True West: The Many Pleasures of Ely, Nevada


By Elaine J. Masters


Ely, Nevada is a remote road trip destination by today’s standards. That’s a blessing if you like authenticity and the drive is loaded with grand views of pristine hills and low-lying fields. The city is roughly four hours, and nearly equidistant, from Salt Lake City, Reno, and Las Vegas. It lies along Highway 50, which Life Magazine once claimed was the ‘loneliest road in the world.’ Ely has its charms as a pre-gentrified lodestone of historical color and Western culture. It may be unvarnished but year-round, Ely is rich in things to do and see.


In the early 1900s, Ely was one of the most important towns in the country. The Gold Rush was fading when miners discovered deep resources of copper in the White Pine mountains. America was rapidly stringing the first telephone system from coast to coast and needed tons of the shiny metal. Soon the Kennecott Mining Corporation created the third-largest copper mine in the world and miners’ cabins dotted the eastern foothills. A private railroad system sprang up to carry the ore to smelters in other areas of the state. Since then, the mine and railroad endured booms and busts, while the city hung on and has now established itself as a center for outdoor enthusiasts, hosts festivals, and proudly celebrates the arts from Shoshone crafts to murals and museums.

“We thought we’d be back.” Jerry Steiner, Nevada Northern Railroad employee, 1983.

The Railroad is arguably the centerpiece of any Ely visit. When the copper mine shuttered in 1983, the Kennecott Mining Corporation told their employees to go home. The engines, one in service since 1906, were rolled into the train barn and the offices were locked. More than ten years later, a local group of train enthusiasts formed a non-profit that took over the Nevada Northern Railway and shepherded the line to designation as a National Historic Landmark. 

Today, passenger cars pull visitors into the vast basin on Stars, Sunset, and Champagne tours with onboard astronomers and afternoon tours between the downtown station to the Ruth Mine. You can even sign on to be an engineer for a day. Tickets are available for other special events like the Halloween Ghost Train and a cyclist race against the engines each year. From time to time ‘outlaws,’ or Ghost Riders, as the locals call them, may even ‘hold up’ the train! It’s all in good fun. Nevada Magazine readers voted it the state’s Best Rural Museum and Best Place to Take the Kids. The rail line was even featured in PBS’s Great Scenic Railway Journeys and mentioned in many TV shows.

Among many local events, the Shoshone Tribe welcomes visitors to their regional Pow Wow each June and a Fandango/Pow Wow in July. Tribal members also run galleries in the Mercantile Building Art Bank and inside the Prospector Hotel. Some have created public art like the sculpture of a Shoshone woman gathering pine nuts by Joe Pachak.

At first glance, downtown may seem plain by tourist standards but take time to do the mural walk, visit the local White Pine Museum with its artifacts, and ogle the towering cast-skeleton of a pre-historic Cave Bear. Discovered in a hillside cavern, it’s inspired by novels and movies.

Speaking of films, with its pristine landscapes, historic buildings, and welcoming community, Ely was adopted by Hollywood during the rage for all things cowboy. Rooms inside the downtown casino and hotel are still decorated with mementos and the names of movie stars from the 1920s and 1930s. Each March, the annual Film, Art & Music Festival fills the Art Deco, Central Theater, once hailed as the “Finest Theater in Eastern Nevada.” Stand under the tall deco neon sign over the entrance and you’ll feel transported in time.

One clip shown at a recent film festival was silent and stirring. A short scene showed how surprisingly diverse 1900s downtown Ely was. The street buzzed with an international crowd drawn to work the mines and service the railroad. That diversity prompted Virginia and Glenn Terry to resurrect nine miner’s cottages a few steps from downtown. Entering each cottage in Ely’s Renaissance Village is a step into another lifetime and culture: including Portuguese, Irish, Spanish, and Japanese cabins. Ely residents donated their memories and packed the rooms with artifacts from family photos, table settings, and even clothes to hang in the closets. Virginia and Glenn Terry are also the masterminds behind the town mural arts project and several historical books about the town.

A few miles south sits an eerie landmark. The Ward charcoal ovens, that fueled the early mine, still stand like silent cone-shaped gravestones for forests felled to refine the copper ore before other resources were developed.

Keep driving south and east to visit one of the newest National Parks in the country. Great Basin National Park, with its ancient Bristle Cone Pines, and the stunning Lehman Caves are an hour away from Ely.

Approaching Ely is a treat in itself. The long roads are mostly empty, and the vistas are rich with stunning cloud shows, especially rainbows in the spring. There are snowy expanses to savor in winter and local lakes beckon in summertime.

Of course, being in Nevada, Ely has casinos and even a couple of legal brothels, but that’s another story.

Plan your Ely adventure at

An award-winning freelance travel writer, blogger, videographer, and founder of, Elaine Masters covers mindful travel, food, overlooked experiences and destinations. Her print and online articles have appeared in numerous outlets and magazines including Edible San Diego, Matador, Travel Awaits, Roadtrippers, Parks and Travel, and Luxury Travel. Her stories and videos blend skills from years in multiple careers including graphic designer, actress, and an Indie Excellence audiobook author. She’s working on a memoir and is thrilled that San Diego has been home for over twenty years. Follow her blog at




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