Big Ride: Nevada – Desert Dreamland

An epic week of mountain biking and gravel riding through the remote trail networks dotted along the historic Rail Road towns of Nevada – where no PBs were set, but plenty of PBRs and PB&Js were consumed


Words and photography ZOE BINDER

I’ve been lucky enough to ride my bike all over Australia since I was young, and more recently a good part of Europe, but the United States has always eluded me.

So when the opportunity arose to finally go riding stateside, I knew I couldn’t miss it. Any keen cyclist, especially one who tends towards the knobblier end of the tyre spectrum, is well aware of America’s more obvious destinations.

There’s Colorado, including America’s answer to the pro cycling hub of Girona in Boulder, or Moab in Utah, or perhaps northern California and even more recently Kansas, thanks to the rise of Unbound Gravel.

But my first trip across the Pacific wouldn’t involve any of those. I was headed somewhere much better known for one-armed bandits than BMX bandits: Nevada.

As it turns out though, Nevada has much, much more than the flashing lights, celebrity chefs and rolling dice of Las Vegas to boast about.

The state lies sandwiched between the famous mountain ranges of its neighbours, the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, but Nevada itself is in fact the most mountainous of the lower 48 US states.

Where there are mountains, there is almost always some incredible riding to be had.

With this information in hand, any lingering nerves about travelling somewhere so unknown to me gave way to unbridled excitement, and I knew a special week of riding lay ahead.

It was to become abundantly clear over the next seven days that there was no need to fly any further east – I’d found the gold standard right here in the Silver State.

Caliente by name, hot by nature

Touching down into Las Vegas after a very quick turnaround at LAX, my first ever moments in the USA already have me speechless.

This crazy oasis of humanity poking out of the desert feels like a theme park on the surface of Mars. I haven’t even left the airport before I’m dazzled by lights and sounds of slot machines and poker chips.

But I’m here for a pedal not a punt, and before I know it I’m on my way north with my guides and companions for the week from Bindlestiff Tours, leaving the red rock of Vegas, skirting the edges of Area 51 (roadside alien jerky anyone?) and headed for Caliente.

Just south of this tiny railroad town (although technically it’s the smallest official city in Nevada) lies Ella Mountain, the summit of which is the starting point of our first proper riding day.

We’ve got a 45km trail ride back down into town on the cards and I’m eager to finally get clipped in and moving before the desert sun really starts to bite.

Approaching our starting point at the top along the spine of the mountain, the scrubby desert landscape of Caliente gives way to a more forest-like environment.

It feels unusual becoming less exposed with altitude, but the cover from the tall pines is more than welcome in this scorching heat.

It’s easy to forget that I’m already higher than Mount Kosciuszko. Rolling off from the stunning views of the fire lookout, it’s firmly black run, mountain bike territory.

This top section is mostly exposed slick rock, flowing over boulder features with plenty of challenging drops and rock rolls thrown in.

I can see now why our guide Kyle simply grinned when I asked him what to expect of the day at the trailhead.


We rip down the narrow, technical descent along a freshly cut trail, ducking and weaving between a mix of juniper trees, pinyon pines and at least one rattlesnake.

With the steeper top section quickly behind us, the trial begins to mellow and for the first time I can catch my breath and take in the incredible views stretching uninterrupted to the horizon.

The twisty singletrack gives way to a much faster flow section, and although we’re still losing altitude at a rapid pace, there’s plenty of short pinches and draggy uphill sections to deal with.

I’m not complaining though – it’s great to spin the legs out again after such a technical descent.

Each of the three sections of Ella Mountain has its own trailhead, so you could easily access them independently and either shuttle them or make a bigger day of it and pedal up.

It’s all one-way today though and we decide the start of the bottom section is a great spot for lunch, and my next initiation into American culture: a bona-fide PB&J sandwich.


I look back up the scree-covered hill I’ve just conquered, covered in desert dust and find it hard to imagine how things could get any better.

Spoiler alert: it did on day three when Bradley, one of the local guides, added banana to the PB&J. They really know how to do ride food out here.

The flow continues with the final section of the trail dropping back down off the mountain and into the desert once again.

I follow the smooth lines of my new Canadian mate Andrew, weaving in and out of small ravines and gullies, flying over rocky features formed from petrified sand dunes down towards Caliente and home for the night.

Our final approach sees the foliage growing shorter and thornier as the shadows grow longer.

We’re the first to arrive back at the motel and take the opportunity to sample a well-earned PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for those playing at home) in the car park while we wait for the rest of our group; yet another American culinary delight ticked off my list.

