Bicyclists’ New Love: Nevada’s Rural Gravel Roads
By Kyle Horvath
I always try to wave and say hello to my fellow mountain bikers when I see them riding down the streets of Ely, Nevada, the historic mining town I’ve called home for nearly five years now.
There’s almost always someone headed out to the 50 miles of single track that’s easily accessible from the heart of Ely.
The mountain bicycling boom that’s begun to blossom in the Ely area less than a decade ago now draws a steady stream of visitors from around the world.
Lately, I’ve noticed that more of our mountain biking visitors seem to be heading the wrong way out of town.
Rather than going toward the fast-flowing descents of Ice Plant Canyon or the crazy steep trails down Squaw Peak, folks are headed toward the gravel roads that cross the wide-open spaces around Ely.
They’re not lost. They’re taking advantage of the dramatically different experiences provided by gravel riding down a country road.
And there are lots of country roads to explore around Ely. We’re about 240 miles west of Salt Lake City (a six-hour drive for mountain bikers coming from Moab) and about 240 miles north of Las Vegas.
Equally important, our 6,400-foot elevation puts us well out of the desert heat of Las Vegas and brings crisp nights and days that are perfect for mountain biking from May through October.
Take me home, country roads
While kids growing up in the country have been riding down gravel roads for about as long as they’ve had bikes, the sport recently took on renewed life among road riders who grew weary of the traffic and hassles of riding along paved roads.
In our part of the world, gravel riding attracts a wide range of riders. Families with children head down a rolling dirt road for an adventure that might take them past a historic mine, cowboys fixing fences at a ranch, or even rockhounds scouring a garnet-collection area where visitors are allowed to take home any of the semi-precious stones they find.
But gravel riding isn’t just for leisurely family trips. Top riders looking for a new challenge set off from Ely on long loops down the dirt and gravel roads of White Pine County, challenging themselves on routes that demand ultimate fitness.
Mountain bikers and road cyclists seeking a one-of-a-kind challenge sign up for “Race the Rails” every autumn, pitting their speed and endurance against a 19th Century steam locomotive operated by Nevada Northern Railway.
Riders enjoy a 45-minute train ride up to the nearby community of Ruth, where they line up at the starting line. When the train whistle sounds and the locomotive chugs off, mountain bikers test their strength and agility on a 10-mile course while road bikers set off on a 25-mile route along highways and backroads.
Both courses end at the Nevada Northern Railway depot in Ely where train crews and bicyclists share the stories of their adventure over a Nevada-style banquet.
But the partnership between the historic railway and the biking community isn’t limited to one special event each year.
A newly launched “Trains and Trails Ticket” allows riders to bring their bikes with them as they enjoy a journey to the end of the line on any of the regularly scheduled daily Nevada Northern Railway trains.
At the end of the line, they hop off and travel at their own pace along one of the many roads and trails that bring them back to Ely. Options range from six miles to more than 20 miles.
Leisurely or demanding, gravel riding in White Pine County delivers gorgeous views — mountains in every direction, wide vistas seldom disturbed by the presence of people or vehicles, and seemingly endless blue skies.
Ely: a Mountain-biking Mecca
The growing popularity of gravel riding in the Ely area is a natural outgrowth of the region’s well-earned reputation as a mountain-biking mecca.
The reputation is rooted in “Fears, Tears, and Beers,” the oldest enduro mountain bike event in the country. For 17 years, the event has sent mountain bikers flying down steep mountainsides above the town as they race the clock. The run for beginners covers 11 miles. In the pro category, the course covers 41 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain.
Not everyone wants that level of thrill.
Nearly two dozen different mountain biking trails are easily reachable from the heart of Ely, and the current network of 50 miles of single-track is in the midst of an expansion project that will double its mileage.
The variety of experiences on nearby trails fills the days of mountain bikers of all skill levels. The loops and connectors in Ice Plant Canyon right on the edge of town allow the design of rides that range from seven to 16 miles with elevation gains between 700 and 1,800 feet. Beginners and intermediate riders enjoy moderate climbs and long, flowing descents.
The Ice Plant Canyon trails is connected via a single-track with a complex of trails at the neighboring Ward Mountain Recreation Area. There, beginner and intermediate trails provide adventures of two to 10 miles and elevation gains between 500 and 1,200 feet. One trail — the G Loop — is especially favored by my friends in Ely as well as visitors who love its great scenery and its awesome ride.
More experienced riders seeking a bigger challenge often head to the nearby Squaw Peak trails, a complex of steep four-wheel-drive and service roads to the tops of peaks and knolls on the 7,927-foot peak that towers over the north edge of Ely. Trails range from seven to 12 miles. Elevation gains that range from 1,000 feet to 2,600 feet provide a hair-raising adventure on crazy, fast descents.
Just a short drive away, the trail system at Cave Lake State Park —it’s 14 miles south of Ely — provides some of the best adventure riding in all of Nevada. A well-designed network of stacked-loop trails climb through several ecosystems on routes that range from five to 15 miles. Most of the descents are fun and swoopy, with absolutely stunning views of Cave Lake, Square Top and Success Loop.
Cave Lake Trails in Ely
But the Cave Lake trails can be challenging for beginners. There are a couple of spots where narrow trails along steep side hills can be unnerving, and beginners often hop off and walk their bikes across.
