A high-desert campground in northeastern Nevada provides a back-to-nature experience near the town of Elko.
By Gerald Burke, F158790
To some, Nevada is either desert or glitz. But the state has mountains that lift the soul, offering sights that stay with you forever.
One such jewel is Thomas Canyon, located near Elko in the northeastern part of Nevada. This enchanting gorge was carved out of the mountains by glaciers eons ago. Thomas Canyon Campground showcases this scenic spot.
Situated at an elevation of 7,200 feet, the 42-site campground is approximately 30 miles south of Elko near Lamoille Creek. It’s shaded by tall trees, many of them cottonwoods, and is open from June through October. Winter arrives early in November, effectively closing the area to all but hunters. The campground has no hookups, but drinking water and four no-flush toilets are available. Thirty of the sites are good for tents or RVs; four are pull-throughs; five are double sites. The RV sites are mostly level, and some will accommodate units more than 30 feet long.
Thomas Canyon Campground is seldom full, but summer weekends are the busy time. Reservations can be made by calling (877) 444-6777 or online at www.recreation.gov. Reservations are required at least four days before arrival.
Thomas Canyon is in the Humboldt–Toiyabe National Forest in the Ruby Mountains, which are famous for their scenery. In late spring and on into summer, wildflowers make swaths of color throughout the canyon and wildlife is plentiful if you’re quiet and look closely. Hiking is fun, even if you’re just meandering around the campground and the immediate vicinity, and it gives you a good chance to spot wildlife. Across the road from the campground is a breathtaking view of some monster cliffs.
Hike up the canyon, following Thomas Creek, for an experience you’ll never forget. The moderate climb takes about an hour, and the path is well-marked. At the top, Thomas Creek plunges over a 50- to 60-foot wall of rock, crashing down over the box end of the canyon. The water is icy cold, fresh from the snow pack farther up, and the creek swirls in deep, dark pools as it oxbows down the canyon.
Marmots frequent the area, and we saw coyotes in late afternoon heading down to the creek for a drink, watching us warily. As evening came on and we headed back down to the campground, jackrabbits, amazingly tame, moved out of our way on the path.
We made the hike a couple of times, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, so we got several different views of the canyon and the waterfall. You’ll see and hear more birds in the morning: jays, bluebirds, and finches, as well as buzzards circling around at the top of the canyon. Morning may be the best time to make the trip to the falls, since it can be cooler, as afternoons get pretty warm in the summertime. We saw some hikers ahead of us who stopped at the top for a picnic lunch and then hiked back down in the late afternoon.
There are fish in Thomas Creek, but apparently anglers in the know prefer to fish Lamoille Creek where it runs past the campground and travels down from 11,000-foot-plus Ruby Dome. A local family arrived one afternoon, and while the husband sat with us at our campsite, regaling us with stories of the area, his wife and children hiked on up Lamoille Creek to fish.
Lamoille Canyon, like Thomas Canyon, is renowned as one of Nevada’s most scenic places. It has been called the “Yosemite of Nevada.” This may be a slight exaggeration, but this canyon, also carved by glacial activity, boasts its own scenic byway. The Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway starts at the town of Lamoille and ends at Lamoille Canyon. You can take a drive and stop at nature trails and picnic areas along the way. Since you must take part of the byway to reach Thomas Canyon Campground, you’ll wind up driving at least part of it.
The closest town to this area is Elko, a growing city that’s still one of the most pleasant little settlements in Nevada. Its population is around 21,000, and a large residential area has grown up in the Spring Creek area along State Route 227 on the way up to Lamoille Canyon. There are plenty of attractions in the city itself.
The Northeastern Nevada Museum and Historical Society is a large facility featuring everything from very fine art to natural history. Exhibits include bones from a prehistoric elephant-type creature, the Spring Creek Mastodon, as well as a replica of the site where the bones were found.
Other exhibits focus on rocks and minerals; the California Trail; Native American beadwork and baskets; Western saddles by the famed Guadalupe Garcia; and an original 1860 Pony Express cabin. The museum’s Wanamaker Wildlife Wing houses more than 200 wildlife mounts displayed in habitat scenes.
The Northeastern Nevada Museum is at 1515 Idaho St., and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. A small admission fee is charged. Call (775) 738-3418 or visit www.museum-elko.us for more information.
Elko is famous for hosting the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering each winter. It’s a celebration of the folkways of the American West through music, cowboy poems, and the culture of cowboys and the American West.
