit to the Star Hotel, a Basque restaurant and bar with few peers anywhere. The family-style service and heaping portions are overwhelming even by Basque standards. The steaks and lamb are some of the finest you’ll find for hundreds of miles around. Add a Picon Punch — a brandy and Amer Picon concoction that tastes of herbs, orange peel and the Old Country — and you’ll start to think you look downright natural in that beret.