Personal encounters with wildlife — in re-created settings and in real life — await travelers at attractions near Elko, Nevada.
By Cynthia A. Delaney
Travelers can experience the thrill of a big game expedition right in the heart of northern Nevada. Pull off Interstate 80 and stop in the small town of Elko, which is home to the Northeastern Nevada Museum and the threshold to Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
The Northeastern Nevada Museum is situated in Elko’s City Park, which offers ample free parking. The museum has become a mecca for regional wildlife education, and the number of visitors has increased dramatically in the past couple of years. The facility is open daily and offers exhibits of cowboy gear and local history; impressive specimens of rocks, minerals, and fossils gleaned from this part of the state; and even the bones of a mastodon that lived in the area approximately 2 million years ago. The newest part of the museum, the Wanamaker Wing, contains specimens of wildlife from throughout the world.
This facility has been hailed as one of the best small museums in the West, and the new wildlife wing has increased its stature within the collecting community. In 1999 Jack Wanamaker of Burbank, California, donated his entire collection of wildlife mounts, and a new $1.9 million wing was added to the museum to display it.
The new exhibit cost nearly $700,000 and encompasses 8,000 square feet. It includes a separate trophy room that houses such specimens as a four-horned goat and a wild boar. Realistic murals and settings were created to surround this extensive collection, such as a chilly arctic tundra and a sweltering African savannah. More than 200 species from the four corners of the earth are represented.
The paths through this large theater mimic the byways of the world, winding in and out amongst animals and scenes from remote regions that many of us may never have the opportunity to view in person. A growling grizzly bear towers over the heads of passersby and a charging rhinoceros bursts into the rotunda in a chillingly realistic stance. Care to come face-to-face with the menacing eyes of a cheetah or gaze at the tonsils of a snarling badger? No problem. The animals located in the Wanamaker Wing may be wild, but they can’t hurt you!
Centered among the many fascinating arrangements is a replica of Nevada’s Great Basin, featuring its habitat and native wildlife. A lanky mountain lion slides through a rocky precipice while a panting coyote rests in the shade of a tall sage. The Great Basin is a sprawling expanse of land with isolated regions and rugged peaks. The more prominent predators, such as the cougar and bobcat, are elusive and rarely seen in the wild. This diorama represents all that is out there in the countryside just beyond the small towns of northern Nevada.
The Northeastern Nevada Museum charges a small admission fee ($5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students ages13 to18, and $1 for children 12 and under, and free to children under 3), and admission is free on the last Sunday of the month. This eclectic enclave is located two blocks west of exit 303 off I-80. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.
Admission is free to the next destination, which also features wildlife viewing — and these creatures are alive. Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge offers a glimpse into an amazing desert marshland that is teeming with activity.
The refuge is approximately 65 miles south of Elko via state routes 227 and 228. From Elko, turn southeast on State Route 227, then south on State Route 228. This refuge is noted as one of the most remote in the contiguous 48 states.
Routes 227 and 228 traverse some of the area’s most prime ranchland, offering splendid views of green meadows to the west and the statuesque Ruby Mountains to the east. State Route 228 is nicknamed “Secret Pass,” and is paved approximately two-thirds of the way to the refuge. The remainder of the road is gravel, but it is flat, well-maintained, and suitable for most motorhomes. Follow the signs to the refuge headquarters, which is open Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. If you happen to arrive on a weekend, you will find visitor information posted in several locations throughout the refuge.
Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge is actually the marshy remains of a lake that was once 200 feet deep and covered more than 300,000 acres. Of the refuge’s 37,632 acres, approximately 17,000 acres are wetlands that are fed by more than 150 springs, most runoff from the Ruby Mountains. This watershed is closed, so all water in the marsh is clean; in fact, water from a nearby cave requires no treatment prior to being piped into the refuge’s headquarters office and residences.
After stopping at the headquarters office you can choose to drive your car or motorhome around to view wildlife, or search for a place to fish (the Collection Ditch is a popular location). The roads have pullouts and places to turn around, so taking your coach to the refuge should not pose a problem. Camping is not available, however.
Ruby Lake is divided into regions called North Marsh, East Marsh, and South Marsh, and a network of dike roads runs between them, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Several short trails are marked for hiking along the interior canals. A generous donation has recently provided the refuge with the funds to build two bird blinds, and bird-watchers and photographers can call the refuge headquarters to reserve time slots. Optimal viewing times at the sanctuary are early morning and late afternoon, when the animals are most active. Spring through early fall are the best seasons, and better weather is generally experienced in those months.
This area is a true oasis in the middle of the desert, and sustains an amazing number of bird species. More than 200 species have been observed there. The wetlands are ingrained into the migratory pattern of many types of waterfowl that travel the Central Flyway and the Pacific Flyway. The area is also a popular nesting site, and in the spring and summer a delightful array of families sporting new members can be seen paddling about.
