Rugged Landscapes, Ghost Towns & History in Nevada’s Cowboy Country

You'll find an abundance of lonesome highways, dirt roads, ghost towns, and wide open vistas as you travel through northern Nevada's Cowboy Country. Leave your expectations at home, pack plenty of water and snacks, then hit the road.
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From high alpine forests to desert sand dunes and ghost towns, it’s all here in the northwestern corner of Nevada, known as “Cowboy Country.” If you make make the trek, there’s one lesson you don’t want to learn the hard way: be prepared. When you come across a town or gas station, fill up and stock up, because the next opportunity could be hours away. Heed that advice, and you’ll be well on your way to explore one of the most scenic and remote areas in the United States.

This story was created in partnership with Nevada’s Cowboy Country.

What the Hell’s a Jarbidge?

As you get closer to Jarbidge, you might see a truck or two with this sticker slapped on the bumper. And you’ll be asking yourself just that as you make the drive to one of the most remote communities in the lower 48 states. No matter how you get here, it’s an adventure. The nearest major hub is Elko, a three- to four-hour drive that includes nearly 50 miles of dirt roads to navigate. What the (few and far between) locals will tell you is, is that it’s a beautiful, isolated, and historic community nestled deep in the mountains of northern Nevada. And if you can make it here, that’s just what you’ll find. There are more historic buildings, mining ruins, and endless dirt roads than you can shake a stick at.

There are more ATVs than cars, and as soon as get off the (lightly) beaten path, you’ll understand why: there’s an endless network of mining roads and trails to explore. Amenities are scarce, but depending on the time of year, there’s a gas station, two restaurants & bars, a hotel, a general store, a few shops, and a post office—just what you need and nothing more.

Elko to Winnemucca: History, Art, and Basque Culture

Anyone who’s been near Elko will tell you: the steak sandwich (locals’ tip: order it with garlic) from The Star Hotel is legendary. And indeed, it is, especially alongside soup and salad served family-style in the Basque tradition. Sheepherders from the Basque region of the Pyrenees between Spain and France settled here in the mid-1800s and have kept a presence since.

You’ll need to walk off that steak sandwich, so take a stroll through downtown Elko to check out the dozens of murals. While you’re wandering, drop in at the Western Folklife Center to see their latest exhibits and learn about the area’s cowboy culture, art, and poetry.

From Elko, make your way through Cowboy Country by heading west towards Winnemucca. On the way, make a stop at the Battle Mountain Cookhouse Museum to learn about local history. Here you’ll find a trove of local artifacts, including the building itself; the structure is an historic 1920s cookhouse that was moved to its current location from a nearby ranch.

As you carry on to Winnumucca, you’ll find more hidden gems. If you’re looking forward to another Basque family-style meal, stop in at the Martin Hotel. Among the oldest restaurants in the state (if not the American West), this Basque landmark has been pouring their signature cocktail, Picon Punch, since 1898.

In a state full of sand, the Winnemucca Sand Dunes hold a special distinction: the largest dune field in Nevada. Just a few minutes north of town, this giant sandbox is perfect for off-roading, star-gazing, or just catching a sunset.

Finding a spot to cool down in the desert is a tall order, but a few minutes south of Winnemucca you’ll find just that at the aptly named Water Canyon. Aspen stands shade this riparian zone, providing the perfect shelter for a cool creek, hiking trails, and picnic areas.

Denio to Lovelock: Opal Mines, Ghost Towns, and Ancient Caves

Heading north from Winnemucca, you’ll encounter more of Nevada’s most remote communities. The solitude is palpable–you’ll likely be the only car on the road, and there are more ghost towns than ones that are inhabited. There’s one that seems to be both: Paradise Valley, which has more haunted and historic buildings than not. Apparently some of the previous inhabitants still haunt the structures, so when you visit, respect private property and don’t enter any buildings without permission.

It’s also right on the path to one of the most scenic views in Northern Nevada, Hinkey Summit, if you’re up for making the 15 mile (dirt road) drive to the top.

From here, make your way north towards Denio, which like most places in Northern Nevada, has no more than a gas station, hotel, restaurant, and bar (or two). But it’s where you want to find yourself if you set out to be surrounded by sweeping desert landscapes, as well as something equally stunning: opals.

No matter which mine you visit, you’ll be able to find opals to keep (for a nominal fee). Of the options in the Virgin Valley, I ended up at Rainbow Ridge. After picking through the tailings, even I, a newbie, came away with a respectable haul.

With my newly acquired opal collection in tow, I made my way towards Lovelock, my last stop in Cowboy Country. But first, after a day of digging under the sun, there’s nothing better than taking a dip in the free, spring-fed pool at the nearby Virgin Valley Campground, which feels like finding an actual oasis.

Only a few minutes off of the Interstate, the Lovelock Cave is the site of one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in North America. Though the artifacts have been excavated (they’re on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian), you can take a short and scenic hike to the cave, which provided shelter and storage for the Northern Paiutes and other Native American peoples for thousands of years.

With plenty of preparation and an appetite for Basque food and solitude, it’s hard to beat Cowboy Country in northern Nevada as a road trip destination. People and gas stations may be scarce, but instead there’s an abundance of sweeping views, wide-open roads, history, and adventure.

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