Winter trip to Ely, White Pine Co, NV

I had been looking forward to a trip to Ely for months. My plan was to tour a few nights leading up to the Fire and Ice Festival. My exposure to Ely has been limited, I raced Fears, Tears and Beers Enduro mountain bike event in 2013, spent a weekend a Cave Lake State Park, and spent a day riding around Sacramento Pass Recreation Area on a trip to Utah. But I knew I wanted to spend more time in the area. Ely is a hub for outdoor recreation in eastern Nevada.

Heavy snow and rain greeted me across the state and I didn’t bring my snowshoes

Ely is 300 miles away from Reno on US 50. There are so many opportunities to tour off of US 50; the Pony Express, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, Sand Mountain Recreation Area, Middlegate, Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, Austin, Toiyabe Crest Trail, and that gets you about half way across the state. Just as significant would be a list of towns or mountain ranges across US 50 to plan your next bikepacking adventure. So why go so far as Ely?

March, 2022 just north of Sacramento Pass. White Pine Co is ripe for bikepacking adventure

Ely is a mining, government, and tourist town of about 4,000 people. Mining has been on the decline in recent years. County, sate and federal government agencies have offices in the area. Ely offers great options in hotels, casinos, restaurants, and bars. Ely has shops, museums, parks and great public art. Most of all Ely is the gateway to Bristlecone Country and notably “the middle of everywhere.”

Sunrise and moonset on Eagan Range, it wasn’t purely rain and snow

While I mostly talk about Black Rock Country in reference to the wildlands around the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, I refer to Bristlecone Country as the wildlands around the Bristlecone portion of the Ely BLM District. This region is ripe for hundreds if not thousands of miles of bikepacking routes. While the area still feels distinctly Northern Nevadan it definitely has its own feel. I look forward to spending more time there riding with locals so I can better identify what makes this area unique. While we consider the land mangers it is important to recognize the original stewards of the land. I was riding on the ancestral and tribal lands of one of nine bands of the Western Shoshone, the Ely Shoshone Tribe.

Local volunteers groomed this trail regularly for all to enjoy

I arrived at Illapah Reservoir with grand plans of a 195 mile loop (Route here on Ride with GPS) with built in crisscrosses and alternate short-cuts and bail outs should I need to shorten the route. But there was a lot of fresh snow on the ground and plenty more in the immediate forecast. I was nervous about getting snowed in. Plus the snow was heavy, I didn’t see myself traveling through it at any appreciable rate. I pulled off on White Pine County Rd 3. It was plowed and is a 60+ mile route to Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. I would have crossed the Pony Express route at the south end of Ruby Valley. With hindsight, I should have gone for it! I pushed on into Ely with the idea I needed to stay below 7,000′.

A ton of information at this kiosk at the Forest Service campground, Ward Mountain Recreation Area

I popped into the White Pine County board of tourism to check in with their director, Kyle Horvath. He suggested checking out the Ward Mountain Recreation Area, North Trailhead just below Murray Summit. This was going to be the venue for the Ely Outdoor Enthusiasts Bristlecone Birkebeiner. I was registered for the fat bike race on Saturday. I got out for a few miles in heavy fresh snow on top of groomed Nordic ski, snowshoe, and singletrack. As the sun was going down I ran into other users out for their evening exercise, awesome!

A snowy night ride begged brighter lights than my 300 lumen headlamp

It snowed and rained the next day. I moved down to Steptoe Valley and parked off Cave Valley Road, the road to Ward Charcoal Ovens. That evening the rain switched to snow so I got out for a quick ride to ward off “camper fever.” The next day’s forecast was clear and cold. In my mind I would head south as far as I could go. There was a feature on the maps, Mollys Nipples, that sounded like a good goal.

A bluebird sunrise over the Schell Creek Range

I woke up to clear skies. I packed the bike for a 1-2 night outing. I was riding my Meriweather long-tail fat bike. With custom bags from Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks, it really is an expedition worthy slowpacking bike. For this outing it was under packed. I was rolling on studded 26X4.8 45NRTH Dillinger 5 tires. Not that this is revolutionary, but I rode with ski goggles for the first time and I wonder what took me so long to try this. They are comfortable, keep your eyes and face warm, by some miracle don’t fog up, and the lenses’ tint improves visibility in flat light. For all the reasons I enjoyed them so much snowboarding, so too these features transferred to fat biking.

Ward Historic Mining District, I figured I would ride every plowed opportunity

I headed south and turned into the first road to Willow Creek Campground. The rangers were actively plowing the road. I asked them about heading south, they didn’t think anything was plowed to the south. Although the campground was not accessible I thought this could be a great stop for a summer trip in the area. My next turn was into the Ward Charcoal Ovens.

