The high desert valleys and mountain ranges of northern Nevada are traversed by Interstate 80 — the transcontinental highway that inspires a pedal-to-the-metal style of driving adopted by those who need to get somewhere, fast.
Nevada’s ranching and mining history abides in these sagebrush landscapes, and is accessible in such places as Unionville ghost town and the Cowboy Arts and Gear Museum in Elko. Stop at those and other spots to discover the American West — along with a few other surprises.
396 miles/637 km
Check out the map HERE.
LEG 1: RENO TO WINNEMUCCA (166 miles/267 km)
With a population of 225,000, Reno is one of Nevada’s larger urban areas, and the ranches of the early 20th century — where women seeking divorces often rented rooms while fulfilling their residency requirements — are a thing of the past. But the city’s Wild West legacy lives on in such events as the annual Reno Rodeo in June, and at Louis’ Basque Corner restaurant.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: If you want to take a deeper dive into understanding the rich mining history in the area, take the 45-minute drive south of Reno to Virginia City. Here, visitors can bask in the former glory of the legendary Comstock Lode, which was one of the largest silver strikes in American history. The wealth from the silver ore mined in the area helped develop much of Northern Nevada, and the Western United States, and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark District.
From Reno, it’s off to Fernley, a city of 19,000 people about a 30-minute drive to the east on Interstate 80. Refresh yourself with a variety of tasty milkshakes at Mary and Moe’s Wigwam (you can't go wrong with butterscotch,) and check out its Native American Museum. And, keep your eyes peeled for the Main Street Art Park - a sculpture garden that houses some of the artwork from the annual Burning Man event, just north of Fernley in the Black Rock Desert. Continue east for about an hour to reach to Lovelock, population 1,900, once a stop for pioneers traveling to California for the Gold Rush of 1848. (Note: The section of Interstate 80 from Elko to Lovelock roughly follows the California Trail, which followed the path of the Humboldt River.)
Lovelock is anchored by the Pershing County Courthouse, opened in 1921 and sporting a grassy courtyard, Lovers Lock Plaza, where couples can take part in a tradition symbolizing eternal love. While here, take note of the Courthouse's unique round shape, which was designed by locally renowned architecht, Frederic DeLongchamps. He built the Pershing County Courthouse, along with a slew of other Nevada county courthouses and noteworthy properties peppered throughout the state. Also in town: the Cowpoke Café, for a tasty bite to eat; and Nanny Jo’s, for antique shopping.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: Lovelock Cave, a former archaeological site maintained by the federal Bureau of Land Management, is about a 30-minute drive to the south. Now empty, the cave was used thousands of years ago by people living near ancient Humboldt Lake. The cave was originally ocupied by ancient Shoshone living in the region, who used the cave as a diurnal shelter. Though hard to believe, nearly 10,000 artifacts were recovered from the cave during a 1920s excavation, including the oldest known Tule Duck Decoys on earth. The original decoys are now housed in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., but the Tule Duck Decoy has officially been deemed the Official State Artifact of Nevada. Word to the wise: Visit the BLM office in Reno, Winnemucca or Elko for a copy of the “Lovelock Cave Back Country Byway” brochure, which includes a map and more information about the area.
Rye Patch State Recreation Area, a 22-mile-long reservoir with hiking trails, is about a 30-minute drive northeast of Lovelock on Interstate 80, and about 20 minutes past that is the roadside attraction Thunder Mountain in Imlay, listed on the Nevada State Register of Historic Places. Looking for an opportunity to jump out of the car and stretch your legs to see something you certainly wouldnt encounter anywhere else? That, my friends, is Thunder Mountain.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: To take a break from I-80 for a few hours, or an overnighter, opt for a short detour to Unionville ghost town, a mining community in the late 19th century and the spot where author Mark Twain once prospected, is a 40 minute detour (one way) from Imlay on Nevada state Route 400. One of Mark Twain's original cabins can still be found in town, and an overnight at the Old Pioneer Garden B&B Guest Ranch will be a decision you won't soon forget, as the property features many historical buildings (like the town's original blacksmith shop, and more) that have been repurposed as guest rooms.
From there, it’s another 30-minute drive to Winnemucca, one of the state’s oldest settlements due to its location near the Humboldt River. Named after a Paiute Indian chief in the region, Winnemucca is home of the Buckaroo Hall of Fame & Heritage Museum as well as the Humboldt Museum.
TravelNevada PROTIP: If you find yourself in Winnemucca for the night, take the 1 hour drive north to the living ghost town of Paradise Valley. Here, bask in the glory of historic structures so good, that it feels like you've just stepped onto a Western movie set. About 100 or so people still live in the area, that was aptly named by settlers who were under the impression they'd actually found Heaven on Earth... or, Paradise. Aside from the historic Micca House and other fascinating original structures, be sure to pop into the Paradise Valley Saloon & Bar G. Word on the street is that they've got the best Saturday Night Steaks in the state, and quite the selection of whisky to boot.
