Planning a trip to or through Ely, Nevada? We found that there are lots of fun things to do in Ely.
Honestly, I never thought much about Ely (pronounced EE-LEE) until I was contacted by its visitor's bureau. We love all kinds of travel and new experiences, so I replied, “Tell me more.” We put together a list of fun activities for a long weekend in July.
Ely is less than four hours' drive from my home near Salt Lake City, Utah – the same distance or less than any of Utah's national parks. It's a mining town filled with history and the spirit of the Old West.
Ely is still “undiscovered” as a vacation destination. I recommend Ely for families who love outdoor adventure and history, without the crowds.
Here are my family's favorite things to do in Ely, Nevada.
Nevada Northern Railway
Every member of my family picked the Nevada Northern Railway Star Train as their favorite activity from the trip.
You can enjoy historic train rides in many places, but Nevada Northern Railway is special. It's larger and more authentic than most train destinations. You can tour and explore the train yard and shops, which are 100+ years old. They are now used to restore and maintain the train engines.
There are several train tours available, but we wanted the popular Star Train. This tour is led by “Dark” Rangers from Great Basin National Park. The skies outside Ely are exceptionally dark, and the rangers helped us identify the Milky Way and many constellations.
Great Basin National Park
Ely is the closest city to Great Basin National Park that has a good selection of hotels, restaurants and other activities.
We stopped at the visitor center, then took the scenic drive to the top of the mountain. There are several high-elevation hiking trails at the end of the road. We hiked the moderate Bristlecone Trail and the easy Sky Islands Forest Trail.
A tour of Lehman Caves is typically one of the highlights of a Great Basin trip. I took this tour many years ago and would like to do it again. However, we missed it this time because tours were cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ely is about an hour's drive from Great Basin. If you want to spend more than one day in the park, consider staying at one of the park's campgrounds or in the tiny town of Baker just outside the park's entrance.
Drive an OHV
Eastern Nevada Adventures provided us with an OHV (off-highway vehicle) for the day. We are seeing a lot more of these vehicles in our outdoor travels, but had never tried one ourselves.
Eastern Nevada Adventures delivered the OHV to the trail head for us, and we spent a morning on the Success Loop just outside of Cave Lake State Park. This scenic gravel road was a little too rugged for our minivan, but perfect for first-timers in an OHV. The OHV made it easy to explore side trails and discover vistas that we never could have seen otherwise.
My teenage daughter got her driver's license just a couple of weeks before this trip, so she was able to drive the OHV. It's easy to drive and she ranked this activity among her favorites in Ely.
Ely is an up-and-coming elite mountain biking destination. Riders have access to dozens of miles of trails leading right from downtown and dozens more within a short drive. New trails are in development.
Ward Mountain and Ice Plant Canyon host trails for all levels of riders, while Cave Lake State Park will challenge and thrill even the most fit and experienced riders.
In the spring, Ely hosts the oldest and longest running Enduro race in the country, Fears, Tears, and Beers. In the fall, Race the Rails pits human grit against the power of the locomotive. And in the winter, riders can compete in the fat bike category of the Bristlecone Birkenbeiner.
All year, cyclists can also shuttle their bikes via train, thanks to the new Trains to Trails ticket, to the end of the line and then enjoy a leisurely gravel ride back to Ely. Learn more at http://elynevada.net/train-to-
Cave Lake State Park
Cave Lake State Park is located just a few miles outside Ely, and it's a popular destination for kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, fishing, hiking, mountain biking and camping.
Water levels were low during our visit, due to dam repair. This is temporary, but in the meantime, many locals have shifted their water activities to nearby Comins Lake on Highway 50.
It costs just $5 per day to visit Cave Lake State Park. It's a self-service pay station, so bring exact change in cash.
My husband is an aspiring rockhound, so when we learned that we could hunt for garnets just outside of Ely, Garnet Hill hit the top of his wish list.
We broke open a few rocks and brought a few others home, but my kids found most of our garnets loose on the trail. My son was especially good at spotting the dark garnets on the lighter-colored dirt.
We spent about an hour on Garnet Hill and found 6-7 small garnets. For a successful trip, I would pack:
- sun hat
- sturdy shoes
- water (for drinking and pouring over rocks)
- bucket for carrying stones and garnets
- rock hammer (buy on Amazon.com or local hardware store)
- work gloves
- protective eye glasses (rock chips fly when you use the hammer)
- hand sanitizer/wipes
Ward Charcoal Ovens
Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park is worth the short side trip from Highway 50. These beehive-shaped kilns were essential to the local silver mining industry in the 1870's. They were so well constructed that they are still in good condition today. Visitors are welcome to walk inside them.
Camping, hiking, fishing and picnicking are also available at this State Historic Park. We were tempted to take a short nature trail, but decided to hurry on to Great Basin National Park instead.
