NEVER UNDERESTIMATE WHAT’S HIDDEN in plain sight.
Recent estimates by the Department of Transportation have close to 10,000 vehicles covering the 50 miles of high Nevada desert between the towns of Elko and Wells on I-80 every day. Using that statistic, some rough math, and a little conjecture, you could imagine about 1.5 million vehicles on that stretch of road during any given winter. A solid number of those vehicles are carrying skiers and snowboarders on their way to the Wasatch, the Sierra, the Sawtooths, the Tetons. With dreams of untracked powder and many miles to drive, hardly a passing glance is given to the jagged skyline to the south, where the Ruby Mountains hide in plain sight.
The Rubies run for about 80 miles, roughly north to south, rising abruptly out of the surrounding Great Basin landscape to top out at over 11,000 feet. Due to their size and orientation, they’re often compared to the Wasatch in Utah — only with no one around. Combine the lack of people with an average snowfall of 300 inches of bone-dry, high-desert powder covering a plethora of terrain, and the place starts to sound like a backcountry paradise.
Of course, getting to the goods isn’t quite as simple as exiting I-80 and driving to a parking lot at the base of a chairlift. The Elko Snobowl does spin a chair when conditions permit, but if you’re after the highest quality shredding in the Rubies, you’re headed to the remote backcountry. If you aren’t comfortable managing avalanche terrain and operating the mandatory gear of beacons, shovels, and probes, an independent trip isn’t for you; you must be responsible for your group. One way around this is to hit up Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience. They’ve been operating in the Rubies every winter since 1977 — it’s safe to say they have the place absolutely dialed.
But if you’re confident in your backcountry abilities and up for the adventure, check in at a Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest office (the Mountain City Ranger District in Elko or the Ruby Mountains Ranger District in Wells) for current conditions when you arrive. There’s no official avalanche advisory for the Rubies, but there are groups of backcountry skiers and boarders. We found that talking to people is the best way to obtain knowledge of the snowpack in the region.
While the Rubies offer a lifetime of options, Lamoille Canyon is the go-to spot for the simplest access to skiing and snowmobiling. Sleds are the preferred method for making the long approach; those registered in other states are welcome in Nevada for 15 days or less. If using your own two feet, the region’s most iconic line, Terminal Cancer — a freak of a couloir that runs dead straight through steep rock walls at a consistent pitch of 30-40 degrees, first skied by Joe Royer in the late ’70s — is just above the main trailhead at Thomas Creek and tops most backcountry skiers’ and boarders’ bucket list for the region. If you’ve got the time and ability, keep walking beyond the sled tracks into 90,000 acres in the high alpine that were designated the Ruby Mountain Wilderness in 1989 and are closed to motorized access.
Accommodations are plentiful in the town of Elko (30 miles from the mountains), with a variety of hotels, casinos, and restaurants, including the best Basque food this side of the Atlantic. But if you want to stay closer to the mountains, try the small Hotel Lamoille, located near the canyon entrance. Once in Lamoille Canyon, camping is the only way to go. The campground at Thomas Creek is a great spot, but depending on the snow level and time of year the options can change. Check the website for Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest for up-to-date information on campgrounds and road conditions. And then get ready to ski the desert.