There’s no doubt about it—Nevada is the United States’ most underrated state. It’s no surprise, because its neighbors boast some pretty spectacular landscapes. However, there’s only one state that has more than 314 named mountain ranges and the most mountain ranges period, and that’s Nevada. Driving across the northern part of the state on I-80, through what is known as “Cowboy Country”, travelers who aren’t already familiar with the magic of the desert will soon realize just how special a place it is. Even better, right now it’s open and friendly.
This article was created in partnership with Cowboy Country Territory. All photos are by Tobey Schmidt.
There are two major qualities of Cowboy Country that stick out to us most. First, no matter the size of the town or what you think you see from the highway, there’s always a myriad of dirt roads that will take you into country you didn’t think could be there. Second, many of the locals you’ll meet have families who have been in the area for over a hundred years, with either a background in ranching, homesteading, or great-grandparents who were on the hunt for gold. You may not be related like they all seem to be, but they’ll sure make you feel like family!
West Wendover is just 90 minutes from Salt Lake City and lies on the western side of the Utah/Nevada border. Salt Lake City locals know it for the unique Bonneville Salt Flats, while others know it for the Historic Wendover Airfield—an old, World War II bomber training base and airfield museum. Some will even know West Wendover for being one of the only places in the world where the curvature of the Earth is visible to the human eye.
What most people don’t know about West Wendover is that surrounding the quaint town filled with rich history are mountains with incredible views unseen from the freeway. Take a side-by-side into the rugged roads of the Silver Island Mountains. Or drive out to see the steam rise from the geothermal pond known as Blue Lake, and even take a dip if you feel like it!
Wells and Jackpot
Driving west through Cowboy Country in the Great Basin desert, it can be easy to forget that you’re in a desert with all the snowy peaks rising from the fields of sagebrush. Wells and Jackpot are two places that are both within close proximity to impressive peaks, with even more impressive access. In Wells, drive up to Angel Lake for a swim and a great camp spot. If it’s winter, try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Oh, and must we tease you with hot springs?! Yes, we must. Just 20 minutes outside of Wells is a primitive hot spring known as 12-Mile Hot Spring. Depending on your vehicle, you may have to do some hiking, but it’s well worth it!
Take a detour off the interstate and drive north up Great Basin Highway towards Jackpot, another border town—this one just south of Idaho. While Jackpot is a small town with only about a thousand residents, there are enough dirt roads in the surrounding mountains for visitors to find solitude, without ever being too far from town. Drive up towards Middle Stack Mountain as far as your vehicle will take you, and then hike the rest to the top for the best views in the area.
Known for the beautiful Lamoille Canyon and for being the biggest town in the county, Elko is the perfect mix of outdoor recreation, western history, and modern conveniences. Elko is situated beside the Ruby Mountains, which many describe as Nevada’s Alps. We recommend driving up Lamoille Canyon for a day of sightseeing, hiking, fishing, snow-shoeing, or even horseback riding. Be sure to stop in the Northeastern Nevada Museum to see over 100 life-size animals on display, the Western Folklife Center to hear the voice of the American West, and the Cowboy Gear & Art Museum to see what life looked like in the early ranching days.
Remember those two qualities that we noticed about Cowboy Country—the dirt roads and the long family history? No other place exemplifies those qualities more than the small town of Battle Mountain. Driving out of town into the mountains (which barely takes 10 minutes), it’s hard to believe what you see as you get farther into the steep mountain roads of Lewis Canyon. You’ll find old homesteading cabins and high peaks that look like they go on forever. Battle Mountain is known to have some of the darkest night skies, because of its position far from big cities.
Many folks who reside in Battle Mountain work in the still-operating mine or work on local ranches. Many of those same folks are part of families that have been in Lander County for generations. While admiring the curation of local antiques at the Cookhouse Museum, you may hear from the woman whose grandmother’s wedding dress is hanging on the wall, or whose family owned the only mercantile in town over 100 years ago. It’s qualities like those that make visiting Cowboy Country so charming.
Who says the South has the best hospitality? Winnemucca is giving New Orleans a run for its money! Winnemucca boasts great hospitality, unique Basque culture, hiking, beautiful landscapes, and even lions and tigers. Yes, lions and tigers, and they’re not circus animals! Wake up early and experience the sun rising over the Winnemucca Sand Dunes. Drive out to Safe Haven Wildlife Sanctuary, a wildlife rehabilitation and permanent placement center for large cats and even a few bears, birds, and more. After a full day of adventure, finish it off by eating a traditional Basque meal at the famous Martin Hotel, which has been around for over 100 years. How’s that for history?
Gerlach and the Black Rock Desert
Before finishing your Cowboy Country road trip, take a slight detour off the interstate again towards Gerlach and the Black Rock Desert. Sound familiar? The Black Rock Desert is home to the annual arts counter-culture festival, Burning Man. The Black Rock Desert is one of the largest, flattest surfaces on Earth, going on for hundreds of miles. Hot springs are abundant in this area, making it a great place to visit in the winter or spring. For those who want to dig deeper, you’ll find scores of interesting things tucked away in this country, from micro-playas to miners cabins to ghost towns. A visit to this part of Cowboy Territory is sure to leave an impression!
Road trips can sometimes become overwhelming, with itineraries often changing as life happens. However, traveling through a place like Cowboy Country reassures us that we are never far from kind locals who wouldn’t hesitate to help show us around, and that there are so many experiences that it wouldn’t all fit on the itinerary anyways!