More trails are coming. A 21-mile network is being added to the Garnet Hill Recreation Area at the edge of town — that’s the place where folks look for garnets to take home — and 30 miles of additional trails have been approved at Ward Mountain Recreation Area.
The commitment of Ely and White Pine County to the enhancement of their reputation among bikers and other outdoors enthusiasts was demonstrated, too, with the recent establishment of the nation’s first recreational trail-building school at Ely.
Funded by a federal economic development grant to the Great Basin Institute, the school is designed to train workers in the skills they need to design, plan and build trails. And while they’re learning, they’ll be creating new trails for all skill levels.
Spectacular nature, day and night
While White Pine County has a growing reputation as a mountain biking mecca, lovers of the outdoor activities long have enjoyed many activities in the area.
Ely is the closest town of any size to Great Basin National Park, home of the 13,000-foot Mount Wheeler and Lehman Caves with its two miles of underground caverns. Travelers who are weary of battling throngs of people and traffic at big national parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone fall in love with the uncrowded trails and facilities at Great Basin.
But Great Basin National Park is even more spectacular after the sun goes down. It’s designated as an “International Dark Sky Park,” and nighttime stargazing there is a profoundly moving experience.
Visitors who want to get even further away from civilization head for one of the 14 federally designated wilderness areas in White Pine County. Elsewhere, our mountain streams lure anglers, and Cave Lake is popular for fishing and paddle boarding.
Well-stocked base camp
Ely is particularly well-positioned to serve as a base camp for mountain biking, gravel riding, and all sorts of outdoor adventures.
While the city of 4,000 people is remote from major population centers, its location at the junction of three major highways — U.S. 93, 50 and 6 — means the community has met the needs of travelers for many years.
Five nationally branded hotels along with a variety of locally-owned lodging options are available. The Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall in the heart of downtown Ely is one of the state’s iconic landmarks. In fact, the six-story building was the tallest in Nevada when it was built in 1929.
Meanwhile, campgrounds including well-developed national chains as well as primitive spots at the end of remote roads meet the needs of travelers in RVs as well as those who are happy to pitch a tent.
Range of Restaurants in Ely
Restaurants ranging from affordable to high-end provide a range of choices — Mexican, Italian, Chinese, American, and all sorts of quick bites — that often surprise visitors who didn’t expect much choice in a small town. Many visitors rave about the old-fashioned soda fountain at Economy Drug, which specializes in ice cream and fountain treats from simpler times.
Our variety of restaurants reflects the rich heritage of workers from around the world who arrived to work in the mines of White Pine County in the early 1900s. And the traditions of those workers made important contributions to the history that continues to draw visitors today.
Their contributions are remembered at Renaissance Village in northwest Ely, which features six small houses from early-day Ely. Each now has been restored to showcase one of the cultures that helped build the community.
Following History’s Traces
Those immigrants followed in the tracks of intrepid pioneers, and visitors still follow the traces of history.
The U.S. Cavalry established a small fort at Schellbourne — some 35 miles north of Ely — in 1859 to protect miners headed west to work the mines of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode.
The next year, the location became a station on the famed Pony Express. Today, it’s a ghost town remembered only in a historic marker along U.S. 93.
The start of the mining boom brought the development of the Nevada Northern Railway, which continues its 110-year history with daily, 90-minute excursions in trains pulled by authentic steam or historic diesel locomotives. Travelers from around the world usually schedule an additional hour or so to explore the original railroad maintenance shop and train yard or make plans to attend one of the many historical presentations and special events sponsored by the nonprofit railway.
I really love traveling in the caboose on one of the Nevada Northern excursion trains. And the time that I got to ride up front and take the controls of a steam engine was one of the most memorable days of my life.
A different kind of historical experience comes at the McGill Drugstore Museum in the small town of McGill about 12 miles north of Ely. The drugstore shut down in 1979, but its entire inventory is still intact, including now-forgotten brands such as Ipana or Dippity-Do. (The White Pine County Museum, which oversees the drug store museum as well as its main museum in Ely, handles arrangements for tours.)
Ely, A city of Art
Finally, one surprising note: Ely’s development as a mountain-biking center has been accompanied by a creation of a flourishing art scene as well. Two galleries — Garnet Mercantile and the neighboring Ely Art Bank — are filled with outstanding pieces from local artists.
The mural on the exterior of Hotel Nevada has long been a Nevada landmark. New murals throughout the city celebrate its history, the cultures that built the community, and our hopes for the future. Six sculptures and a labyrinth stand proudly at Ely’s Sculpture Park. A simple walk down the streets of Ely these days is filled with the joys of great art.
Visitors come to Ely from many directions — down the stretch of Highway 50 known as the Loneliest Highway in America, across the wide-open spaces of Nevada’s Basin and Range, up from the desert heat of Las Vegas to the mountain coolness of White Pine County. A growing number of them are drawn by our growing reputation for mountain biking or gravel riding.
But no matter how they get here, visitors enjoy a rich and varied experience in Ely.
And when I greet them on the street, they’re so happy to be here that they wave right back at me.
Kyle Horvath is the Executive Director of White Pine County Tourism and has 25 years of experience in marketing and community building within the tourism industry. Originally from Virginia, Kyle has spent the last 22 years in Nevada working with the communities of Lake Tahoe, Carson City, and now Ely. Within the tourism industry, Kyle has been successful in fostering relationships between private and public sectors to create growth and development within the destinations around outdoor recreation, public art, and history.