Washing a brilliant first day off in the shower before dinner, I can’t wait to see what Nevada has for me next.

The Loneliest Road in America

Leaving the small town – sorry, city – of Caliente behind after another day of awesome riding, we make our north towards the roof of Nevada, gaining both latitude and altitude on the two-hour drive up Route 93 towards our second base for the week.

There’s riding to be had at every turn it seems, and en route we make a stop at the incredible Cathedral Gorge State Park.


Cathedral Gorge is a long, shallow valley formed by the erosion of an ancient lake bed and its network of slot canyons and imposing sedimentary spires provide both the inspiration for its name and a playground for riding and hiking.

We roll in at about midday, unloading our bikes and heading straight down an easy-going line of singletrack straight into the valley.

At times, riding through the narrow ravines, with their sheer walls not far from your elbows feels like caving on bikes.

It’s just the narrow strip of crystal blue sky running above me that reminds me where I am. The sandy soils provide their challenges, but Cathedral Gorge generally offers very accessible riding, ideal for beginners or families and full of jaw-dropping scenery.

A really worthwhile detour to make on the commute north to Ely. Still grinning ear to ear, we reach our second base for the trip, Ely, a historical town that sits at the crossroads of Route 93 and the section of Route 50 best known as the “Loneliest Road in America”.

Founded as a stagecoach station along the Pony Express, Ely is another of Nevada’s railroad towns, its mining boom heritage clearly on display wherever you turn.

Copper may have put Ely on the map in the 20th century, but it’s bike riding that will keep it there in the 21st, as I’m about to discover.

My second day in Ely reveals the seemingly endless network of singletrack trails looming in the hills above the town.

There are three main routes to the south around Ward Mountain that are easily accessible from the hotel and we manage to cram all of them into the day.

Powder Berry is first up and it’s a thrilling trail with amazing flow – rocky and technical but still fast if you know what you’re doing.

I can see how much fun it would be to ride up this one too, but thankfully our guides from Bindlestiff and Kyle offer not just valuable local knowledge but welcome shuttles for the three runs.

Total BS follows (named after the builders Bryane and Suzie, not – well, you know), before  we tackle Tokie Dokie in the fading afternoon sun, each run gnarlier than the previous.

The entire trail network is purpose-built and meticulously maintained, and I certainly enjoyed the rewards today.

My legs are burning as we roll back into Ely to find some much-needed refreshment, a timely reminder that we’re actually dealing with some serious altitude.

Ely sits at 1,962 metres and most of the day has been spent at well over 2,000 metres.

Half the nights of the year dip below zero degrees here, but it’s still a shock when I step into the icy wind, fresh off snowy hills when leaving dinner.

It’s not often you get to ride in 40-degree heat and see snow on the same  day.

I wish I’d packed slightly less lightly as I slip my leg warmers on under my jeans – thankfully a fashion moment no one had to see.

Set for success

After several days behind flat bars, I’d been very keen to get back into the drops and that’s exactly what’s on the cards for my third day in Ely.

I’ve been promised hero gravel and today’s nearly 100km gravel ride, known as the Success Loop, sounds sure to deliver.


The day starts at the Cave Lake trailhead, a 25km drive out of Ely where the weather-damaged road finally concedes itself to gravel.

We’re rolling out earlier than we have been all week and a hot coffee is keeping my heavy eyelids open. Coupled with our starting altitude of over 2,200 metres, it’s a penalty I don’t need riding straight into the first and only real climb of the day.

It takes all of about 30 seconds to forget what I was worried about though. True champagne gravel ribbons out in front of me as we make our way up the Success summit.

Approaching the top the road begins to snake on itself, a set of perfectly graded switchbacks winding up towards the Aspen forest.

The fire in my sea-level dwelling legs is completely lost to the scenery, and we stop for a quick breather and to drink it in at the crest, topping out at a Stelvio matching 2,750 metres.

It’s astonishing how different the landscape is up here, a million miles from the scrubby desert we set off from just a couple of hours ago.

The autumn air is thin and crisp and a stunning spectrum of autumn colours covers everything, starkly contrasting the pale white trunks of the Aspen forest we’ve been riding through.

In winter this road is impassable save for cross-country skis and, sitting here, I can easily imagine it covered in deep snow.

It’s a less dramatic descent down the north side of Success Summit, with just a solitary hairpin off the top before a fast and straight shot back down to the valley.

Thanks to that beautifully maintained surface, I can fully devote my attention to the ride and the stunning wilderness of Humboldt National Forest.

