Elko's legacy began at the east end of the Central Pacific Railroad and its status as a railroad town sparked its first population in 1868. Here, at "the heart of Nevada," defines Nevada. This booming little city centers as a micropolitan area that covers Elko and Eureka counties with a combined population of 46,942. This is important as you'll read in a minute. Elko a happening little town in the absolute middle or everything and nothing at the same time; Elko is centered right in the middle of the Great Basin, equally distant from the Basin's two major metropolitan areas, 4 hours from Salt Lake City, 4 hours from Reno, and 4 hours from Boise. Far from its own state capitol, "Elko-Ites" are, as a result, a reselient, independent people who mostly rely on their own -- the Elko Republic, if you will.

"The Heart of Nevada" was quite staid in its beginning, born from the railraod as a temporary, but very important terminus for both the Central Pacific and the first portion of the Transcontinental Railroad between California and Utah. When the railroad crews moved on, Elko remained. The town's isolated, well-watered location made it an ideal place for ranching and more importantly, a supply center for mining, shipping, and freighting services to points elsewhere. The next year (1869) a courthouse was built and the creation of a massive county with that same mysterious name "Elko" was made. Yep, that name is quite the enigma and nobody is really sure how it was acquired. "Elko" is said to have been named by Charles Crocker, a superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad who was especially fond of animal names and added the letter "o" to the word Elk. There is no definitive evidence of this naming history, but it has become the widely accepted version. Since the passing of the railroad, mining somehow took hold of the area, the reason still quite elusive by state historians. Nobody really knows how or why mining became the town's primary economy but its residents aren't complaining (as you'll read in a minute).

  • Idaho Street at night in Elko, Nevada.
  • Old US 40 through Elko is disguised as Idaho Street, now Elkos main drag.

Contrary to many towns in Nevada, Elko has only prospered more for every passing year. A testament to this was its incorporation as a city in 1917, one of the first ever, if not the first incorporated community in the state. In 1925, the Kelly Act (also known as the Airmail Act of 1925) authorized the U.S. Post Office to contract itself with private airlines specifically for feeder routes that fed the main transcontinental airmail route. As such, the first commercial airmail flight in the United States was on the 487- mile Airmail Route #5 from Pasco, Washington to what would become Elko Regional Airport on April 6, 1926. The flight was piloted by Leon D. Cuddeback and included a brief stop in Boise, Idaho to pick up more mail. Nevada Historical Marker 208 documents this event on the west end of town.

Today, Elko is living on gold, supported by the massive Getchell Mine, the largest gold producing operation in the United States. The giant mining magnate has pretty much re-vamped and commercialized almost everything in this community, turning Elko into a once sleepy little town to a booming mini-city fed by fortunes that rack up to several million dollars a year. Still, Elko's heart and soul hasn't changed much over the last 130 years. Elko is a proud host to a number of celebrations, including the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and has been the host of this event for the last 27 years. THe festival is held each January and is a week-long celebration of food, photography, and life in the rural West featuring poetry, music, film, and literature. Additionally, very July since 1963, Elko is host to the National Basque Festival. Humorously referred to as the "Basco Fiasco," this festival celebrates traditional Basque culture and its strong ties to the Elko community. The festival includes strongman competitions, handball, a running of the bulls, traditional food and wine, and Basque Dancing. 2013 marks the festival's 50th Anniversary. In terms of services, there should be little to worry about. A Nevadan could describe Elko as a sleepy, little city in the middle of nowhere, a town full of proud and rowdy residents who like things just the way things are. This interstate city comes complete with everything a visitor could possibly need. From high dollar, to hole-in-the-wall casinos, or fine dining to a Big Mac with fries, Elko is proud to cater to anybody with any and all services.

Elko, Nevada (c) Nevada Magazine

The highlight of visiting Elko comes with the opportunity to explore some of the wildest and most beautiful country in the entire state. The crown jewel of Nevada are the Ruby Mountains, the moistest range in the Great Basin, averaging an annual snowfall of 123 inches a year. The Rubies are ideally located right in the center of the Great Basin allowing them to capture moisture efficiently and effectively from Pacific-born storms. What does this mean?

The Rubies bear over 40 year-round streams and host more than a dozen mountain tarns in a mountain range that has been nicknamed, "The Nevada Alps" and "The Sierra Nevada of the Great Basin." The centerpiece of the Rubies is Lamoille Canyon, a 13-mile long glacier-carved canyon accessible by the Lamoille Canyon National Scenic Byway outside of the small town of Lamoille. The Rubies alone are just one reason people plan trips to Elko year after year. Elko is surrounded by other wild country in all directions, all within a hour or so drive from the bustle of the city: the East Humboldt, Independence, Bull Run, Jarbidge, and Tuscarora Ranges that beckon exploration.

Status: Incorporated City & County Seat
Founded: June 1868
Population: 18,297 (2012)
Zip Code: 89801, 89802, 89803
Motto: "The Heart of Nevada"


Distance in miles from ...
Carlin -- 20
Battle Mountain -- 71
Eureka -- 114
Jackpot -- 117
Twin Falls (ID) -- 165
Ely -- 188
Salt Lake City (UT) -- 230
Reno -- 289
Carson City -- 317
Searchlight -- 489

Fun Facts:
- The city of Elko was crowned the title "The Best Small Town in America" by the 1994 issue of Time Magazine.
- The first university in Nevada (University of Nevada) was built in Elko in 1873. The State of Nevada moved its university to Reno due to Elko's remote location.
- The Commercial Inn & Casino, located at the corner of 3rd and Idaho, is responsible for starting the notion of live casino entertainment, hosting the first-ever live performance in the state.
- Elko and Elko County are major settings in Dean Koontz's novel Strangers.
- The J.M. Capriola Saddle Company, based in downtown Elko, is one of the oldest saddlemaking companies in America. Established in 1896, Capriola's has specialized in custom outfits for working buckaroos as well as hollywood movie stars. Capriola's is best known their custom saddles and silver engraved bits and spurs, which can retail upwards of $100,000.