Nevada Northern Railway
National Historic Landmark        Ely, NV

Gold Spike to the Copper Spike Roadtrip

Explore how Railroads Opened the Heart of the American West

Fast Facts

GOLD SPIKE: Last spike ceremony connecting America's first transcontinental railroad on May 10th, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah

SILVER SPIKE: In 1869 Nevada had a spike forged of native silver. As soon the spike cooled it was rushed up to Reno, pony-express style, and handed off to the dignitaries who were in-route to the ceremony.  Nevada's spike was driven in, right next to the Gold Spike.

COPPER SPIKE: Last spike ceremony in Ely, NV to complete a rail link from the transcontinental railroad down to open up one of the largest copper discoveries on the content. 

EXPLORE: Take a few days for a 627 mile road trip to fully explore the rural American West and the history of how it was connected to the rest of the world.  See for yourself what a small group of smart, brave, dedicated pioneers accomplished.

SPECIAL EVENTS: Daily excursion trains, tours, and other special events in Ely May 4th through 12th. Find out more.

150th Anniversary of the Golden Spike

Let's plan a road trip to the last great frontier of the real American West.   We're going to suggest a 627 mile trip starting in Salt Lake City, Utah heading west, to follow the path of the first transcontinental railroad.  There's a lot of wide-open spaces, and a lot to see along the way.  Highlights on this trip include:

  1. Salt Lake City
  2. Utah State Railroad Museum
  3. Golden Spike National Historic Site
  4. Transcontinental Backcountry Byway the original transcontinental railroad grade into Nevada
  5. Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark in Ely Nevada see the original copper spike
  6. Historic Wendover Airfield Museum in Wendover Utah
  7. Bonneville Salt Flats
  8. Back to Salt Lake City

If you are starting from Las Vegas or Southern California the feel free to jump into the circle at #5, Ely.  There is a webpage specifically for the trip from Southern California to Ely.

If you are coming from Reno, Northern California, or the Pacific Northwest, feel free to jump in at #6, Wendover Airfield Museum, and possibly see the Tonopah Mining Park on your way across Nevada.

The main loop is 627 miles that includes interstate highways, two-lane highways, some optional dirt roads - and even a part of the original Transcontinental Railroad grade. We will go through very remote country that sometimes will not have cell service or wi-fi.  It's just common sense to leave each community with a full fuel tank as well as a supply of water and snacks.  It's not uncommon to have more than 100 miles between gas stations. Depending on the time of the year have sweatshirts or jackets in your vehicle. It is not unusual to have a 50 degree swing in temperature from the high to the overnight low.

Both Utah and Nevada do an exceptional job maintaining their roads.  If you are going to travel on The Transcontinental Backcountry Byway (it really is a backcountry byway) and/or actually drive on the Bonneville Salt Flats (yes, it is permitted) then we suggest a sturdy vehicle with good tires and ground clearance.   Rain or snow can make either of these routes unpredictable or downright dangerous.  Towing can be expensive, so check conditions before you try either one.

1. Salt Lake City

Salt Lake is a major hub, so starting your trip here and flying in and renting a car should be easy to arrange.   As long as you are in Salt Lake City you might want to spend a day or two exploring the "Crossroads of the West."  The city is famous for Mormons, mountains and, of course, skiing.   It has all of that, as well as a comfortable blend of culture, nightlife, attractions, and recreation. 

2. Salt Lake City → Ogden, UT and the Utah State Railroad Museum (40.9 miles)

You will be heading north on I-15 to the Ogden Union Depot which houses the Utah State Railroad Museum.  You will find retired locomotives to view up-close, as well as interactive and pictorial displays that illustrates the construction of the transcontinental railroad, what that meant to the country and the West. As you enter the Railroad Museum look up!  You will pass under actual timbers used to construct the historic Lucin Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake.

Hint: The Ogden Union Depot also is home to three other museums.  Perhaps you will have time to visit all three.

3. Ogden, UT → Golden Spike National Historic Site (53.5 miles)

From early May through early October you can visit the spot where the continent was finally tied together by the Transcontinental Railroad.  It happened right here, on May 10, 1869. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads joined their rails at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory and forged the destiny of a nation.  The National Park Service's Golden Spike National Historic Site has an interpretive center as well as live, operating replicas of the steam locomotives that were actually here in 1869.  Reenactments and live steam engines are operating daily.  Plan your visit accordingly. 

There are no services or overnight accommodations near by, so plan on using Brigham City, Tremonton, Ogden, or Logan as your headquarters, or visit early enough in the day to drive on to Ely, NV.

Hint: Fuel up in Corrine, especially of you plan on following the Transcontinental Railroad National Back Country Byway.

4. Transcontinental Backcountry Byway (90 miles)

The Transcontinental Railroad National Back Country Byway, also known as the Central Pacific Railroad Grade follows the old railroad grade through the remnants of railroad sidings, towns, and trestles.  It is administered by the Bureau of Land Management for public use and enjoyment. The 90-mile Backcountry Byway begins west of lands managed by the National Park Service at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

Today, cattle graze where thousands of Chinese immigrants labored in 1869 to open the West to industry and commerce. This is a graded gravel or dirt road that follows the abandoned Central Pacific railroad grade across open desert, through the former towns of Kelton, Terrace and Watercress. It ends at the site of Lucin near the Nevada/Utah State line. About half the route is maintained as county road, the other half is not maintained. If it gets wet out there, you'll need 4WD with high clearance, and you may want chains with a tow rope or winch, too. Be prepared to be the only folks on the road!

