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Sleek little planes and big steam trainsSleek little planes and big steam trains

Ely, NevadaEly, Nevada

Fly to Ely (pronounced EEE-lee) in mid-June to see America’s newest air races, or visit any time to ride the steam train, dig for garnets, and then enjoy your steak behind bars in the jailhouse (yes, they’ll let you out).

  • International Formula One Pylon Air Racing is coming to Ely! Today’s best Formula One racers reach top speeds approaching 300 mph on the same engine that powers a Cessna 150 to barely 100 mph (Continental O-200 200-cubic-inch displacement engines). Formula One aircraft must have a minimum wing area of 66 square feet, an empty weight of at least 500 pounds, fixed landing gear, and a fixed pitch propeller. Racers compete in a 3.19-mile oval course. Photo courtesy
  • A pair of Formula One pilots battle it out for the lead. Photo courtesy
  • The Cassutt Formula One race plane “Wasabi,” flown by Elliot Seguin, departs from the Mojave Air & Space Port in California. Photo by Alan Radecki.
  • In 1905, the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company built a 150-mile rail line to haul ore from the mines west of Ely. The section of track that runs from Ely to the tiny town of McGill is still in operation, ridden by the original steam and diesel engines that are painstakingly maintained by the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. If touring the average museum offers visitors a glimpse into the past, a visit to this museum is more like a trip through time. The one-of-a-kind museum is dedicated to restoring, preserving, interpreting, and operating its historic facilities, yards, and rail collection, and offers visitors the opportunity to experience a working railroad straight from the past. Photo by Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada.
  • The Nevada Northern Railway offers several special train rides, including the Rockin' & Rollin' Geology Train, which features presentations by local geologists covering railroad and mining history and an authentic miner-style dinner—a beef and potato Cornish pasty. The BBQ Express Dinner Train features a real western BBQ. The Wild West Limited steam train excursion includes cowboys, cowboy grub, and may just include an old-time train robbery. The popular Steptoe Valley Flyer delivers a classic railroad experience. Departing from the original depot, passengers board the original first-class passenger car #5 (built in 1882) behind baggage/railway US Post Office car #20 (built in 1906) and steam locomotive #40 (built in 1910). An emigrant's meal is served. Haunted Ghost Trains include ghost stories, zombies, ghouls, aliens—maybe even Bigfoot! The Polar Express is a seasonal Christmas train based on the classic children’s tale. Photo by Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada.
  • The East Ely Mission Revival-style depot was designed by Frederick Hale and built in 1907. The well-preserved interior retains separate men's and women's waiting rooms, with baggage and express rooms. Offices are on the second floor. The location of the depot was a matter of controversy between the railroad and residents of Ely, who successfully sued the railroad to change the depot's name from Ely to East Ely to reflect its distance from the main townsite. The East Ely Depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Photo by Larry Myhre.
  • When visiting the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, be sure to stop into the Machine Shop. The authentic, early 1900s-era shop features the locomotives, a blacksmith shop, and much more. Photo by Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada.
  • The old and the new: Ely was founded as a stagecoach station along the Pony Express and Central Overland Route. The Nevada Northern Railway was constructed in 1905 to carry ore and passengers by steam train. As railroads converted to diesel later in the 20th century, railroad yards and shops nationwide were altered or demolished. The East Ely yard escaped modernization because of its geographical remoteness and the decline of the mining industry it once served. Here, Nevada Northern Railway Museum director Mark Bassett carries the Google Trekker through the Nevada Northern Railway, documenting its existence digitally for the world to see. Photo by Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada.
  • The Nevada Northern Railway (NNR) allows visitors to experience the technology that spanned the continent and in a few subsequent decades helped thrust the U.S. firmly into the forefront of world powers. The NNR’s locomotives were on full display the day prior to the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. All three locomotives were combined into one triple-headed train and used to transport the Olympic flame from Soldier Hollow to Heber City, Utah, as part of the torch relay. Photo by Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada.
  • You can sleep overnight in the historic main East Ely yard of the Nevada Northern Railway. Choose the yellow Kennecott caboose or the bunkhouse. The bunkhouse has four rooms that sleep two each, two shared restrooms with showers, a kitchen, and a sitting area. Each room has a window air conditioner and heat panel. The caboose, still on the active freight roster, has two single beds, clean linens, and blankets, but no electricity, running water, heat, or air conditioning (though evenings in this high, dry desert are usually cool). Your shower and restrooms are in the nearby bunkhouse. This entire rail line, along with the historic Ely yard complex, locomotives, and rolling stock, ranks as a National Historic Landmark. Photo by Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada.
  • The historic, six-story Hotel Nevada in downtown Ely is known for its Western flair. Hand-painted murals of cowboys ropin’ and ridin’ adorn the hallways of this vintage property, which offers 24-hour dining and gambling. Opened in 1929, it was the tallest building in Nevada well into the 1940s. Photo by Ken Lund.
  • Ely's best bet for steaks and wines, the Cellblock Steakhouse serves dinner in a unique atmosphere—behind bars. Photo courtesy Jail House Casino.
  • Murals and sculptures can be found throughout Ely, which sits along U.S. Hwy 50, "The Loneliest Road in America." Photo by Chris Moran/TravelNevada.
  • Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park is 20 miles south of Ely. The ovens are associated with the silver mining ghost town of Ward, Nevada, established in 1876. The town has been mostly destroyed by repeated flash flooding in its low-lying site. Only the smelter, mill foundations, and a cemetery are left. The charcoal ovens are two miles south of the townsite. Six large ovens remain in excellent repair, each 30 feet high, 27 feet in diameter, with walls 2 feet thick at the base. Built in 1876 by itinerant Italian masons known as “carbonari,” the ovens prepared charcoal from locally harvested timber for use in the smelters at Ward and were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Photo by Ken Lund.
  • Garnet Hill is nationally known for its very dark colored garnets, found in a deposit of volcanic rhyolite. Look for rocks that are “sparkling” with quartz, as garnets are often found near quartz. Then look for dark red or black specks in the rock, an indication of garnet. Then break the rocks apart. There is limited camping space at the site; three tables are located around the road loop near the top of Garnet Hill. Photo by Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada.

