Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, Nevada is a bucket-list destination for anyone who loves trains. It's also a great place for history lovers, star gazers and even cat lovers.
My family recently visited Nevada Northern Railway during a long weekend in Ely. We did a lot of fun things on this trip, but everyone in my family agrees that the Star Train was the favorite.
Taking a train ride and touring the engine house exceeded our expectations. We live near an old railroad hub, have done day trips on historic trains and have visited Golden Spike National Historical Park, so we didn't expect to be as wowed as we were. The Nevada Northern Railway experience is one of a kind.
Everything here is original, and much of it is over 100 years old. It's much bigger than other train sites we have visited. There are few other places where you can see and ride behind a real steam engine.
Here's what you can expect at Nevada Northern Railway, with my family's tips for making the most of your visit.
Take a Tour
Nevada Northern Railway is a National Historic Landmark and “America's best preserved short-line railroad and most complete rail facility still in existence.”
Guided and self-guided tours of the buildings and yard are available on their own, or are included in the price of your ride. Eric took us on our tour, and he guides many of the regular tours. Our tour helped us to appreciate the importance of this site, and it added a lot to our visit.
If you're taking a train trip, be sure to save time for a tour before or after your ride.
Related: 10 Fun Things to Do in Ely, Nevada
“Dirt” is the Railway's resident cat. He was born in the Engine House and has been the mascot for several years. Dirt wandered into our path early in our tour, and my kids were especially excited to meet him. He let them pet him and play with him like they play with our cat at home.
Dirt isn't trained to pose for photos, but he ended up in the center of our family photo. It was our lucky day!
The gift shop is filled with Dirt souvenirs. The Dirt mug design changes every so often, which makes it a collectible. After we met Dirt, we hurried back to buy the mug.
Related: One Day in Great Basin National Park
Ride the Train
The most popular train tour is the 90-minute regular excursion. Most of these excursions travel to the historic Ruth mining district. Others travel to other scenic destinations nearby.
You can choose between the indoor and open-air cars and try both during your ride. There is a bathroom on board. Refreshments are typically sold, but this service was suspended during our visit due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some trains are held up by a band of “outlaws.” Look for tours with “Robbery” in the title to get this bit of Old West fun with your trip.
You are welcome to tour the Engine House and Main Yard at no additional cost after morning trips or before afternoon trips. Interpretive signs can be found throughout the grounds. Or, guided tours are available.
A variety of special trains run throughout the year, including the Star Train that we rode. Ghost Trains are popular during the Halloween Season and the Polar Express would be fun for families in December.
We specifically requested a ride on the Star Train when we learned that it was scheduled during our visit. The Star Train is a nighttime train tour led by “Dark” Rangers from Great Basin National Park. These rangers are experts in astronomy and we were educated and entertained as they guided us across the exceptionally dark night skies outside Ely.
This is a popular, family-friendly tour. We boarded the train at dusk and enjoyed colorful sunset views. Along the way, the rangers asked a series of trivia questions – with prizes. We don't know a lot about astronomy, but we are huge trivia nerds and were in it to win it.
After dark, our train reached the end of the line and the engine was transferred to the other end, which was an interesting process. Then we traveled back a short distance to a dark, open area where folding chairs had been set up on the ground. Normally, telescopes would also be set up, but they were not available during the pandemic.
The rangers showed us many constellations and told the Greek myths that go with them. It was fun and interesting, and we learned a lot of things that we had wanted to know about the night sky.
After the presentation, we returned to the train station in Ely and made the short drive back to our hotel by 11 PM.
Related: 15+ Places to Go Stargazing in Utah
Have you ever dreamed of driving a steam or diesel locomotive? Nevada Northern Railway offers “Be the Engineer” day trips as well as full-week experiences where you'll work in all areas of operation at the historic railroad.
Visit https://nnry.com/pages/Hands-On-History.php to learn about these opportunities.
Ways to Save
Nevada Northern Railway offers a variety of discounts and memberships, which are listed at https://nnry.com/pages/trainride.php. These discounts apply only to regular excursion trains, not special or theme trains. They include:
- Kids (age 0-12) ride free on regular summer excursion trains, Monday-Thursday
- Kids age 0-4 always ride free
- White Pine County residents with White Pine Pass save 10%
- Active Military and veterans save 10%
- AAA and AARP saves 10%
- Upgrade to a four-day pass that includes all regular excursions for $20 per adult
- Group discounts
What to Wear
Dress for the weather. These historic trains are not air conditioned, so the train cars may be warm on a summer day. There is an open-air car – which we think is the best place to be for a scenic train ride – but you may want sun protection, a jacket or both to sit outside.
We brought jackets and hoodies on our Star Train trip and were glad we did. Nighttime temperatures drop a lot in Ely, and it can feel cold in the summer.
The Engine House and Main Yard are grimy inside and dusty outside. Wear sturdy shoes and clothes that can get a little dirty. My kids had sooty knees, feet and hands after they got on the ground to pet Dirt.
Where to Eat
Nevada Northern Railway does not have an on-site restaurant, but the All Aboard Cafe and Inn is located across the street. We ate dinner here and found that the portions were generous and the service was friendly. Stuffed burgers and fish-n-chips are the specialties.
There are picnic tables and a playground at Nevada Northern Railway, if you'd like to bring your own food.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the new Holiday Inn Express and Suites Ely, just a few blocks from the train station. It had an indoor swimming pool, complimentary breakfast and comfortable rooms. We enjoyed our stay.
You can actually stay at the train station in a converted caboose or bunkhouse. This would be a fun experience for any train enthusiast, and it's not overly expensive. However, each room has one queen or two twin beds, so it's probably not the best lodging option for the whole family. Learn more about overnight options at Nevada Northern Railway at https://nnry.com/pages/lodging.php.
Click the button below to see rates and availability for Holiday Inn Express and other Ely hotels at TripAdvisor.com.
Nevada Northern Railway isn't just another scenic train ride. It is an essential destination for train enthusiasts.
We are not train enthusiasts, but we are history lovers and we love to try new things – like star gazing. Nevada Northern Railway delivered a unique and authentic experience. It was well worth a weekend in Ely.
For more information about Nevada Northern Railway, visit the official website at www.nnry.com.
Disclosure: Nevada Northern Railway provided my family with a complimentary tour and ride on the Star Train for the purpose of review. Our stay at Holiday Inn Express was also complimentary. All opinions are my own.