If you’ve road tripped out west, chances are you’ve spent a good amount of time burying the needle across Nevada. Hot, arid, and hauntingly empty, the Great Basin can be a desolate place. Like an oasis locked in time, Ely sits smack dab in the middle of it. Driving north-to-south, you’ve likely crossed it. Heading east towards Moab, you’ve probably refueled in Ely and sped off to said destination. While it’s no Moab, Tahoe, or Sun Valley, Ely has something even better…obscurity.
Mountain biking in the middle of…everywhere?
The stagecoach station-come-copper town, Ely has followed the boom-and-bust cycle of pulling ore from the earth, churning through a population of miners prospecting for a quick buck. It’s been that way for over a 100 years. The shuttered windows and patina of sunburnt paint show the stress’s toll on the town. While the mines have opened and shut and opened again, the outdoors have always played a roll in White Pine County.
Pinched between the folds of the Humboldt mountains, hunting and fishing are core to the community. ATV and snowmobiles take a close second. But Ely’s catching on with cyclists. With hundreds of miles of road and gravel, and 40 miles of trails (with 50 new miles in the works!), Ely has a lot to offer riders en route to other destinations. Best of all, you could likely have them all to yourself. For now.
Taking a road trip through the Great Basin? Bring a bike (or two) and consider an extended pit stop in Ely and tackle a trail. This is your guide on where to ride, what kind of bikes to bring, where to stay (or camp) while driving “America’s loneliest road.”
Ely has four prominent trails systems, three which you can ride right out of town. And the fourth? Well, it’s worth the short drive! Most trails are around 10 miles long making for a solid morning or afternoon stretch. Sitting at the foot of the Humboldts, nearly every trail requires a 1,600’ climb. But the rewards come in flowing ribbons of single track that whip through the mahogany and juniper forest, ending in desert sage.
Plan for 1.5-2 hours for each trail system. If you have two cars, you can shuttle bikes to the top and hustle back to collect the first. But every trail can be ridden as a loop.
A 29er trail bike with 130-150mm travel is ideal for the terrain. I brought GT’s updated Sensor Elite and felt comfortable shedding elevation through rock gardens. Speaking of rocks, the Humboldts are carved out of limestone. Limestone in large spars, loose shards, and weathered down into fine gravel. We laced up a pair of Panaracer’s new Aliso and Romero ST’s (Super Tough) tires as tubeless. Offered in either 2.4 or 2.6, the tires cut between sharp slots and feel snappy through the dusty slaloms. You pay a weight penalty, but you get it back in confidence.
None of the trails have water available on the trail -at least not in August- so plan to fill up a bottle or two beforehand to stay hydrated.
Ward Mountain’s “Blue” trail riding
After rolling into town, we threw the bikes on our 1UP Equip-D Double hitch rack for a short drive to Ward Mountain and a twilight ride with a local crew. To avoid the 10-mile approach (5 of which are highway miles), Ward Mountain is best appreciated with a shuttle.
In winter, Ward Mountain is the local skin-up ski-hill and snowmobile slope. The folks who ski and sled the peak in winter are the same folks who map and build the summer trails. The trails have been meticulously planned, legally approved, and thoughtfully carved out of the slopes by mountain bikers–for mountain bikers.
A mix of freshly cut and established trails wind around Ward Mountain. At the top of the climb, you can look out all the way to Wheeler Peak, the tallest peak in Nevada, sitting some 60 miles away. Descend back into town down Powderberry Divide through a series of switchbacks that roll out to your lower shuttle.
Ward Mountain is a great way to lay some rubber under the legs while in Ely and has heaps of trail opportunity which I’ll get to later.
Ice Plant’s “Blue” slalom
While many of Ely’s bike trails were originally developed by motorbikes, most have since been closed to motorized access. Since the Ice Plant was created on a watershed, it was pretty easy for Ely to flip the 4-mile trail to non-motorized.
Ice Plant starts out as a straight but gradual climb up the south side of Ward Mountain on a wide and well-marked trail. After 800’ of climbing, it tilts you back in the saddle and up the valley over a loose trail bed to a shoulder below the summit. Take a breath, get some water and hold on tight. The route plummets aggressively right back down what you climbed. If your skills are honed, keep an eye out for a pair of rocky drops on the left. The first is negotiable. The second comes quick and is less forgiving – scout it before sending it.
After the drops, several fast and flowy options peel off the main trail, slicing through the trees with options to throw some dirt, jump berms and straddle washes before it spills back out to the trailhead and back into town.