The ovens; from proud craftmanship, to fuel for the smelters, to bandit hideouts

On past visits I didn’t make the effort to visit the park. That was my mistake. For someone who stops for all interpretive signs this park is a must. State Parks, National Parks, whatever the designation someone chose to set aside that land for public use and enjoyment. It is worth the look to see why the effort was made. How did the Ward Charcoal Ovens come to be? The charcoal ovens were a better way to produce charcoal for the smelters that processed the ore from the Ward mining district. The craftsmanship of the kilns is what really makes them standout and gave them resilience. I took a little extra time photographing them in the snow. I look forward to returning to the park in the summer/fall with a group. The park provides opportunities to bike, hike, camp and fish. This is also an area known for its dark skies.

The cow path made it just easy enough to continue south

The ranger’s assessment of the road south of the park was correct. But the “bovine trail breakers” were out. The cow paths through the snow made it just easy enough to continue. The route south between the Eagan and Schele Creek Ranges is spectacular. The cow path didn’t last forever. Next I followed a vanishing truck rut. I turned around at the 20 mile mark. This was a turn off to White Rock. If a place warrants a sign it is probably worth checking out. Looking over the maps around the area I traveled through inspires branching adventures for miles.

Without a cow path I followed an old tire path
I could see Mollys Nipples

I stopped to make camp as the sun dipped behind the Eagan Range. I stomped out a pad in the snow to pitch my tarp tent. It had been a calm day and turned out to be a calm clear night. After a satisfying hot dinner, Thanksgiving Dinner, I took one night sky photo, and burrowed into my sleeping bag.

Sunset across Septoe Valley
One shot at the night sky

It was a cold night. I should have prepared a hot water bottle for the foot of my sleeping bag. That morning I got a later than usual start knowing I had a short day to return to my truck. Just a short time into my return I encountered the snow plow heading south. It crossed my mind to follow him south but the aesthetic of following heavy machinery wasn’t there. I did make one detour on my return, following the sign to the Ward Cemetery. The road was well plowed as it served a small residential community. The cemetery was beyond the neighborhood and therefor beyond the plowed roads.

The tarp tent is a great winter home

After a stop at Rolberto’s for burritos I moved my camper back to the Ward Mountain Recreation Trailhead. Again, locals showed up in the evening to take advantage of the groomed trails and plowed access. I love seeing resources like these being used for physical and mental health. I was in my camper reading when a group of women showed up. They sounded like they were having such a good time, laughing and chatting away before heading out on trail. Then I saw more chat on STRAVA the next day between the groups who recognized each other’s vehicles and such in the parking lot. What a great group of outdoor enthusiasts! I found my people.

12,000 year old Lilly the giant short-faced bear

Friday was the beginning of the Fire and Ice Festival in Ely. I started with a visit to the White Pine Public Museum, home of Lilly the giant short-faced bear, Arctodus simus. Behind the main museum is a village of buildings to explore, but they were snowed in. I got a special tour of one of the homes. The pioneers’ homes were the original tiny houses. My favorite exhibits were photography, geology, and old bottles. The experience reminded me to stop in all towns’ museums.

Mural by Reno local artist, Erik T Burke (@oupublicworks) and daughter.

From there I went on a walking tour of Ely’s public art and murals. Ely has sought out artists from around the world to rejuvenate its public spaces. The murals pay homage to all the peoples who made Ely the community it is today. I wanted to get some more pictures of my favorite murals, but they will have to wait for my next visit. A self guided tour of the murals is available but I was fortunate to have Kyle Horvath, the executive director of White Pine County Tourism, as my guide.

How many of these folks were at the Pub Crawl the night before?

The next event was a pub crawl sponsored by the White Pine Chamber of Commerce. It was a great tour of Ely’s drinking establishments. If I didn’t have a race planned for the next day I may have dove a little deeper. Racks Bar and Grill and The Space were my favorites. Again the town of Ely came out to support the event. I hope you are catching on, Ely makes people feel welcome.

Casey Fraser doing the work

The evening ended with a concert at the Bristlecone Convention Center. The local band, Desert Illness did a great job rocking the crowd. I enjoyed chatting with Eric Hunter, of Mammoth, California and Casey Fraser of Twentynine Palms, California. These guys are great sports to come all this way through the weather to participate in the Festival. I look forward to riding with them in the future. I made it an early night and camped back at Ward Mountain Recreation Area, the venue for the Bristlecone Birkebeiner Winterfest!

Grassroots racing means the locals come out to make sure everyone has a good time!

I woke the next morning with race jitters. It had been over 9 years since I had done a mountain bike race. Even though I was racing to participate, have fun, be a part of the show I was still going to give it a full effort. What to wear, what to eat, how to time it all. All the too serious concerns. What a great event! The race promoters, Ely Outdoor Enthusiasts, put it all in their mission statement, foster active healthy lifestyle choices through events that benefit community-wide wellness and promote tourism for White Pine County. There were 51 adult participants in ski, bike, and snowshoe events. A good time was had by all. Ely understands grassroots racing, locals make everyone feel welcome. Be sure to follow along and come out for the Turkey Vulture Stretch 5k, March 18 and the Ward Mountain Trail Run , August 5.

