Northeastern Nevada's largest town packs a visit of any length with a combination of epic outdoor action, artsy vibes, and hands-on history in ways few places can. Colorful murals blanket old brick buildings that house buckaroo bars, Basque food joints, art galleries, leather shops, museums, and more. Meanwhile, just a half-hour south lie the fabled Ruby Mountains, a recreational paradise for hikers, bikers, fishermen, skiers, or simply Sunday drivers seeking solace among alpine lakes, flowing streams, and peaks that scratch up to around 13,000' of elevation. If you blast down I-80 and blow past Elko, you're missing out.
Elko, Nevada: Altitude Adjustment
So, where is Elko, Nevada? Sitting just above 5,000 feet, this thriving Nevada city is nestled in the northeastern corner of the state. As the largest town in the region—and therefore a must-stop along the Cowboy Corridor road trip, Elko is both a confluence of Western cultures and a gateway to some of Nevada’s most surprising and untamed wilderness. In town, head for cultural institutions that anchor Nevada’s artistic heritage, check out some of Nevada’s most iconic restaurants, explore dozens of murals and free public art, or hit up one of our classic Sagebrush Saloons.
History of Elko, Nevada
Elko sprang to life in 1869 with the development of the Transcontinental Railroad. As a brand new stop along this cross country route, Elko soon became a base for gold and silver mining, as well as raising livestock. Buckaroos punched cattle on big ranches and surrounding lands, while sheepherders drove flocks up to higher elevations—a tough job that ultimately drew hundreds of Basques from Spain and France.
Those jobs and today’s version of that culture—as well as that of the Western Shoshone people, whose ancestors have long called the region home—are still around, and the region’s colorful heritage remains highly visible in Elko’s museums; in its restaurants, menus and cocktail glasses; at its annual events like the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the National Basque Festival, and the Elko Band Powwow; and beyond.
Outdoor Things to Do in Elko
The range of recreational opportunities here is as wide as the landscapes, especially in the region’s crown jewels, the Ruby Mountains, located a quick and scenic half-hour south of town. Often likened to the Swiss Alps, their steep, craggy terrain spikes up past 11,000 ft., only to be united by the aspen-studded, creek-harboring, glacier-carved slice of paradise that is Lamoille Canyon.
In summer, the area is an absolute paradise for hikers, backpackers, cyclists (on and off the pavement), and anglers who are rarely prepared for how amazing the fishing is out here. (Check out our Guide to Summer Fun in the Ruby Mountains for our top recs.)
Come winter, the Rubies boast 300 inches of the driest, fluffiest snow in the USA—seducing snowshoers, snowmobilers, and powder-hungry backcountry skiers and heli-skiers alike.
Arts & Culture in Elko
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (see below) and the National Basque Festival anchor the region’s special events scene, but Elko is also home to the Silver State’s oldest rodeo—the Silver State Stampede. But it ain’t all old-school action: in 2019, Elko was the recipient of a vibrant facelift, all thanks to the Elko Mural Expo—a live painting event that recruited more than 40 muralists to create more than 50 murals in just a few short days, with subjects ranging from pastoral scenes from Elko’s past to wildly psychedelic and abstract designs.
Locals know this place is gorgeous and many have captured it on film, canvas and more. Take-home crafts from gift shops at the Northeastern Nevada Museum, or even off the walls at Cowboy Joe or Duncan LittleCreek Gallery & Bar.
Swing by the Northeastern Nevada Museum to view a gallery of original works by Ansel Adams, legendary Western painter Will E. James, and numerous local artists—as well as an entire room full of taxidermied critters interacting in various “habitats” (its own form of artistic expression). View some truly artisan contemporary leatherwork and gear making at world-famous J.M. Capriola Co., then head a few doors down to the Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum to see the craft’s place in history. As you plan the next leg of your own adventure, get some inspiration from the pioneers who endured the 2,000-mile trek west at the California Trail Interpretive Center.
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Elko is where some of Nevada’s real cowboys—or in Nevada, buckaroos—work and play, and the Western spirit lives on. Elko’s authenticity has earned the town its spot as one of the Top True Western Towns in the United States. In fact, cowboys from across the nation flock to Elko every January for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a celebration of the cowboy lifestyle and the rural West.
How many places can you encounter a ranch matriarch, an American Indian poet laureate, a pre-teen yodeling champ, bronc-riding and free-verse slam poets, all in a single show? To clarify, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering isn’t just about poetry. And like the real American West, it certainly isn’t just for cowboys. For nearly 40 years, this signature Nevada event has drawn working ranch hands and urban cowboys alike to its lyrical blend of the Wild West with poetry, song, video, visual art, new media and more. Evolved from the earliest storytelling of the buckaroos who ranched and rode the western U.S., the art form has earned an international audience.
Basque Dinner Houses & Other Restaurants in Elko
While some visitors come to Elko for the arts and culture and others for the outdoor recreation, one thing every visitor does here is beeline for Basque cuisine. From traditional family style Basque main courses like lamb chops, garlic-loaded steaks, and sweetbreads with multi-course sides like oxtail soup and french fries to homemade chorizo and steak sandwiches, nobody around here leaves hungry. Head for the Star Hotel, a legendary Nevada institution and rite of passage for visitors and locals alike, for the full family-style experience. For lighter, elevated bites, Ogi Deli Bar & Pintxos and to Toki Ona should be your first stop to try one of the tastiest steak sandwiches in the state. But what do all three beg for you to try? Their take on the traditional tastes of a Picon Punch, Nevada’s infamous unofficial state drink.
If you’ve already tried your hand at the Basque-style menu, head to the adorable McAdoo’s for a fresh, gourmet brunch or to Stray Dog for their house-made pizza and extensive beer list. If you really want to get crazy, it’s time to feast your eyes on the eclectic menu at Machi’s Saloon and Grill, a local favorite that serves up everything from made-from-scratch pastas, prime rib, and beyond.
Where to Stay in Elko
Dozens of Elko, Nevada hotels range from amenity-packed hotel-casinos, like the Maverick, to more laid-back motels and delightfully retro motor lodges, like the cozy Thunderbird Motel— vintage neon signs and all.
Stockmen’s is a crowd favorite as the center of downtown Elko’s gaming and entertainment action, along with its former rival the Commercial Casino. Although you can no longer stay overnight at the latter, you can tip your glass to casino history in Nevada’s oldest casino, the birthplace of live nightly entertainment (yep, it wasn’t Las Vegas), and the final resting (or rather, standing) place of White King, the world’s largest stuffed polar bear. And if you like him, it can get even weirder.
Places to Stay in Elko