Driving west on Interstate 80 between Salt Lake City and Reno you might think that you are in a pretty desolate area of the West-where sagebrush doesn't even bother to grow tall enough to provide shade to a jackrabbit.
And midway along the drive, as you pass through towns that have little more that a gas station and casino, you start to wonder who could ever live in such a barren wasteland. The trouble is, though, at 75 mph on a freeway, you never see what's really there.
Last winter we took the time to pull off Interstate 80 at the small town of Elko, NV. To our surprise, there was a lot more to this town than what's visible from the freeway.
First, it's not just a couple of service stations and a casino. There's actually a pretty good western city hiding in the guise of a small town. With a population of about 30,000, Elko is actually the fifth largest city in Nevada, behind Las Vegas, Henderson, Carson City and Reno. Driving east through Elko heading out toward the Lamoille Highway, you come across Spring Creek, a quaint new residential area just over a little summit and tucked into the Ruby Valley. Instead of desolate, barren land seen from the freeway, you find grass, trees and farmland.
Sitting at an elevation of 5,100 feet, Elko rests in the shadows of the Ruby Mountains to the east. And although the Rubys have had their fair share of popularity for snowmobiling opportunities, we soon found out what the locals have known for years-the best riding isn't to the east, but to the north.
Taking State Highway 225 heading north out of Elko toward Mountain City and on into southern Idaho (where it turns into Idaho State Highway 51 before ending in Mountain Home, ID), you pass the Independence Mountains on your left. These mountains are nestled between two popular snowmobile trailheads-Jack Creek and Wild Horse Reservoir.
Although the area is part of the northern half of the Humboldt National Forest, you'd be hard-pressed to find a group of trees covering an area larger than a football field. The rocky, rugged, rolling hills are speckled with mining sites-both abandoned and active.
The locals have learned that the Independence Mountains can feature some outstanding snowmobiling. Wild Horse is a popular starting place because you have more riding options. From there you can ride north to Merritt Mountain or west to Jack Creek. And there are plenty of play areas in between.
We decided to take a couple of days to get to know the area. And it wasn't hard to find some local snowmobiling enthusiasts who could take the time to guide us around the mountains.
Wild At Wild Horse
After a good night's rest (and for those who like the nightlife with gambling and entertainment, there's plenty of establishments that accommodate), we headed 65 miles north down 225 to Wild Horse. Unloading at Wild Horse Resort, we headed west toward the 10,438-foot top of McAfee Peak. The sky was blue and the snow was somewhat crusty from several days of direct sunlight, making the climbing a little more challenging.
We skirted McAfee, winding our way up to Jack's Peak, sitting at 10,438-foot elevation. Clouds started to roll in across the tops of the peaks, making it a little risky to drop off the backsides of these mountains. So we dropped back down in elevation and headed over to the Jack's Creek Summit road. This allowed us to flank around to Jack Creek Resort. This is a great trail for snowmobilers, providing quick access to some great boondocking and highmarking. However, Jack Creek Resort does not have the "normal" business hours. If you're expecting food and fuel, you had better make reservations.
In the afternoon we played in the drainages north of Rocky Bluff in the Badger Creek area. Although there are not a lot of trees, you find that the north- and east-facing slopes tend to collect a lot of snow and usually have pockets of aspen trees.
After a full day of riding, we retreated back to Elko for some well-deserved R&R and to regroup for tomorrow's ride.
The second day we again unloaded at Wild Rose. But this time we headed north to Merritt Mountain.taking in Sunflower Flat-a neat open snowfield with outstanding playing. Landmarks like Point of Rocks provide a good visual marker that helps snowmobilers keep their bearings straight. The area is covered with ranching and mining roads. Riding opportunities are abundant. It's not a bad idea to carry a GPS with you and make some marks along the way to keep your bearings in case a storm front moves in and you lose your visibility. The area could get pretty bleak if you got turned around in a whiteout.
The Top Of Nevada
On the top of Merritt Mountain, elevation 8,792, you can see much of northern Nevada and southern Idaho. You can look north into Idaho and see the Owyhees. To the east is Cooper Mountain, elevation 9,912 and Matterhorn, elevation 10,839. To the south is McAfee Peak, elevation 10,438. To the west is Porter Peak, elevation 9,268. And the entire area is blanketed with snow.
The area is wide open with rolling hills, steep slopes and plenty of snow. It can offer challenges for extreme riders, yet is not intimidating to less experienced riders. And with the exception of a few steep windward slopes of the highest peaks, there is little or no avalanche danger in this area.
We only had a couple of days in Elko. But that was enough time for us to realize the endless possibilities to this area. So the next time you see us speeding down Interstate 80 at 75 mph.you can bet we'll be slowing down to take the Elko exit. After all, there's more here than what meets the eye.