It costs $5 per day to visit the Ward Charcoal Ovens. It's a self-service pay station, so bring exact change in cash.
There are many ghost towns in the Ely area. Mining in the Old West was a boom and bust industry, and this region is dotted with crumbling structures from the boom of the late 1800's. We inadvertently drove right into a small ghost town on our way to Garnet Hill. Look for a free ghost town brochure at your hotel, Economy Drug or other locations around Ely.
Ely Renaissance Village
The mining industry brought families from 100+ countries to Ely. They brought their languages, customs and heirlooms with them.
Each restored home in Ely Renaissance Village has been decorated with the heirlooms of a different nationality. One house is Greek, another is Irish, another is Japanese, and so forth. Each house has framed photos and biographies of local people who might have lived there. Biographies of women are featured in every home.
Ely Renaissance Village is clearly a labor of love, and my husband and I enjoyed our visit. My teens were less enthusiastic, so we let them stay in the car. It took us less than an hour to listen to the docent's overview and walk through each of the houses.
A donation of $5 per adult is requested. Bring cash in exact change. There is also a small gift shop and play room for small children.
Downtown Art Walk
At first glance, Ely's main street (Aultman) feels run down and has too many empty store fronts. Look closer to see local art, interesting shops and restaurants, and plenty of community pride.
A dozen or more murals are painted on the bricks along Aultman. These murals depict Ely's history, industry and natural beauty.
In the center of town, across from Economy Drug, look for a sculpture plaza. There is a maze built into the bricks that was challenging enough to stump my husband. I only gave him a minute, but he didn't find the path to the center in that time.
The Art Bank and Garnet Mercantile are located at the south end of Aultman. The Art Bank is a former bank turned into a gallery featuring Nevada artists. Garnet Mercantile next door is an antique shop, thrift shop and local craft market in one. There is another funky antique shop a few doors down.
We found that some of Ely's shops close as early as 2 pm. Plan your visit just before or just after lunch at Rack's Bar and Grill or Economy Drug.
McGill Pool is a developed swimming hole in the town of McGill, a few miles from Ely. This spring-fed, geo-thermally heated pool has been a popular summer destination for locals since the 1930's.
If you make it to McGill, consider a short stop at McGill Drugstore Museum. After the pharmacist died in 1979, his wife locked the door and walked away, leaving all the products on the shelves. Their children donated the store to the White Pine Public Museum and now it's a time capsule. Call 775-289-4710 or email [email protected] to arrange a tour.
Where to Stay
We stayed in the new Holiday Inn Express near Nevada Northern Railway. It has an indoor pool, complimentary breakfast and exceptionally friendly front desk staff. It's 100% smoke-free and non-gambling, which is helpful information anytime we book a family hotel in Nevada.
There are a few casinos in Ely – including the Prospector next door to the Holiday Inn – but they don't dominate the city. Whether you want to gamble or want to avoid it entirely, it's easy to visit Ely your way.
Visit the official site for Holiday Inn Express and Suites Ely to check rates and availability. Or, click the button below to see more reviews and hotel options on TripAdvisor.com.
Where to Eat
We love to eat local wherever we go. There are a few familiar fast food chains in Ely, but we found that there were more delicious local restaurants than we had time to try. Here's where we ate.
- Economy Drug – old fashioned soda fountain (get the lime rickey) and sandwiches
- Rack's Bar and Grill – casual family-friendly and foodie-friendly fare with outdoor and indoor dining
- Margarita's – flavorful Mexican food with traditional favorites, plus steaks and burgers
- All Aboard Cafe – specializes in stuffed burgers and fish-n-chips, next to Nevada Northern Railway
- Kerouac's (in Baker) – gourmet pizza and burgers just outside Great Basin National Park
- Magic Bean Coffee Cart (in Baker) – fresh paninis and breakfast sandwiches, in addition to coffee and pastries
My son is a vegetarian. Finding anything more than a grilled cheese sandwich or garden salad for him was challenging at at most Ely restaurants. However, he loved the veggie sandwich at Economy Drug. Margarita's built him a custom vegetarian bean burrito. And he wolfed down the homemade veggie burger at Kerouac's.
Ely is a mountainous, high elevation destination at 6,000+ feet above sea level. Summer temperatures were warm, but not nearly as hot as Las Vegas. Once we got into the mountains, the weather was just right. We needed jackets for the nighttime Star Train.
I genuinely enjoyed our long weekend in Ely. We tried OHV and rockhounding for the first time and checked Great Basin National Park off our wish list. Nevada Northern Railway was bigger and better than we expected.
Ely was also affordable and we never had to worry about traffic, parking or planning ahead to beat the crowds.
Visit elynevada.net to learn more about these activities and other opportunities in Ely, Nevada.
Disclosure: Visit Ely Nevada and its local partners sponsored this trip for the purpose of review. All opinions are my own.