May is one of the best times to go birding at the refuge, as many birds are in their plumage, still searching for mates. Once they start nesting in June, they are sometimes not as easy to spot. Small songbirds such as the marsh wren can be seen and heard among the bulrushes, trilling in territorial defense. During May and early June, red-winged blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds feast on bountiful mayflies. Killdeer zip about near water’s edge, their bright eyes constantly on the watch. Occasionally you may catch a glimpse of the Nevada state bird — the mountain bluebird — which lends a splash of color to the environment.
Larger birds at the refuge include great blue herons, sandhill cranes, several species of egrets, hawks, bald and golden eagles, and regal trumpeter swans. (Seven pairs of trumpeters now live at the refuge year-round.) The swan is an introduced species, but has become established and is firmly on the rise after near extinction due to past exploitation by the millinery trade.
Although this place is certainly for birders, folks who wish to observe many other high desert residents will not be disappointed. Mule deer are thick in the region and especially common along the roadways in winter and early spring. Pronghorn antelopes are occasionally seen, and coyotes are abundant.
As noted previously, the Ruby marshes offer a peaceful pastime for anglers; in fact, the opportunity for fishing attracts 70 percent of the refuge’s visitors each year. Largemouth bass and trout varieties such as rainbow, eastern brook, and brown are common. Fishing licenses are required; they can be obtained in Elko at the Department of Wildlife office, or from mass merchants and discounters in town. Fishing licenses cannot be purchased at the refuge.
Although visitors come to view the wildlife in this area, the surrounding scenery presents a spectacular backdrop. The Ruby Mountains stand like dark sentinels just to the west of the Ruby Lake wildlife refuge. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest covers much of this range in a primarily juniper and pinon pine sprawl.
In 1989 the passage of the Nevada Wilderness Protection Act designated 90,000 acres as the Ruby Mountains Wilderness. The land sits high in the alpine zone and is dotted with aquamarine lakes and glacial formations. Lofty residents include Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep; mountain goats; and pikas — small, guinea pig-like cousins to rabbits. Trails through the wilderness can be accessed on the west side of the Rubies in Lamoille Canyon, via State Route 227. Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway is a paved 12-mile road (Forest Route 660) into the area. The tallest peak in this mountain chain is Ruby Dome, at 11,387 feet. Snow on the high points of this ruggedly carved chain can linger well into summer. For more information, call or visit the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest office in Elko (775-738-5171).
History buffs will be interested to discover the Overland Stagecoach and Pony Express routes that are located near the south end of the marshes. These marked dirt roads follow the same paths that were used from 1862 to 1869. A post aptly dubbed Fort Ruby was established at the south end of the valley in 1862 to protect the Overland Mail Company route. The Donner Party, whose journey ended in tragedy in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains, is said to have traveled through the Ruby Valley in 1846.
After you’ve explored the marshes, you may wish to head south to see a herd of wild mustangs cavorting through the brush. Travel south of the refuge on State Route 228 approximately 20 miles, where, according to a refuge spokesperson, you can see the mustangs running free in this region as you drive down the road. However, if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can more closely explore Cherry Springs Wild Horse Territory, an area accessible only by such vehicles. Approximately 150 horses occupy this region, and their bay and sorrel forms can sometimes be spotted amidst the trees and sage. Small rodents, reptiles, and numerous other denizens can sometimes be seen scurrying about. The waters give life to them all. Muskrats, the refuge’s more comical, scruffy beasts, bob along for most of the day stuffing their faces with bulrushes. The homes of these slew-surfing rodents dot the marshland like tiny haystacks in the sea.
Take a walk on the wild side this spring and discover Elko, Nevada. Savor the chance to view the earth’s amazing diversity or simply sit back and observe the courting antics of a blue-billed ruddy duck. Whether you choose to peruse the Wanamaker Wildlife wing or take a jaunt through an isolated wilderness, you will enjoy the many wonders of the animal world. Try a Nevada expedition.
Elko Chamber of Commerce
1405 Idaho St.
Elko, NV 89801
Northeastern Nevada Museum
1515 Idaho St.
Elko, NV 89801(775) 738-3418
Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge
HC 60, Box 860
Ruby Valley, NV 89833
Nevada Division of Wildlife
1375 Mountain City Highway
Elko, NV 89801
The following may not be a complete list, so please check your favorite campground guide or the “Business Service Directory” in FMC magazine for additional listings.
Cimarron West RV Park
1400 Mountain City Highway
Elko, NV 89801
Gold Country RV Park
(At Gold Country Casino)
2050 Idaho St.
Elko, NV 89801
Ryndon RV Park
Elko, NV 89801
Valley View Park RV Park
6000 E. Idaho St.
Elko, NV 89801
South Fork State Recreation Area
HC 30 353-8
Spring Creek, NV 89815
Thomas Canyon Campground
(National Forest Service)
140 Pacific Ave.
Wells, NV 89825
(877) 444-6777 (Reservations)