Nevada Northern Railroad takes passengers back to the past

The Nevada Northern Railroad in Ely re-creates bygone days when railways connected most of Nevada's towns and mining camps with each other and the world outside the Silver State. When passengers board the Nevada Northern, they ride in refurbished passenger cars, open gondolas and cabooses pulled by restored diesel or steam locomotives. The trains rumble from the handsome East Ely Depot along historic routes to the copper mining area in the mountains, to a milling site in the Steptoe Valley or a combination of both routes.

Ely lies 240 miles from Las Vegas using the primary route on U.S. 93. Many travelers prefer the somewhat shorter route using the Sunnyside Cut-off from U.S. 93 near Hiko through Lund to U.S. 6 and into Ely. Either route provides plenty of wide open spaces and dramatic Great Basin scenery. Plan to stay overnight or longer in Ely. The White Pine County Chamber of Commerce lists many motels.

The Nevada Northern earns wide recognition as a well-preserved and little-altered relic from the steam railroad era. Named a National Historic Landmark in 2006, the railway complex includes dozens of structures, several steam and diesel locomotives, vintage rolling stock, tools, equipment and corporate records from the copper interests that brought the railroad to Eastern Nevada in 1906.

When Kennecott Copper decided to close its pits and milling operations near Ely in the early 1960s, the corporation vacated the railroad complex as well. It gave the entire complex to the city of Ely and the nonprofit White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation. The unique partnership has since been joined by the Nevada State Museum system, which maintains the vast collection of railroad artifacts and conducts hour-long tours of the depot and rail yard. Thousands of people stroll into the past as they tour the vintage depot, corporate offices and railway outbuildings.

Visit the museum separately or as part of the train excursion. Museum visits cost $4 for adults and $2 for children. Youngsters aged 3 and younger tour free of charge. Train excursion tickets cost $24 for adults and $15 for children on each of the two train routes. Combination rides behind two different locomotives on both routes cost $37 for adults and $20 for children. Free rides await moms on Mother's Day and dads on Father's Day. If you want to ride in the caboose or the cab of the locomotive, you'll pay more and you'll need reservations.

Unique experiences await visitors boarding the trains rolling from the East Ely Depot nearly 10 months of the year. From mid-May through September, from one to four trains a day make excursion runs six days a week, usually not on Tuesdays. Trains run on weekends and holidays during spring, fall and early winter. The train yards are quiet during the winter months, except for occasional "steam-ups" in the cold winter air providing nostalgic excitement and excellent photo opportunities.

Several special themed excursions include adults-only wine trains on a few summer evenings, an Independence Day barbecue and fireworks train, chocolate sampling trains, beer trains during Octoberfest, ghost trains leading up to Halloween, and a "Polar Express" around Christmas. Expect to pay more for these excursions. For instance, fares on the four remaining sunset wine train rides cost $46 for wine and appetizers. Check for times and details or reserve your seat aboard any of these special excursions at, or by phone at (775) 289-2085 or toll-free at (866) 407-8326.

Few railroads offer visitors a chance to operate a locomotive, especially a steam locomotive. This year from July through October, railroad buffs participate in an experience unique to the Nevada Northern Railroad when they take the throttle of locomotives in the rail yards or out on the main lines. Fees for this experience are commensurate with the rarity of the opportunity. Engineers in training pay $345 to operate a diesel locomotive and $495 for a steam engine in the yards. To operate locomotives on the 14 miles of the main line costs $495 for diesel and $695 for steam. Would-be engineers fulfill their dreams by operating both steam and diesel locomotives on 28 miles of track for a fee of $985.

Margo Bartlett Pesek's column appears on Sundays.