The loop gently undulates for the next 25km, gradually dropping us back to the valley floor, surrounded on both sides by the jagged peaks of Schell Range.

Eventually the groomed gravel returns to the sort of cracked bitumen familiar to any region that sees winter snow and scorching summer days.

A freshly cut elk leg, errantly left behind by a hunter, and my first ever chipmunk sighting later, we round a broad left bend to cut through a pass in the range that has loomed to our west all day.


Back under 1,900 metres elevation, the closest I’ve been to sea-level in days, we rejoin the Great Basin Highway for the road section that takes us all the way back to Ely and back to the desert.

Reflecting on the success of day over margaritas and the fanfare of sizzling fajitas, I turn to our local guide Kyle. Stand aside Colorado, Nevada has arrived.

He grins again, as though he’s been trying to tell us all along.

Trails and rails

Nevada has a rich history with rail, having long been a vital hub for the great migration westwards from the days of horseback and onwards as the transcontinental railroad was laid through the north of the state. The true wild west.

I’ve felt this threading through everywhere I’ve been in Nevada and never more so than today, my final day of riding.

The historic Nevada Northern Railways have thrown open the doors of their original coal trains to the public and I’m jumping on the rattler to hitch a ride out to our ride.

‘Rails to Trails’ ticket in hand, I board the 110-year-old train for the most surreal shuttle I’ve ever taken, plumes of white coal smoke billowing from the sooty black smokestack and the stars and stripes flapping proudly from the tender.

You can ride the rattler to the end of the line for a 30km ride back to town, but today we hop off at the first town on the line, Ruth, a tiny copper town that may be familiar to fans of Stranger Things.

It’s just a 10km trail back into Ely, but we make the most of it.

The trail is very beginner-friendly, but we hit every little lump and bump at full tilt, railing imaginary berms and fishtailing through every section of loose rock or sand.

The ride shouldn’t be a patch on the plethora of trails we’ve been treated to around Ely this week, but I can’t wipe the smile off my face all the way into town. Back at the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, I lean my bike against a century-old sign.

It’s a remarkable contrast, the intricate, very mechanical details of these old carriages next to the mind-boggling technology of my bike’s dual suspension and hydro disc brakes.

Towns and regions like Ely and White Pine County can so easily fade into history as mines close and these old trains grind to a halt.

But time rolls on in Nevada and now, more excitingly than ever, it’s on two wheels.


Zoe Binder is a freelance photographer and writer who is now back home comparing Mayver’s and Bega-flavoured PB&Js


By the numbers

Because everyone love stats

1910 -The year the Northern Nevada Railroad opened

821 metres – elevation lost riding down Ella Mountain

7 – days of epic riding

6 – PB&Js eaten trail side

5 – dollars lost in an airport slot machine on the way home

1 – Chipmunk sighting


Bindlestiff Tours

Bindlestiff Tours were amazing hosts and organised an incredible itinerary for the ‘Nevada Rails to Trails’ trip of which Cyclist was a part.

It’s available for booking as an individual or group, and allows access to some of the best riding in Nevada.

Local knowledge is key to getting the most of the area and Bindlestiff Tours has this sewn up.

Many of the trails we rode were A to B so having a shuttle service meant we could fully enjoy the riding on offer.

A special thanks to Melissa from Bindlestiff for her seamless planning, as well as our guide Bradley who whipped up some of the best trailside cuisine I’ve ever had.

You can book the trip by scanning the QR code.


How we did it

I flew out of Sydney with Delta to Las Vegas, with just a 1 hour layover in LAX in each direction. The transfers from Las Vegas to Caliente and Ely, as well as to and from the rides each day were included with the package from Bindlestiff Tours. They also organised bike hire from Las Vegas Cyclery.

All lunches, snacks and ride food (think PB&J) was catered by Bindlestiff tours. I ate breakfast and dinners at local restaurants or diners. My favourite was ‘Racks Bar & Grill’, a sports bar in downtown Ely that served up one of the best (and largest!) burgers I’ve ever had, surrounded by game trophies lining the walls. Perhaps not one for vegetarians.

I stayed a night at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, which is just a stone’s throw from the airport and has its own shopping centre and casino. The two nights in Caliente were spent at the Shady Motel before the final four nights in Ely staying at La Quinta Inn. There are plenty of great motel options in both spots on offer.

I’d like to thank Corey and all those involved from Travel Nevada and White Pine County Director of Tourism, Kyle Horvarth, for their hospitality in showing us around their beautiful and remote corner of the world. Places with harsh climates so often have the warmest hospitality on offer.



Cyclist Australia/NZ