Several miscalculations led to the Donner Party disaster in 1846, one of the most important being they believed a book written by Lansford Hasting that claimed by skirting the Ruby Mountains south of Elko, Nevada (known as the Hastings Cutoff), a wagon train could shave 300 miles and many days off the journey to California. In reality, the Hastings Cutoff actually added 150 miles and a critical number of days. Compounding this was that they were late leaving Independence, Missouri, which would aggravate the problem of finding much needed grass late in the season to feed their oxen. The late start and the additional delay caused by taking the Hastings Cutoff would doom the Donner Party, for by the time they reached the Sierra Nevadas and tried to cross those mountains, winter snows were already falling. Magnifying their misfortunes even further was that the Donner Party recorded one of the first "road rage" events during their trip west. It occurred when one wagon tried to pass another wagon and a man was stabbed to death in the ensuing melee. These miscalculations led to the winter disaster and the cannibalism that is now part of our American history.
Today, the serpentine wagon ruts are still visible, carved in the earth by the Donner wagons along the banks of the south fork of the Humboldt River (the Hastings Cutoff) , and with the help of a four-wheel-drive Ford F-150 EcoBoost, following these trails was an adventure begging to happen. Comfortable and wrapped in the lap of Ford truck luxury, the 2100 miles we logged from Southern California to Elko County, Nevada, and back flew by. On the best leg of the journey, we averaged 20.5 mpg, with overall fuel economy registering 18.6 mpg (very respectable). High clearance and on-the-fly 4WD made taking on the Hastings Cutoff and fording the south fork of the Humboldt River was a breeze for those of us inside. The Ford made it so easy we forded the river several times while using the same rocky roads and crossings the Donner Party used 160 years ago.
Stopping in the middle of the river crossings and lowering the driver's window, our climate-controlled comfort zone was instantly challenged by the super-hot Nevada temperatures, making us realize (until we rolled the window back up) what the journey must have been like back in 1846. Adjacent to the river, the OHV road follows the original trail that takes you past the meadows where the Donner Party (34 wagons in all) camped. Lush and deceiving, these river bottom meadows were not a harbinger of what the Donner Party would face farther to the west where the Humboldt River literally sinks and disappears forever into the floor of the Great Basin.
As suggested by the Elko County Visitor Center, Ruby Crest Ranch, 30 minutes southeast of the town of Elko (just off Highway 228) made a perfect base camp for our adventure. Bill Gibson, the boss at Ruby Crest, has spent his life studying the Donner Party and the trail they took along the Humboldt's south fork. In fact, some of the original Donner trail lies along the edge of his ranch. His knowledge and passion about the subject makes four-wheeling in the vertical canyon walls carved by the Humboldt over the millennium a fantastic experience. Following Bill in his 1999 Heavy Duty Ford diesel, which at the time was just 700 miles shy of turning 300,000 miles, made us feel secure and confident about the quality and prowess of the Ford truck we were piloting through this torturous landscape.
Staying the night at the Ruby Crest Ranch, dinner included Elk steaks, King salmon from the Gibsons' other ranch in Oregon, and something they call "buckaroo spuds." In addition to raising cattle, Bill guides outdoor sportsmen to some of the best hunting and fishing in the Ruby Mountains. Betty Gibson specializes in raising a unique breed of equine called Kiger mustangs. As she explained to us, not all mustangs (wild horses) are the same. The Kiger uustang bloodline has been kept pure for several hundred years, since the Spanish brought them here, because they were isolated in the Kiger Gorge in south-central Oregon. Betty Gibson recognized the uniqueness of their DNA (not at all like other wild horses in the West), and today she raises and sells pureblooded Kiger mustangs around the world.
Having come this far, it only made sense to check out the town of Elko and greater Elko County, which extends all the way to the Idaho border. The unique opportunities here make it impossible to walk (or drive) away disappointed, for this county is rich with pioneer, ranch, mining, and railroad history. For starters, Elko is Basque country, and many of the folks who live here trace their lineage to the Basque regions of Spain and France. This melting-pot phenomenon is the kind of thing that makes exploring America so much fun, for just like other ethnic groups here, the Basques proudly celebrate their heritage. A great way to get appreciate their culture is to enjoy dinner at the Star Hotel, where Basque fare is served. Be sure to make reservations on the weekends.
Even the influence of miners from Cornwall, England, is evident in Elko. At the west end of town is the B.J. Bull Bakery, where "pasties" are baked fresh daily. Pasties, handheld pies filled will delicious meats and veggies, were the food Cornish miners carried deep inside the mines for their noontime meal. B.J. also bakes fruit pies. In January, Elko hosts the original cowboy poetry festival called the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. During the week-long celebration of the "cowboy way," poets are from all over the world to share their writings that describe the internal workings of a cowboy's mind and his experiences. Honkytonks, saddle- and knife-making, leather crafts, and the culinary world of the cowboy, along with the poetry, are part of this huge event.
If you want to capture the vastness of Nevada, spend a couple of days at the Cottonwood Guest Ranch. Go 25 miles north of the town of Wells on Highway 93, then another 30 miles back to the west over a graveled road. That'll get you to the bench (land formation) that rises up to meet the Jarbidge Mountains, which is where you'll find the Cottonwood Ranch. One of the most notable things about this journey is the total lack of a human footprint on the landscape. The only thing that indicates man has been here is the road that trails off into the distance. However, at the end of the trail a modern, upscale, state-of-the-art working guest ranch awaits, tucked inside a valley surrounded by thousands of acres of verdant hay meadows. You can relax at the lodge and wait for the dinner bell to ring (three times a day) when gourmet ranch fare is served in copious quantities, or you can go horseback riding or help the ranch hands "push" cows from one area of the ranch to another. For those who absolutely can't live without technology, there are high-speed Internet and satellite television. However, the idea out here is to disengage and decompress.
Reached first by taking Highway 93 north up to Robertson, Idaho, and then heading back down into Nevada via a secondary road, the last 20 miles are gravel and wind up and through Jarbidge Canyon to the old gold mining town of Jarbidge. We discovered that this truly is a place where the sidewalk ends and the Old West begins. However, there are a B&B, a campground, and a diner. There's also a country store where, every day at 5 p.m., the locals gather to spin stories about the old days and, yes, visitors are invited to join in. Listen to the tale about the last stagecoach robbery that happened in the United States, which took place in Jarbidge. Listen to the town's colorful history and the people who once called this old mining town home. The vast landscapes found in Elko County, Nevada, are magic.
Cottonwood Guest Ranch
Elko County Convention and Visitors Authority
Ruby Crest Ranch