Located in the north-central part of the state, 310 mi/500 km north of Las Vegas, Elko bills itself as the "last real cowtown in the West." But it has also been home to a sizable community of Basque sheepherders who brought their unique cultural traditions to the area (and were for a time in conflict with the cattle barons).
The region's heritage is the focus of the Northeastern Nevada Museum, which contains a sizable collection of western art and artifacts. Wide-open spaces and cowpokes also take center stage at Elko's well-known Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which brings together cowboy poets and storytellers each January (the one time of year when the cowhands have some free time, though the weather is far from cooperative). Even if you miss the festival itself, you can learn about cowboy culture at the Western Folklife Center, the sponsor of the poetry gathering. Housed in the 1912 Pioneer Hotel, the center has a gift shop that sells books, tapes and CDs full of western wit and wisdom. http://www.westernfolklife.org.
The Basque side of Elko gets its due at the National Basque Festival, held on the weekend closest to the Fourth of July. It includes such traditional Basque competitions as dancing, sheepherding, handball, strength and endurance contests and yelling. http://www.elkobasque.com.
If it's not cowboys or Basques that brought you to Elko, it's likely to be gambling or brothels (both fit well with the town's Wild West image). Casinos are nothing new in Elko: The first opened in 1931, and it was Elko—not Vegas—that first hatched the idea of booking big-name acts to bring in the gamblers (the Commercial Hotel did it in 1941). Prostitution no doubt predated the casinos, and today Elko claims the most legal brothels of any town in the U.S.
Elko makes a good base for exploring the fine outdoor-recreation areas of northeastern Nevada: the Jarbidge Wilderness Area, Wild Horse State Recreation Area and the Ruby Mountains, all magnificent high-country preserves in Humboldt National Forest. They're great places for fishing, camping and hunting. The Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge is prime nesting territory for elegant sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans as well as many other bird species.
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