The organization that puts on the gathering, the Western Folklife Center, is headquartered at 501 Railroad St. in the historic Pioneer Hotel. The center contains a beautiful new gallery full of works created by some of the world’s finest Western artists, and a gift shop full of cowboy music, books, and more. An exhibit about the Hispanic heritage of the Western High Desert, titled “Buckaroo!,” will be featured at the center through 2008.
The Western Folklife Center is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; suggested donation is $5 for adults and $2 for children ages 6 and up. Call (775) 738-7508 or visit www.westernfolklife.org for more information.
In downtown Elko at 14th and Idaho streets is an old ranch house and related buildings moved here from the Walther homestead, which also served as a stage station in the late 1800s. You’ll see a one-room schoolhouse, a creamery, a blacksmith’s shop, and barns at this collection of buildings called Sherman Station.
At Seventh and Commercial streets is the Elko Railroad Park, commemorating Elko’s part in the history of rail travel in the West. Festivals and other activities are held in the park during the year.
Mining is big in this area, with some five or more major gold mines within 100 miles from town. The Newmont Gold Company offers public tours on the second Tuesday of the month from April through October. The tours begin at the Northeastern Nevada Museum; from there a bus takes tour-goers to the mine where they can view the pit, dump leach, and milling activities. Reservations may be made by calling (775) 778-4068.
Ranching, what many of us associate with this part of Nevada, centers on cattle and related crops, and remains a major industry. As you drive through the area around Elko, it’s not hard to see what real cowboys do. They still ride horses and herd, brand, and feed cattle, but they take care of other crops as well. They irrigate fields and run tractors and hay-baling machines “” and go into Elko on Saturday night for rest and relaxation.
The biggest celebration of the year in Elko, held each summer near the Fourth of July, is the National Basque Festival, known for years as one of the best festivals in Nevada. It’s attended by tourists as well as Basques from all over the West.
Basque dancers from Nevada, Idaho, California, and other states perform in colorful costumes. Weightlifting contests involve men carrying 100 pounds in each hand over a 100-foot course. Men heft cubes, cylinders, and granite balls in exhibitions, and participate in wood-chopping contests, too. Shepherds carrying long crooks demonstrate roundup techniques using sheepdogs. A “Running from the Bulls” event involves just that, right out in the streets, as part of the festival kickoff.
Attending the festival can be fun for the whole family. Plenty of car and RV parking is available in and near the festival events, and good food and drink and native Basque dishes are served in booths here and there. A parade usually kicks off this big event and gets things started for the rest of the celebration.
Music can be heard throughout the festival area, and you might also hear a weird sound, the Basque yell, which some have described as a horse’s neigh or a shrieking laugh. You’ll see plenty of the traditional leather sheepskins filled with red wine, and you can purchase one, if you care to, at one of the many stands.
The Elko Basque Festival started back in 1964, an outgrowth of the many Basques in the area who wanted to carry on the traditions of the old country they left “” a tiny bit of land between Spain and Portugal in the Pyrenees Mountains. The Basque people quickly assimilated into the American culture. Many started out herding sheep and working as farmhands, and today they are stockmen, farmers, and landowners.
For more information about this year’s festival, contact the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority, listed below.
By the way, if you get tired of cooking in your coach, Elko has several good Basque restaurants. The food is sometimes spicy, usually requiring a nice drink to wash it down. We ate at a restaurant named Biltoki, located at 405 Silver St. downtown, and enjoyed it. The name Biltoki in the Basque language means “The Gathering Place.” Other Basque restaurants include the Star Hotel, Toki Ona, and the Nevada Dinner House. After doing all that hiking around Thomas Canyon, you won’t feel too guilty by delighting your tastebuds!
Camping at Thomas Canyon, attending the Basque Festival, and seeing the countryside around Elko and other spots in the Ruby Mountains can make for an enjoyable and memorable vacation.
Elko is located on Interstate 80 between Winnemucca and Wells. To get to Thomas Canyon Campground from Elko, take State Route 227 south for approximately 25 miles toward Lamoille. From there, turn on to Lamoille Canyon Scenic Byway and travel approximately 8 miles to the campground. Reservation information is listed in this story. For more information, call the campground at (775) 738-5171.
For more information about Elko, its attractions, and the Basque Festival, contact:
Elko Convention and Visitors Authority
700 Moren Way
Elko, NV 89801