Much of Nevada may be desert, but you’ll be surprised how high and mountainous much of it is as well, with long, parallel, north-south mountain ranges separated by long north-south valleys. Although Ely Airport/Yelland Field lies in the Steptoe Valley, it’s still at 6,259 feet elevation. Peaks to the west and east rise to nearly 11,000 and 12,000 feet msl, respectively. For some reason I always feel like the space shuttle coming in to land here: very high, with the long runway in sight from far away, on a very long straight-in. Watch for gliders in summer and beware of large cracks on Taxiway A. Ely Jet Center has a courtesy car but is closed Sundays. If you need the car on a Sunday, call 775-289-8804 to make arrangements. There are no rental cars.

You won’t need a car for Ely’s newest attraction, because the inaugural Ely Air Races/Air Show will be right at the airport June 13 through 16, 2018. For decades, air racing in the West and especially Nevada has been synonymous with the National Championship Air Races in Reno, held each September. The Ely Air Races will be International Formula One Pylon Racing, the oldest continuously operated airplane racing class in the world, established in 1947. Several competitors from the Reno Air Races and the Air Race 1 in Thailand are expected to participate. These will be the first new air races in the Western United States in 34 years, but they’ll also be the highest elevation air races anywhere, and who knows what the density altitude will be here in mid-June. Along with the daily races, set to culminate on Saturday, there will be military and general aviation aircraft displays, hot air balloon rides, a car show, live music, and activities with the Steptoe Valley Trap, Skeet and Target club.

At the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, staff entertain train riders, show visitors around the trainyard and shop, and teach youngsters how steam and diesel engines work. Visitors can even sign up to be an engineer and drive the trains. Photo courtesy Bristlecone Convention Center.

Ely may be new to fans of air racing, but the town has long been a mecca for train buffs. Established in 1905 to support the area's booming copper mining industry, the Nevada Northern Railway is the best-preserved, least altered, and most complete main yard complex remaining from the steam railroad era. It's also been voted "Best Place to Take Kids" for six years in a row by Nevada Magazine readers. A 90-minute narrated train ride will take you along a part of the route that carried 4.5 million passengers between 1905 and 1941. Some of the trains are still pulled by one of the railway’s three original steam locomotives. Check the calendar for special train excursions (see photos and captions for details); reserve all trips ahead.

Brands of local ranches decorate a wall inside the Hotel Nevada in downtown Ely. Photo by Chris Moran/Travel Nevada.

Spend a real “night at the museum” by sleeping in the yellow Kennecott caboose or the bunkhouse that formerly served as the engineer's living quarters. Just remember railyards come alive early, as crews ready the locomotives. If you signed up for “Be the Engineer,” you better hop to it, because later you’ll be controlling the whistle, throttle, and brakes as you run an original steam locomotive down the mainline! Other unique overnight choices include the historic Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall and the All Aboard Café and Inn, a comfy bed-and-breakfast with good home-cookin,’ open to the public for breakfast, lunch, and dinner Thursday through Sunday. Then there’s the Jail House Casino and Motel, also home to a taco shop, sports bar, and the Cell Block Steak House, where you’ll dine behind bars.

About 20 miles south of town, Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park protects a half-dozen beautifully preserved, beehive-shaped charcoal ovens that prepared charcoal during the 1870s. Seven miles northwest of Ely is the Garnet Hill rock hounding area, which overlooks the enormous Ruth copper mine. The hill rises to about 7,000 feet elevation, and the four-mile dirt road off Highway 50 is twisty and steep in some parts. About 30 to 40 million years ago, a volcano spewed massive quantities of rhyolite here. The rock cooled to the drab gray you’ll see, but inside are deep red garnets. To get the goods, you’ll need leather gloves, a small hammer, and the true rockhounder’s greatest gift: patience. Don’t quit now—as they say in Ely, you’re on the right track!

'Ward Charcoal Ovens,' a mural by Chris Kreider, adorns a building in downtown Ely. Photo by Chris Moran/TravelNevada.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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