Ice Plant is an absolute grin to ride and it looks like it will only get better. It took tubs of elbow grease, grass-roots advocacy, and coordination with federal land managers, but Ely is in the final process of securing a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service to build 50 new miles of trail that will connect Ward Mountain to Ice Plant. The proposed trail system is expected to be completed in 2022.
Whorehouse Hill’s “Black” downhill
Squaw Peak is the prominent stack of rock that shadows Ely’s downtown. Though you can shuttle up the truck-friendly gravel road to the trail proper, it’s so close to town that it’s probably not worth the hassle.
Instead, sit back in the saddle and enjoy the 5-mile climb with your buddies to the top. At least that’s what the pros do. Whorehouse Hill hosts the Fears, Tears, and Beers mountain bike enduro race, the first and longest running enduro mountain bike race in America. And with enduro, it’s all about the down.
The most technical trail in Ely, Whorehouse Hill starts with a gentle descent through the trees but gets more technical as you shed elevation. Several blind drops hide behind switchbacks and the trail occasionally seems to disappear as it crashes through limestone pastures. The final section of the trail follows the plumb line straight down the hill, over the loose ground, spilling out into Ely’s backside and past a pair of working brothels (hence the name).
By the way, the Fears, Tears, and Beers Enduro Race starts through the Hotel Nevada Casino and ends with a cruise through the Jail House Casino to the finish line.
Stop your watch and check your time. Then know that the fastest time down the 1,600 foot, two-mile descent is 6 minutes, seven seconds! As they say, pre-ride, re-ride, free-ride.
Cave Lake’s “Blue” backcountry riding
If backcountry riding is more your thing, rack the bikes and head east on US 50 to Cave Lake State Park. Park the car at the Twisted Pines trailhead and ride Forest Road 486 to the Cave Lake Loop trail head. Appreciate the road as a warmup; after the trail head, the Overlook Trail is narrow and kicks you back into the saddle. Fortunately, several spectacular overlooks give you an opportunity to mask your hypoxia with photography.
After climbing some 1,500 feet, hydrate and adjust your pads. Twisted Pines circles around the backside of the hill along narrow and loose trails to the front side where the trail widens. The descent has a few sharp switchbacks and a blind drop that forces you to throttle your speed. But the 4-mile descent is fun for both beginners and experienced riders.
Then complete the ride with a swim in Cave Lake. Nothing beats laying on a pontoon dock after a hot afternoon on the trails.
We liked this route so much that we came back the following day to ride it again.
WHEN TO GO & WHAT TO EXPECT:
In the high desert, winters are harsh, the summers are dry. The trails can be choked with snow well into May. July and August can be hot but rarely climb over 90˚. June and September, like everywhere else, are magical months, where days start crisp and end warm.
But it’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the elevation. Sitting at 6,400’, Ely sits at the break of desert and trees. Every climb tops out around 8,000 feet. Drink lots of water, bring sunscreen, and because you’re in the mountains, it’s not a bad idea to bring a rain jacket.
If you are looking for a more organized ride, Ely hosts a couple of unique races worth the drive. The Fears Tears and Beers Enduro Mountain Bike Race race is held in June and welcomes all levels of riders for a fantastic community event, supporting the Great Basin Trails Alliance.
Man vs. the machine; the first week of September, Ely hosts the Race the Rails, where cyclists can pit their VO2 against a steam engine. Mountain bikers can register for the 10-mile trail route, or if road is more your thing, there’s a 25 mile road course.
Off the bike:
Sitting in the middle of damn near nowhere, Ely proudly embraces its remote, wild west vibe. The motels and casinos are a throwback to the ’50s. A patina of powdered paint fleck off abandoned brick and metal. At night, a chevron of motorbikes cruises the strip under the glow of casino lights. If you have the itch, the tables are open 24 hours a day.
Most of the Ely hotels have ties to gaming, so expect a lively, smoky lobby. For a real throwback experience, consider staying at the renovated Hotel Nevada (about $100 a night), or one of the dozens of smaller motels lining the strip, each buzzing with a vacancy/no vacancy sign.
If you are camping, take Route 6 west out of town towards Ward Mountain (Murray Summit). Reservations can be made through recreation.gov. $8 a night will buy you a strip for the rig with a table, grill, potable water, and a vault toilet. The highway is close enough to hear traffic, but the night sky is spectacular. Plus, it puts you close to all the rides on Ward mountain.
Most restaurants close their doors around 9pm, so plan to wrap your ride early enough to get back in time for supper. For a laid back patio dining experience, swing by Rack’s Bar and Grill for ribs or chicken. It’s not fancy, but late night fare can be had at Rolbertos Mexican Food, serving up large plates of tortas, fajitas, and wet burritos. Coffee can be found at The Cup, a café on the strip.
