“I’ll see you at the UFO talk later tonight,” says Kyle Horvath as he slings his mountain bike over the tailgate of his pick-up truck and tosses a sweaty helmet into the box.
File that under words you’re unlikely to hear spoken anywhere other than Nevada.
I can feel the buzz in Ely, a city tucked on the edge of the Great Basin in Nevada’s rugged northeast. We’re days away from the annular solar eclipse. This happens when the moon passes between the sun and Earth while at its farthest point from Earth, creating a “ring of fire” in the sky.
The event has brought out UFO and extraterrestrial aficionados, as well as media and experts from NASA who declared Ely as the best place in the United States to view the eclipse. Horvath, director of tourism for White Pine County, dubbed this celestial event The Great American Eclipse, turning it into a week of music, talks and workshops in Ely.
But I’m mostly here for the mountain biking.
Say Nevada to most people, and they’ll imagine the incessant jangle of slot machines in the City of Sin surrounded by a desert so hot it could burn the soles off your feet. But beyond the neon glitter of Las Vegas lies the most mountainous state in the Lower 48 and a wilderness playground of publicly owned land. Nevada is an eco-geological playground ripe for adventure.
Three days ago, with bikes loaded on the back of a van, our Bindlestiff Tours guide Bradley Mahnke navigated us to a different planet: the town of Caliente. The only thing missing from this ready-made Western movie set was tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. Given the choice between becoming a storage depot for nuclear waste and testing the waters of mountain bike tourism in Kershaw-Ryan State Park and Barnes Canyon, this town that time forgot chose the latter.
Following a restful night at the Shady Motel, we boarded the van for an hour-long shuttle to the fire lookout atop Ella Mountain. This is also the launch for Ella Mountain Trail, a black diamond to blue square adventure ride that has it all. This point-to-point features more than a vertical kilometre of descending but also plenty of punchy climbing over its 35-kilometre length.
There are Moab-esque rock slabs and rolls, bench cut trail hovering above steep canyons, and winding singletrack through forests of gnarled juniper trees and pinyon pines. Occasionally menacing clusters of cholla, also known as “jumping cactus,” crowd the trail. No, these cacti don’t jump, but they have super sharp spines that easily detach and attack nearby victims. After this day-long adventure ride, we plunked our saddle-soared butts around a table at Knotty Pine Restaurant and Lounge. Our server Athena, a born and raised Caliente citizen, tried to explain chicken-fried steak to this Canadian student of all curious things Americana (“It’s not chicken but it’s meat that’s fried like chicken,” she said unhelpfully).
Our next stop after Caliente was Ely, another rural Nevada town that has leveraged Las Vegas largesse to build mountain bike trails. Horvath, in addition to being a booster of all things White Pine County tourism, is a mountain biking fanatic. Ely hosts numerous fat tire events and races including the Fear, Tears and Beers Mountain Bike Enduro, held every June to raise funds for the Great Basin Trails Alliance. Horvath is excited to share the fruits of their labour. Fans of white-knuckle DH riding tend to gravitate to trails like Whorehouse Downhill, a 3.5-kilometre gravity trail with a spicy 450-metre vertical drop. The trail ends in the backyard of Big 4 Ranch, the oldest licensed brothel in Nevada and yet another curiosity that’s hard to square with this part of the state’s Mormon sensibilities.
For a more soulful and all mountain riding experience, people head to nearby Cave Lake State Park.
“This is our signature trail,” Horvath says as we puff our way up the granny gear ascent of Twisted Pines.
The air feels dry and thin. The town of Ely is perched at 1,900 metres. All the riding goes up from there.
Five days in, and I’m still feeling the altitude. Twisted Pines, built by an expert crew of IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) trail builders, weaves among grey limestone bluffs. An hour in, the groups splits. Half of us join local shredder 18-year-old Kason Ernest for an extra loop on High Roller. Another kilometre and change of climbing with Ernest, and we’re refueling on a rocky outcrop at High Roller’s high point.
The normally muted tones of the Nevada landscape are bursting with amber fall colours. The descent awaits and it begins fast and furious. Where the forest steepens, we dump speed to negotiate techy and tight switchbacks. Then it’s back to high-speed descending along bench cut trail, sprinkled with enough marbly rocks to keep it real. One poorly timed pedal stroke could send a rider torpedoing into the pinyon pines. Twenty minutes of pumping adrenalin and we’re back at the trailhead parking lot. Guide Bradley Manhke is soon sizzling up bratwurst on the grill for a good old American tailgater.
“Anyone want a PB?” he asks, reaching into a cooler for a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Hands reach for the blue sky.
Let’s face it, they do things a little differently in Nevada. But here on the state’s wild frontier, there’s a world of adventure to explore.
Click here to learn more about Bindlestiff Tour’s new Nevada bike and hike adventure.
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