Crowning the bonfire with a dog house?
No, a steam shovel

After the race I met Kasey and Eric in Ely for lunch at Juanita and Chava’s Taco Shop in the Jailhouse Casino. You wont leave hungry. Then I met Kyle and others at the Northern Nevada Railway Complex to offer a hand at building the mountain of pallets for the post fireworks bonfire of the Fire and Ice Festival. Once the pile was crowned with a crafty steam shovel I made my way to the NNRy East Ely Depot to buy a museum ticket.

Nevada Northern Railway 1905-present

There is no museum like this. A ticket gives you the opportunity to explore the vast railroad yard, buildings, offices, machine shops. There are simple rules, don’t step in front of moving trains, don’t fall into into open pits, don’t climb on or touch dangerous machinery, and remember DJ the cat may not want to be petted. If you do pet DJ your hands will look like they have been finger printed was the last warning.

This machine shop has kept things running from the beginning

I made my way down the platform, past all the support buildings, to the machine shop. The depot was built between 1905-1907 and has been moving ore, freight and passengers since. The machine shop has been maintaining the steam and later diesel-electric locomotives since. Visitors get to ride the rails. Bike racers get to race the train. Tonight’s fireworks show will be delivered by steam locomotive and it’s whistle will fill the town with its eerie song. I picked up Bassett and Bassett’s Images of Rail, Nevada Northern Railway on my way through the gift shop.

The steam and whistle from the train made this fireworks show unique

From there I headed back to the Jailhouse Casino to grab a beer with my friend Will Lumpkin. Just by coincidence he and his family were intown for a friend’s family ice fishing trip to Illipah Reservoir. Most importantly, did they catch fish? You bet, some ridiculous number of rainbow trout, 40+. We then went and watched the fireworks just outside the casino. It was on of the best small town pyrotechnic displays I have seen. The ghost train’s whistle through the snow and fog gave it a particularly eerie shrill through the town.

Gathering for a good ol’ bonfire

Then it was back to the train depot for the bonfire. The fire chief was expecting some real heat, telling motorists to back up so their headlights don’t melt. That was a suspense builder. The climax was an explosion rigged by the fireworks team to start the fire. I decided to head back to Reno shortly after. I missed the Cave Lake snowshoe outing planned for the next morning but there is always next year.

This is a little different ride report than I normally write. It is my Fire and Ice Festival, come to Ely in the winter travelog. I have included as many relevant and varied links in the body of the post as I can. If you are planning a visit to Ely and Bristlecone Country please reach out. It is a four seasons destination. White Pine County’s board of tourism and chamber of commerce are the best sources for “must visit’s and see’s.”

What is coming up? Ride calendar for northern Nevada

  • March 11-12 Dog Valley Overnight hosted by Mark Yakushev snow, fat bike overnight
  • April 15-16 Rides with Friends #1 Around Little High Rock Canyon Wilderness
  • May 26-28 Black Rock  Rendezvous – Rides with Friends #2 Day Ride Cassidy Mine Loop
  • June 2-4 Collaboration with Wildwood Open Lands Foundation HOWLING in Dog Valley
  • June 17-18 Rides with Friends #3 Bikefishing the Granite Range
  • July 15-16 Rides with Friends #4 Fox Peak Loop
  • August 12-13 Rides with Friends #5 Perseids Meteor Shower
  • September 16-17 Rides with Friends #6 Massacre Ranch and Dark Skies
  • September 23-24 Adventure Cycling Ride Your Park Day: Rye Patch Reservoir – Black Rock Point
  • October 14-15 Rides with Friends #7 Black Rock Point Micro Playas

I will update this as I know more. Please reach out for details.

8 thoughts on “Winter trip to Ely, White Pine Co, NV

  1. Steve S.

    Fantastic post Kurstin! I’ve only been to Ely once (in the previous millenium) and you post really put the locale on my future list.

  2. Mike Duffy

    What an excellent report! Thanks so much.

    I’m from coastal California (Santa Cruz) but have done some minor exploring in your beautiful state with my family over the years. Now that I’m retired and getting deeper into bikepacking, I have been dreaming of bikepacking trips in Nevada. It seems to me that has a big hole in their route maps with it comes to Nevada (though I did see the recent publication of the first route in the State proper), so I have spent many hours peering at GoogleEarth and Ride With GPS on my laptop and trying to connect the dots on fire roads and trails to put together a 2-3 night loop to drive out and give a go.

    I’m thankful that I found your blog and eagerly await a trip out to poke around on the bike.

    Mike Duffy

    1. That is fantastic! All my routes and rides are accessible on Ride with GPS. I am sure you will have a great time. If there is anything I can do to help please reach out. I am happy to look at routes and even pre-ride sections if you have questions. Thanks for your support.

  3. Wayne Cameron

    Very cool article. This year’s Fire and Ice event was the best one we’ve had in the Ely area since Cave Lake was shut down to activities. Thanks for mentioning all the fun things to do with the event. Come join us again in 2024.

  4. Pingback: Around and through the Monte Cristo Mountains – Bikepacking Northern Nevada

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