Provisions can be found on the other side of town, at Ridleys Market, and the Sportsworld on the strip offers a few last minute bike supplies. If you are looking to do some DIY exploring, they have a great selection of maps to nerd out over.
While casinos light up the evening sky, Ely has a few daytime activities worth exploring. The Nevada Northern Railroad Museum is a working steam engine museum that makes daily runs to Ruth, a mining town to the west. It’s one of the best preserved early 20th-century steam engines in the nation. And visitors can still climb aboard, explore, and ride a working steam engine. Museum tours will set you back $8. Train rides are $33 and include the museum tour.
Other local attractions include:
- The Ely Renaissance Village is a handful of homes restored with original frontier charm. Each home represents a unique Ely settler heritage and is open for visitors to walk through and appreciate a glimpse into history.
- Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park. 20 miles south of Ely, the park has 6 stone ovens originally used to prepare charcoal for smelt silver in the late 19th century. They are some of the best preserved examples of their kind and are registered with the National Register of Historic Places.
- Ely Mural Tour. Ely has commissioned artists from around the world to use the downtown’s buildings as a canvas. 20 murals paint the town’s walls, sharing Ely’s long history.
- Aforementioned Cave Lake for fishing, paddleboard, or simply a swim.
- No entry fee, no gates, no crowds, the Great Basin National Park flies under the radar from almost every other park in the nation and sits 60 miles due east on Route 50.
- Garnet Hill. Rockhounds can head to the hills to prospect for their own souvenir. Plus, it’s free.
How to get to Ely, Nevada:
Ely isn’t a destination town (yet). Likely the only reason you’ll be in Ely is while on your way through. 9 hours from Sedona, 8 hours from Moab, 6 hours from Tahoe, 5 hours from Sun Valley, Ely sits at the crossroads of the mountain west. Route 50, Route 93, Route 6, and Route 318 all converge in Ely. If you are hunting trails out west, there’s a good chance you’ll already be driving through Ely.
NEED TO KNOW:
While mining powers Nevada’s economy, tourism is core to Nevada’s personality. You don’t have to look far to find a casino. Just follow the lights on the main strip. The Hotel Nevada, The Jail House, and Prospector are open all night for those interested in playing the slots.
Nevada is also the only state with legalized prostitution. While the town briefly considered banning the trade a few years ago, Ely voted against the change (the town embraces a little grit under the nails). To date, two brothels sit on the edge of town, one with a sign saying “biker friendly” (think leather, not lycra.)
On our last morning in Ely, looking out over the big empty, I mentioned to my buddy that Ely “was in the middle of nowhere.” Kent Robertson, our guide for the day and co-founder of the Fears Tears and Beers race, chimed in. “Ely … it’s really in the middle of everywhere.”
And he’s right. Like the axle of a wagon wheel, all roads in the mountain west seem to converge in Ely. But instead of pressing on, I’d recommend breaking up that 16-hour drive and take an afternoon to explore the local trails. With miles of lonely trail (and dozens more in the works), Ely is worth a stay.
GEAR WE USED:
This Where To Ride feature was made possible through the help of sponsors. We would like to thank the following:
- 1UP USA Racks. Made in America, the 1UP Rack system is machined from aluminum and overbuilt for the long haul. Equip-D Double can rack two 29” bikes with up to 5” fat bike tires. The RakAttach allows the bikes to swing away from the truck so you can access your gear from the trunk or cab without crawling around the bikes.
- Club Ride Apparel takes the western vibe from the Woodriver Valley and puts it in the saddle. The kit is form fitting, breathes well, but makes an easy transition to post ride beers and grocery runs, keeping you below the radar in small town America.
- Panaracer. The new Panaracer Romero and Aliso are available both a lightweight and puncture resistant rubber, and available in 27.5 and 29er in both 2.4 and 2.6 widths. The Romero is their all-conditions tire with a triple-compound, DH-oriented rubber outside of a 60tpi casing and is best for loamy conditions The Panaracer Aliso uses the same casing options but with a slightly revised tread pattern that makes it more suitable for the softer, looser conditions found in Ely.
We’d also like to thank REI for kitting the camp. The Kingdom 4 tent, paired with the Co-Op Cot 3 elevates the car camping game. If we had our choice of camping or hotel – hands down, we’d return to the camp.
Primus generously provided the kitchen kit. The new Tupike stove has super clean lines, simmers like a champ, and the griddle plate sears steak like Tom Colicchio. And finally, the pots have a handy steam vent that also allows you to pour out the pasta water without spilling noodles everywhere. Looking for a new cook kit? Give them a look, and check out other new items we saw at Summer OR 2019, too!