Story and photos by Rick Moore
In his 2002 book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, the late Rush drummer Neil Peart chronicled his motorcycle travels throughout the West, including his entry from western Utah into eastern Nevada via U.S. Route 50. Peart talked about spending the night in the eastern Nevada town of Ely, crossing the state on Route 50 in a chapter called “The Loneliest Road in America.” He said, “Despite the bitter cold, I did enjoy my long crossing of The Loneliest Highway in America, past sagebrush plains, juniper mountains, salt pans, dust devils and occasional sand dunes, all unfolding before me under a crystal sky.”
Route 50 across Nevada was originally pegged “The Loneliest Road in America” by a Life magazine writer in the ‘80s, the implication being that there’s nothing to see or do on the highway. But those who have explored the 150-mile stretch of road from Ely to Austin know that this conclusion depends on a half-empty/half-full way of looking at life.
Ely is the county seat of White Pine County, originally inhabited by the Shoshone tribe. Around 1860 it was the location of a stagecoach station along the Pony Express trail. But the Pony Express died with the advent of the telegraph, and the railroad soon replaced the stagecoach.
In 1878 gold was discovered and Ely became heavily settled. The gold didn’t last long, and copper mining soon became the area’s main industry, and is still a major business today. Today’s Ely, population about 4,000, offers a nod to the past as well as modern-day attractions.
Ely’s residents are an artistic bunch. Nearly two dozen of Ely’s buildings are covered with murals, from the Pony Express mural on the AT&T building, to the “United By Our Children” mural on the side of the C-A-L Ranch Store at the entrance to the town’s business district on Route 50. A shop called the Art Bank and Cultural Center features a permanent collection of art, sculptures and photos, with the work of local artists on display and for sale and traveling art exhibits shown throughout the year.
The annual Ely FAM Festival, “FAM” being an acronym for Film, Art and Music, takes place each spring, offering students, independent filmmakers, artists and musicians a forum to exhibit their works throughout Ely.
A registered National Historic Landmark, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum offers train rides on a historic passenger railroad line pulled by a century-old steam engine (sometimes called the “Ghost Train of Old Ely”).
Ely’s White Pine Public Museum features rare and antique musical instruments, military artifacts and the most complete fossilized skeleton ever found of a giant short-faced bear, the largest North American meat-eater of the Ice Age.
West of Ely, the Garnet Hill area is a favorite of rockhounds and gem collectors. Ruby-red garnets used in all types of jewelry can be found here. From Garnet Hill, at 7,000 feet, one can also view excavations of the world’s largest open pit copper mine near Ruth, Nevada.
Further west and a few miles south of Route 50 is the Illipah Creek Reservoir, known for its year-round fishing and camping, as well as for a number of ghost towns in the area. Campsites are available for large trailers and RVs.
About 50 miles further west is Eureka. Billed as the “Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road in America,” Eureka was actually founded as a mining boom town before Ely was, though its precious metal was silver. The city once numbered 10,000 residents, though mining has long since diminished.
People from all over the country, many in RVs and campers and some vying for the few available hotel rooms, make the Route 50 drive to this town of about 600 for a variety of activities.
Each June, you’ll find the Eureka Gold Rush Games, in which contestants keep the mining spirit alive with competitions in jack drilling, hand mucking, spike driving and other intense physical activities.
In September is the Eureka Art, Wine & Music Festival, a celebration of the town’s heritage, and of the amazing amount of art created by artists from up and down Route 50 who’ve made this region their muse.
Explorers along the route will encounter the occasional cemetery, which are hard to miss in Eureka, with five large graveyards on the western edge of town. Locals once called this area “Graveyard Flats” and “Death Valley.”
Old building foundations and a commemorative monument can be found at the ghost town of Dry Creek, a noted stop on both the Pony Express and the Overland Stage routes, four miles north of Route 50 about 45 miles west of Eureka.
A couple miles west of the Dry Creek Road turnoff is the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area, which featurespetroglyphs across three large rock slabs, evidence of prehistoric settlers dating back to 10,000 B.C.
A little further west on Route 50 is the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest’s Bob Scott Campground, followed closely by Austin Summit, both well over 7,000 feet, before some downhill hairpin turns that lead to the town of Austin. Sometimes called a “living ghost town,” Austin today has fewer than a couple hundred residents, but it’s an important historical location, said to have housed 10,000 inhabitants during its heyday.
Austin is known for its stone churches, and for Stokes Castle. A unique three-story mini-castle tower built for the wealthy Anson Phelps Stokes family in 1897, the site offers 100-mile picturesque views of the Reese River Valley and often snow-capped mountains.
Austin’s still-functioning Lander County Courthouse is was constructed of brick in 1871 with Greek Revival influence in its style, and is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are several other locations in town. Austin is also known for its annual car show with muscle cars, hot rods and antique automobiles.
Highway 50 doesn’t exactly track in a straight line from east to west on a map, being a somewhat curving and winding road. But there are a couple good straightaway stretches between Ely and Eureka, and again between Eureka and Austin. So, depending on how much of a risk-taker you are when it comes to observing the mostly 70-mph speed limit, this stretch from Ely to Austin can basically be driven in two hours, unless you stop to enjoy the sights or activities.
There’s art, nature, history, camping and a lot more. With both social events and maybe even a few ghosts, “The Loneliest Highway in America” is only as lonely as you want to make it.