In the northeastern corner of Nevada, hundreds of miles from the neon lights of Reno and Las Vegas, a cowboy sits on stage with a Stetson on his head and a poem tucked in his shirt’s front pocket. As the lights dim, he clears his throat and begins to recite a ballad about the greatest love of his life—a horse. It’s the middle of January and Elko, Nevada, is buzzing with people from all over the world who have coalesced here for one purpose: to attend the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Elko is the unofficial cowboy capital of Nevada. Hugged by the Ruby Mountain Range, the former railroad town of 20,000 has long been a hotbed of agricultural activity, from sheep herders who move their flocks across the Ruby Mountains with the seasons to generations-old cattle ranching operations. Founded in 1868, Elko was established in the wake of the unstoppable advancement of the Central Pacific Railroad. Legend has it that the town was named by Charles Crocker, superintendent of the CPRR, who was fond of animals and simply added an “o” to the end of “elk.”
Elko is perhaps most famous for the week-long National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which, when it was founded in 1985 by a small group of local folklorists to showcase local poets, was the first event of its kind; it spawned dozens of like-minded gatherings in other western states. Every year, the town sees its population swell by more than 50 percent as musicians and poets from all over the country make their way to Elko to share the art, songs, and poetry they’ve created over the past year. In 2023, after a two-year hiatus due to COVID, the Gathering finally took place in person again. On the lineup this year were poets like the first Native American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, Montanan rancher and state poet laureate Henry Real Bird, as well as musical acts like the yodeling Californian cowboy Sourdough Slim.
Elko has all the edginess and glitzy allure that one would expect from a small town in Nevada. It has no fewer than six casinos and a red light district, and it’s even managed to attract a celebrity or two over the years: Local resident Bing Crosby was named an honorary mayor in 1948.
Whether you’re traveling to this quirky Western town to get a taste of cowboy culture or are about to embark on an outdoor adventure in the nearby Ruby Mountains, here’s a guide of the best things to do in Elko, Nevada.
How to get there
Elko, Nevada, sits squarely in the middle of nowhere, which is both its rose and thorn. Its remote location is perfect for those wanting to get away from it all, but if you are traveling to Elko, be prepared for a road trip. It’s a 289 miles from Reno (more than four hours by car) and 230 miles from Salt Lake City (about a 3.5-hour drive). If you’re thinking about taking a train, there is an Amtrak station in Elko.
What to do
Cowboy Gear and Arts Museum
Location: 542 Commercial St.
Hours: Tuesday–Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
This museum is completely devoted to the traditions, heritage, culture, and paraphernalia of the cowboy. Here, visitors will find western artifacts originating from the Elko area: bridles, harnesses, antique saddles, and bits and spurs fashioned by G.S. Garcia, a local legend who became famous in the early 1900s for his fine silver work. Admission to the museum is free, though donations are appreciated.
California Trail and Interpretive Center
Location: 1 Interpretive Center Way
Hours: Wednesday–Sunday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Everyone has heard of the Oregon Trail, but not many know of the equally arduous—and important—California Trail. Open from 1841 to 1861, the California Trail ran parallel to the Oregon Trail until it eventually split off toward the Sierra Nevada range. The California Trail was notoriously treacherous (in fact, this is the path that the Donner party were imperiled on), but despite its reputation, it was an extremely popular route to take westward. Between 1848 and 1850, more than 75,000 people would take the road (only slightly) less traveled. Run by the Bureau of Land Management, this California Trail and Interpretive Center focuses on all things related to the infamous wagon road. Here, guests can learn about the people who took the California Trail in search of gold and land, plus various important cultural sites related to the trail throughout Nevada. Admission is free.
Where to eat
The Star Hotel and Bar
Location: 246 W Silver St.
Hours: Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
A little-known fact about Elko: The town is home to a sizable Spanish Basque population—around 5,000 live in the northeastern and central part of the state. Many landed in Nevada during the later years of the California Gold Rush (in the mid 1800s) in search of land where they could raise sheep (many Basques were traditionally shepherds); some fled the Spanish Civil War. One of the best places in town to sample Basque cuisine is the Star Hotel. Meals are served “Basque-style,” which means entrées are huge (as they’re meant to be shared) and come with a smorgasbord of sides, like savory cabbage soup, beans, and fluffy French bread made in-house. The Star Hotel is perhaps most famous for its generously sized steaks—order the 36-oz. porterhouse (say yes to the smattering of grilled onions, of course) if you’re feeling brave. If you’d like a tipple with your meal, consider a Picon Punch cocktail, a high-proof highball made with Amaro liqueur and just a dash of grenadine and lemon juice.
Location: 1550 Idaho St.
Hours: Daily from 6 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
Another favorite, homey Basque restaurant in Elko is Toki Ona, just off of the main strip of the town on Idaho Street. Toki Ona specializes in steak much like the Star Hotel, but it also serves up tender lamb chops and has been a local favorite since its opening in 1990. Entrées are served Basque-style with all the fixings, and portions are very generous, too—be sure to bring a friend to help you tackle the meal.
Location: 351 Silver St.
Hours: Monday–Friday, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m.–9 p.m.
If you’re tired of lamb chops and steaks and are hankering for a good Italian gravy, look no further than Luciano’s. French-trained chef Luc Gerber serves up mean pasta dishes like chicken and prawn vodka, stuffed manicotti, and sausage lasagna. As for appetizers, don’t miss out on the crab cakes and steamed baby clams.
Where to stay
Camp on BLM land
The Ruby Mountains and rangelands that surround Elko are delightfully devoid of any hints of civilization and are managed by the BLM. Some favorite nearby dispersed camping sites include Lamoille Canyon (about half an hour away) and Angel Lake (about one hour away). Both locations are renowned for their Caribbean-blue alpine waters and offer access to remote day-trip and overnight backpacking trails. Nevada’s extensive rural BLM lands provide an opportunity to participate in such outdoor activities as hiking, mountain biking, and overnight horseback riding excursions. Since this land is also used by ranchers, you may run into a herd of cattle or sheep or two!
Location: 3650 Idaho St.
Granted, pickin’s are slim when it comes to accommodations in Elko, and you won’t find any boutique hotels in the area. But one of the most highly rated digs in the area is the Shutters Hotel, a craftsman-inspired, 84-room lodge on the outskirts of town. Guests can expect clean, recently renovated rooms, a pool and hot tub, and scenic views of the Ruby Mountains.
Location: Elko County
If you’d like to be near Elko but also want a taste of ranch life, try booking an Airbnb ranch house. This property near the mountains has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and enough space for six guests. It also has an idyllic creek running through it and a huge, verdant lawn that would be perfect for a small outdoor party or barbecue.