Eating in Winnemucca: If you’re really hungry, do The Martin Hotel, one of a handful of historical Basque dinner houses found in northern Nevada. Another option for the hungry: Ormachea’s Dinner House. Did we mention that you can get a good meal around here if you're hungry?
CATCH SOME ZZZs
- Best Western Gold Country Inn, 921 W. Winnemucca Blvd., Winnemucca, 775-623-6999, BestWestern.com
- Candlewood Suites Winnemucca, 460 E. Winnemucca Blvd., Winnemucca, 775-623-2700, Candlewood Suites.com
- Scott Shady Court, 400 First St., Winnemucca, 775-623-3646, ScottShadyCourt.com
LEG 2: WINNEMUCCA TO ELKO (124 miles/199 km)
Continue east on Interstate 80 for about 2 hours and you’ll hit the cryptically named Battle Mountain, a community of 3,635 people with neither a mountain nor historical records of a battle being fought nearby. What you will find: Roller Coaster Fireworks Outlet, the shop of the Cassorla brothers — Earl and Spider — who can advise on fireworks and where they can be discharged. Here, you can count on walking in a customer and leaving as a friend. Learn about the area’s history at the Battle Mountain Cookhouse Museum before heading out to Elko, the heart of Nevada’s cowboy and ranching culture.
Founded in 1869 as a railroad town, Elko quickly assumed its character as the center of the state’s cattle industry. Today, mining is Elko’s major enterprise, but cattle ranches and other remnants of the city’s cowboy past remain. Saddles, bridles and other cowboy items are displayed at the Cowboy Arts and Gear Museum, opened in early 2018 in the historical Garcia Bit & Spur Co. building. One of the main forces behind the museum is J.M. Capriola Co., a longstanding Western wear and gear shop where saddles still are made by hand. Don’t forget to check out the nearby Western Folklife Center, home of the organization that oversees the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The center, open throughout the year, has a gift shop and art gallery.
Other Elko places to check out: the Northeastern Nevada Museum, showcasing the area’s local and natural history, as well as a collection of work by Western artist and author Will James; and the California Trail Interpretive Center (about eight miles west of town on Interstate 80). About a quarter million people traveled the California trail from 1841 to 1869 — their stories are told here in a series of hands-on exhibits. Take in the beauty of the nearby Ruby Mountains by driving the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway. It’s a 30-minute drive from Elko to the Ruby Mountains and Lamoille Canyon. This glacier-carved canyon is known for beautiful fall foliage and spring waterfalls, and commonly referred to as the Alps of Nevada.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: Tuscarora, a former mining town and site of the annual Tuscarora Summer Pottery School, is about an hour’s drive northwest of Elko. Founded in 1867 on the promise of rich gold and silver veins in the area, Tuscarora’s population swelled to 5,000 by 1878. The mines eventually played out, and the community dwindled into a ghost town, a common storyline in rural Nevada.
The Basque influence is strong in Elko — the city is home to the annual National Basque Festival (typically held during the Fourth of July weekend each year) and to one of the most well-known Basque dinner houses in the state: The Star Hotel.
CATCH SOME ZZZs
LEG 3: ELKO TO WEST WENDOVER (107miles/172 km) AND BEYOND
Hike, and maybe even see a mule deer or mountain goat, at Angel Lake, an alpine lake in the East Humboldt Range, an extension of the Ruby Mountains. It’s about an hour’s drive from Elko, and when visiting the region, be sure to plan ahead and include a trip to Ruby Mountain Brewing Co., located on Steve Safford's Angel Creek Ranch and open by appointment. The brewery is about a 20-minute drive from Angel Lake; if you skip the lake, the brewery is about a 30-minute drive south of Wells. Stop at the city of Wells for a bite to eat at Bella’s Restaurant and Espresso.
Continue east on Interstate 80 for about 1 hour to get to West Wendover — not to be confused with Wendover, which, although it is contiguous with West Wendover, is in the state of Utah and in another time zone (Nevada is on Pacific Standard Time; Utah is in the Mountain Time Zone).
West Wendover’s a great base camp while visiting other regional gems, including the Historic Wendover Airfield, a repository of World War II Army Air Force history. There’s also Blue Lake, a hot springs-fed lake that is popular with scuba divers about a 30-minute drive from West Wendover. If your journey continues east on Interstate 80, you’ll come upon the Bonneville Salt Flats, formed when ancient Lake Bonneville dried up. The flat landscape, covered with a crust of salty soil, includes the Bonneville Speedway, where numerous land speed records have been set.
Snap a photo with the beloved Wendover Will on Wendover Boulevard. You can’t miss him — he’s a 63-foot tall neon sign that got his start in 1952, welcoming guests to one of the area’s casinos. If scheduling allows, catch a show at the Peppermill Concert Hall or venture to the Goshute Mountains, where Hawkwatch International operates a migration monitoring station to study raptors as they migrate through the Intermountain Flyway.