As any savvy traveler will tell you, the most memorable experiences happen when you go off the beaten path. Although certainly some meetings and events are best suited to metropolitan areas, when your agenda calls for something more unique or adventurous, Nevada’s Cowboy Country will rope you in.
“I like to connect people with people,” says John Collett, also known as Cowboy John, who operates a local tour business near Elko. “If you meet someone one-on-one in their environment and get to know their culture, it’ll be the highlight of your trip.”
>>THE WHERE AND GETTING THERE
Cowboy Country covers a distance of a little more than 500 miles from Salt Lake City to Reno along I-80. The area has several anchor towns, such as Elko, Winnemucca and West Wendover, bordered by millions of acres of working cattle farms, many of which operate as guest ranches.
For groups coming from out of town, the best way to access Cowboy Country is to fly into Reno or Salt Lake City, then rent transportation and drive, following the same trail used by thousands of emigrants heading west to California to search for gold.
Today, that gold is found thanks to mining technology introduced in the 1980s that allows for recovery of microscopic particles in the soil. Eighty percent of all gold mined in the United States now comes from Cowboy Country, helping fund a boom of new hotels, shopping and restaurants in towns like Elko.
“The economy here is doing very well,” says Collett. He will be happy to set up a tour of the local mines and ranches for your group, and even put together a Dutch-oven dinner.
>>THERE'S GOLD IN THOSE HILLS
Beginning on I-80 west of Salt Lake City, you’ll first come to the cities of West Wendover and Elko, each with 2,000 hotel rooms and plenty of fine dining and entertainment.
In West Wendover, your group can make base camp at the Rainbow, Peppermill or Montego Bay resorts, then take day trips and tours to smaller towns, mines and ranches. Include a hike to the top of Three Mile Mountain where you can see the curvature of the earth.
Elko is home to a 50,000-square-foot convention center and the Northeastern Nevada Museum, among other new and expanded properties. Book a tour to the Newmont Gold Company’s mines (tours leave from the museum on the second Tuesday of the month, April through October) or plan a group tour of the brand-new California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center.
“The final exhibits won’t be in until 2012, but we’ll be open this summer to show the public what we do have,” says Park Ranger Gary Koy, who helps run the center. Private meeting space is also available.
>>ON THE TRAIL AGAIN
On the other side of Elko, two-and-a-half hours outside of Reno lies another hub for groups: Winnemucca. Nestled between mountains to the south and sand dunes to the north, the unique terrain includes the 36-mile “Bloody Shins Trail,” labeled by some as the best trail for mountain biking in the West.
With five casinos, 1,150 hotel rooms and a 26,000-square-foot convention center, there is ample space to meet and eat. Basque meals are still served family-style at the Winnemucca Hotel, built more than 120 years ago. Groups can also explore the local ghost towns of Midas and Unionville, where Mark Twain once tried his hand at mining.
For the ultimate Western-style group experience, lasso one of these Cowboy Country guest ranches.
COTTONWOOD GUEST RANCH
The Cottonwood Guest Ranch has been in the same family for six generations. Proprietor Irene Smith says, “I’ve only been here since 1952, so I’m a newcomer.” The lodge can accommodate groups of up to 19 in its seven bedrooms, each with a private bath.
A working cattle and horse ranch, they offer a variety of packages and excursions for groups. In the spring, guests can gather horses from the green, wildflower-covered high desert while looking up at snow-capped mountains during the annual horse drive.
THE 71 RANCH
The 71 Ranch is located in Deeth, and provides real Western barbeque for its guests, because, “The West wasn’t won on salad.” They can host 15 overnight guests, but many more for daily meetings. With ample meeting space and wireless Internet via satellite, you can still conduct business before a breakout session around the campfire. “We can tie in group events with ranch activities,” notes Aulene Ratliff of the Ellison Ranching Company, who owns the 71 Ranch.