Hint: The road is in pretty good shape from the Golden Spike National Historic Site to Kelton Utah. From Kelton Utah head northwest to Utah State Highway 30. From the intersection of the of Utah State Highway 30 to the Nevada Northern Railway the distance is 255 miles and will take about four hours. Fill up with fuel before starting, and carry plenty of water, a good spare tire, and be prepared for gravel roads in a remote setting.

5. Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark, Ely, NV (254 miles from Kelton, UT)

Nevada Northern Railway Locomotive 40 and 93 at the coaling tower

The Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark is a place where time stopped. It was started in 1905 to to complete a rail link from the transcontinental railroad down to open up one of the largest copper discoveries on the content. On October 30th, 1906 the railroad reached Ely.  To a large and cheering crowd the ceremonial last spike, made from local copper, was set and the line was opened.  You will be able to see the actual Copper Spike and see the original roadbed.  By 1910 the town of Ely was booming.  The large depot, the main yard, and engine house, and maintenance facilities were all built.  Also by then several of the steam locomotives that are still in operation today were delivered brand-new from the factories back East. 

Today, the 56-arce complex is essentially the same as it was during the heyday of the 1910's. Over 70 buildings and structures still remain, along with 145.6 miles of track, four steam locomotives (two operating, one under restoration), twelve first generation diesel locomotives and over 100 pieces of rolling stock with the oldest being from 1872. Time stopped here, but the railroad is very active, offering truly exceptional experiences from its distinctive Be the Engineer experience (you are actually in the engineer's seat, at the throttle) .   There are also 90 minute train rides on the original Nevada Northern mainline up through two tunnels and on toward the old Ruth Mining District.

Hint: Be sure to take Guided Walking Tour of the complex. There is a lot to see while you are in the area. You could easily spend several days in Ely. There's a webpage dedicated to things to do and see in and around Ely, including the Ely Mural Tour, the Ward Charcoal Ovens,  and Success Loop Drive.  Be sure to visit Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park. They are spectacular!

Also, you will find Ely to be a full-service town with plenty of gas stations, restaurants, lodging, and a full line of hardware, auto parts, and groceries.

6. Historic Wendover Airfield Museum in Wendover Utah (119 miles from Ely)

Wendover Field was planned during the late 1930s. Congress appropriated funds in 1940 for the acquisition of land for bombing and gunnery ranges. Wendover was selected because of the Great Salt Lake desert with its shimmering salt flats and other vast uninhabited terrain.  The airbase had several missions through 1940's, but most notable was that it was selected for the top-secret training program for the pilots and aircraft that would eventually drop the atomic bombs that ended WWII. In the year leading up to the final deployment, the base at Wendover was home to aircraft modification, pilot training, and ordinance handling techniques that were necessary for the mission.   The original hanger for Elona Gay is at the airfield and undergoing restoration.

Now, the Historic Wendover Airfield is dedicated to preserving World War II Army Air Force history, educating present and future generations about this period and having visitors experience the feelings and understand the circumstances of the WW II era participants. The Airfield strives to maintain the maximum originality of the Wendover Air Base and re-create authentic exhibits and displays in order to stimulate a living connection between the visitor and the past.

7. Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway (10 miles from airbase)

The Bonneville Salt Flats are located just off of Exit 4 on Interstate 80 in Utah, very near the state line. After exiting the freeway, turn right and drive north past the truck stop. Stay on the paved road as it curves to the right away from the mountains and heads east out across the mud flats. In just over 4 miles, you will come to a cul-de-sac at the end of the pavement where a BLM sign is located. You may park here or continue onto the Salt Flats. Travel on the Salt Flats is at your own risk. If you do decide to travel off the access road, please review and adhere to the Travel Advisory.

Early attempts to promote automobile racing on the Salt Flats failed until the 1930s when Ab Jenkins, a Utah native driving a Studebaker dubbed the Mormon Meteor, began setting endurance speed records here. Since that time the Bonneville Salt Flats have attracted racers from throughout the world. It is the site of many land speed records due to the hard, flat surface.

World land speed records established at Bonneville include:

  • 1914: Teddy Tetzlaff, Blitzen Benz, 141.73 mph (unofficial), piston
  • 1935: Sir Malcolm Campbell, Bluebird, 301.126 mph, piston
  • 1940: Ab Jenkins, Mormon Meteor III, 161.180 mph, 24 hr endurance run, piston
  • 1947: John Cobb, Railton Mobil Special, 394.194 mph, piston
  • 1964: Craig Breedlove, Spirit of America, 526.277 mph, jet
  • 1965: Craig Breedlove, Spirit of America, 600.601 mph, jet
  • 1967: Burt Munro, Munro Special, 183.586 mph, 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle
  • 1970: Gary Gabolich, Blue Flame, 622.407 mph, rocket
  • 2001: Don Vesco, Turbinator, 458.440 mph, turbine
  • 2006: Chris Carr, BUB Streamliner, 350.884 mph, motorcycle
  • 2006: Andy Green, JCB Dieselmax, 350.092 mph, diesel

8. Return to Salt Lake (119 miles)

This is the easy part. It is a short, uneventful return trip on I-80 to Salt Lake. The road trip is not necessarily over yet. Plan on a food adventure in Salt Lake.  After a long trip you can't do better than the first restaurant on the list, The Red Iguana. It's right off I-80 near the airport.

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Paco Alvarex (Oviedo. SPAIN) says...