The remains of the school house in Metropolis.
Make sure the tank is full for this road trip into some of Nevada's more desolate sights.
HOW, WHERE, WHY?
Hop on I-80 West and drive. It’s a straight shot from downtown Salt Lake City and will kick you into Elko (exit 303) three and a half hours later.
Why go now
The summer heat is just starting to dissipate, making the straight-shot drive along I-80 to Elko across the Salt Flats a bit more comfortable, and the leaves in the surrounding Humboldt National Forest are on their way to brilliant reds, yellows and oranges. Plus, the annual Ruby Mountain Hot Air Balloon Festival (rubymountainballoonfestival.com) hits Elko Sept. 21–23, offering some high-flying fun to mingle in with your self-guided ghost town tours.
Where to stay
Casinos, roadside motels and camping are the best bet for lodging, so don’t expect anything high-end or fancy for your trip. The Red Lion Hotel and Casino (2065 Idaho St., redlion.com), just off I-80 exit 303, is pet friendly if you want to bring Fido or Felix, clean and a good central location to the many scattered ghost towns and scenic mountains. Campground camping at South Fork State Recreation Center (353 Lower South Fork, Spring Creek, 775-744-4346), about 18 miles southeast of Elko. The South Fork Reservoir is surrounded by more than 2,000 acres of wildlife-filled meadow lands and rolling hills.
YOUR THREE-DAY TRIP
Day One: Face to Face with the Past
Grab a hearty breakfast at 2 Dames and a Deli (Monday–Friday, 282 11th St., 2damesandadeli.com) and kick things off with a morning history lesson at the California Trail Interpretive Center (I-80 exit 292, californiatrailcenter.org). Twelve years in the making, the $18 million facility boasts more than $8 million in exhibits showcasing the trials of the westward push beginning in the early 1840s. Then head west toward Carlin and hop on SR 278 for 10 miles to the ghost town of Palisade, founded in 1868 by the Central Pacific Railroad. Churches, businesses and a residential district thrived in the late 1800s, but the decline of mining and the departure of the railroad left the town all but empty by 1938. Now only two small cabins and an extensive cemetery remain. Head back to Elko and grab a stick-to-yer-ribs dinner at Machi’s Saloon and Grill (450 Commercial St., Elko, 775-738-9772).
Day Two: A Living Ghost Town
Nab a scone and latte at Cowboy Joe (376 5th St., 775-753-5612) before making the 52-mile trek to the living ghost town of Tuscarora. The teeny ranching community (population: 9) boomed as a mining town in 1867 and, at times, was the biggest city in Elko County. Now it’s home to ramshackle buildings, including the stone station. Shop the world-famous Tuscarora Summer Pottery School (tuscarorapottery.com), run by the Parks family. Stop by Taylor Canyon Resort (SR 226, just south of the Tuscarora turnoff, 775-756-6500), a roadside bar founded in the 1920s, for an early afternoon sip from the impressively stocked bar, and then head to Mountain City, former home of a couple thousand copper, gold and silver mines. (Take SR 226 east to SR 225 and follow it 56 miles). Back in Elko, dine at the 100-year-old Star Hotel Basque Restaurant (246 Silver St., elkostarhotel.com), a former boarding house for sheepherders. The lamb falls off the bone, but the real star is the traditional Picon punch—a potent pre-dinner drink.
Day Three: Ranchers, Rustlers, Bootleggers
Head west on I-80 toward Old Town Wells (about 51 miles from Elko), where plaques on the 19th century buildings tell the stories of ranchers, train robbers and bootleggers. The ghost town of Metropolis, about 14 miles from Wells (pick up a Cowboy Country pamphlet from the Elko Convention Center for directions), was built in 1911 as a farming community but died out less than two decades later. The crumbling remains of the school and local hotel make for an eerie sight. Back in Wells, head south for 38 miles on US 93 toward the abandoned Spruce Mountain Mining District. The mountainside, not accessible by low clearance vehicles, is covered with mine remains dating back as far as 135 years, including ore sorter towers, rusty smelters, mine shaft air pumps, wells and dilapidated log cabins.
STAY ANOTHER DAY
Tack on an extra day to your roadtrip. Jarbridge, which became an over-night boomtown when gold was discovered in 1908, is in the Humboldt Mountains northwest of Elko. Stories of old west mayhem and America's last horse-drawn stage robbery went down here. The Jarbridge Jail—which held killers and highwaymen—and original cabins still stand.
Indulge in a rustic getaway in the Humboldt National Forest's Jarbridge Wilderness calling to bull elk. Cottonwood Guest Ranch near Wells offers a Fall Elk Bugle Pack Trip, where guests pack up their horses and ride into the woods for three days camping and bugling in the bull elk during the height of the season. The $1,600 per person trip is all inclusive and runs Sept. 23–29. cottonwoodguestranch.com