Enter Peak Discovery Mode in Nevada
If the sum total of your Nevada knowledge = Vegas Strip + desert, you're clearly not alone—but you are missing out. Big time. The state is full of epic surprises, many of them typified by one particular region: Elko and the Rubies Route, hidden gems writ large. And despite feeling gloriously secluded, they're easy to get to—sitting just off I-80, about halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City.
To start to get a sense of the surprises that await in this northeastern swath of the state, read on—then start planning your own escape, whether you're looking for warm-weather fun or winter adventures.
The surprise: Nevada is the most mountainous state in the Lower 48
The perfect example: The Ruby Mountains
Granted, the definition of "most mountainous" can vary, but if you're judging by the greatest number of named mountain ranges, the title goes to Nevada, where more than 300 of them contour the landscape to dramatic effect. Arguably the loveliest are the Ruby Mountains, dubbed the Alps of Nevada, and studded with—among other eye-catching minerals—garnets that were mistaken by 19th-century explorers for rubies (thus the name).
But what lends this range even more sparkle is its particular blend of alpine lakes, serpentine streams and year-round snowfields. Then there are the 10 peaks topping 10,000 feet surrounded by glacially carved valleys and a seasonally variable blend of wildflowers and wildlife—the latter ranging from bighorn sheep to pronghorn antelope.
As if to underscore the element of surprise that pervades this magical landscape, the nearly 100,000-acre Ruby Mountain Wilderness is accessed—at least at one end—from a place called Secret Pass. As for what to do once you're in, that depends largely on the season.
Summer brings vast expanses of wildflowers—some of the prettiest of which line the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway. The road and its namesake canyon are accessible only seasonally—generally May-October—which makes the beauty and adventure of those months feel all the more heightened. The byway skirts the base of the range's tallest peak—the 11,387-foot Ruby Dome—and climbs through the canyon, where the wildflowers accessorize a landscape that's also home to waterfalls, mountain goats and birds of all kinds, just for starters.
The tiger and brook trout in the beaver ponds near the end of the Lamoille Canyon Scenic Drive make fishing a prime pastime here, though the local hiking, biking and horseback riding are epic as well. For the best multi-day hike—or series of day hikes—in the area, check out the Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail, a 43-mile stretch that leads to the almost 11,000-foot Wines Peak, with stunning lake and valley views en route.
If you go during the winter months (seasonal boundaries are blurred here, as snowfall can start as early as October and last until May), all manner of adventure awaits: snowshoeing, snowmobiling, backcountry skiing and one of only a handful of heli-skiing operations in the Lower 48. Word to the wise: Heliskiing dates fill up quickly, so act fast if you want to access the region's sky-high glaciated bowls, aspen forests and vast expanses of dry, fluffy powder next winter.
The surprise: The culture scene goes way beyond the crooners, magicians and divas of the Strip
The perfect example: Elko's multicultural heritage
Born in the late 1800s as a railroad town, Elko has an events lineup that can make you feel like you're not even in the same country as Las Vegas, let alone the same state. Popular events include the Sheepherder's Ball and Mus Tournament, National Basque Festival and Silver State Stampede. All of these happenings, as well as the profusion of local paella, Picon Punch and pintxos point to the strong Basque influence in this corner of the world, where shepherds from the Pyrenees migrated in the first half of the 20th century, thanks largely to the efforts of Senator Patrick McCarran.
To get a taste of this transplanted Basque culture, try the aforementioned specialties: You'll find extra-abundant paella during the Basque Festival (July 4th weekend); a fan-favorite Picon Punch (a blend of Amer Picon, grenadine, brandy and lemon zest) at The Star Hotel; and all manner of pintxos (the Basque answer to tapas) at Ogi Deli. Chorizo, lamb and huge, garlic-loaded steaks also figure prominently—and carnivores would say deliciously—into the local Basque fare. Oh, and as for "mus?" It's a traditional Basque card game you'll spot not just during tournament times, but also on any given Friday at Ogi Bar, along with Basque cider and bites.
Not that this is the only long-standing culture you’ll find here. Elko—deemed “the last cowtown in America” by Lowell Thomas, of Lawrence of Arabia fame—has a buckaroo culture so thriving that the famed annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering here has just given rise to a yearlong series of 2022 Wild Ride programs. Check the Western Folklife Center’s calendar for updates—as well as the center’s home, the historic Pioneer Hotel, for the tasty sarsaparilla, the fascinating exhibits and the house Black Box theater’s screenings of the 16-minute Why the Cowboy Sings or schedule a trip to coincide with the 2023 event (Jan. 30 - Feb. 4).
Also stop by the Cowboy Arts and Gear Museum, and if you’re so inspired by the objects on display that you’d like take-home versions for yourself, head to J.M. Capriola, where the legacy of the famed turn-of-the-century Western gear maker C.S. Garcia lives on. You’ll find all manner of saddles, bits and spurs and a stunning assortment of leather goods.
Of course, the local culture that predates all of the above is the Shoshone, and at Elko’s California Trail Interpretive Center, you'll find a traditional Shoshone Summer Camp, complete boho bahknee, or shade houses, made of willow and sagebrush by local Western Shoshone youth.
The surprise: Despite one Neon-happy strip, Nevada is home to some of the nation's darkest skies
The perfect example: The stars on view along the Rubies Route
While pretty much anywhere you venture beyond Nevada's urban areas will serve up dark skies, light pollution is particularly low along this northeastern swath of the state—a stunning contrast from the reputed brightest spot on earth: the Vegas Strip. Locals debate the best places to stargaze, of course, but you can't go wrong with any place on the shortlist, particularly during the viewing event of the summer season: the Perseid meteor shower from July 17 to August 24, with peak action in mid-August.
Hot spots include Lamoille Canyon (of summer wildflower fame), as well as the Thomas Canyon Campground, Angel Lake and—for a bonus off-the-grid feeling—the Jarbidge Wilderness Area. In fact, this last option is such a special stop, our final section is dedicated to it.
The surprise: Forget preconceptions of a desolate desert state—this riverside town tells a different story
The perfect example: The wildlife-rich waters and wilderness surrounding Jarbidge
The most secluded town in the Lower 48, this historic mining outpost sits alongside a river at the bottom of a deep canyon in the middle of the mountains. It's accessible only by a dirt road that is plowed once a year (usually in time for the Fourth of July). Surrounded by the aptly named Jarbidge Wilderness Area, the dozen or so people who live here year-round staff the local saloons, trading post, and gas pump—atmospheric spots to fuel and stock up for the angling adventures that bring avid fisherpeople to the region: Jarbidge is the only place in Nevada where you can reel in prized bull trout.
But it's not just the waterways that are teeming here: Take to the trails in this 100,000-acre preserve (the state's first designated wilderness area), and you may well encounter everything from mule deer to Rocky Mountain Elk. And birders take note: Among the many species you're likely to spot here are two you're unlikely to find elsewhere in the state: Blue Grouse and Red Crossbill. It's as if the birds are in on the larger theme of the region: Surprising you with their very existence.