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You can indulge your primitive side at Northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
Photo: Larry Angier (playa); Scott Sady (hot springs, below)
The sheer size of the Black Rock Desert can take your breath away, and when the summer sun beats down, the vast playa can look bleak and lifeless. But the campers, four-wheelers, hikers, bird watchers, and rock hounds who love it can point you to an oasis or two.
RVers bring along their “toys”—ATVs and motorcycles—to zoom over the flat playa and climb into the surrounding mountains. Photographers say Black Rock offers an incredible vanishing point and unbelievably beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Hikers find the canyons cooler than the desert at midday. Speed demons simply drive on the playa as fast as they can.
Matthew “Metric” Ebert of the Friends of Black Rock/High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area says that if you don’t mind primitive camping, Black Rock is the place to go. “There are no established camping areas, but there are a few areas along the edges of the playa where people have set up fire barrels, and near Soldier Meadows the BLM and conservation corps groups have built primitive campgrounds,” he says.
Gerlach, about 107 miles north of Reno on State Route 447, serves as the gateway to Black Rock and has a gas station and three bars. Bruno’s Country Club has a motel, bar, and a restaurant famous for its homemade ravioli. The town was founded in 1905 by the Western Pacific Railroad and is home to 500 residents and the Burning Man office.
Before you venture into the wilderness areas, you should obtain maps and tips on desert survival at the Friends of the Black Rock office, open weekdays May through October across from the Black Rock Saloon. The Friends of Black Rock Web site, blackrockdesert.org, also has downloadable PDF files of maps. On summer weekends, you can obtain topography maps at the BLM information trailer right outside Gerlach on SR 447.
Once you’ve mastered the survival issues, you’re ready for Black Rock. You should carry two spare tires and plenty of water, and four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended. The playa is a slick mud pit when it is wet, and if you’re stuck, you’re walking. The playa’s hot springs can be dangerous, so check with the Friends office for directions to safe places to soak.
It’s not all about the playa. Locals direct visitors to Guru Road, two miles north of Gerlach on Route 34, where the late DeWayne “Dooby” Williams built structures of wood and stone. “This drive-through folk-art experience, with installations built of desert materials and a series of homespun petroglyphs, is a local favorite,” Metric says. Three years ago a flood damaged Guru Road, which volunteers are restoring.
Among the artists drawn to Black Rock are John and Rachel Bogard, who have been creating art at Planet X Pottery, 10 miles north of Gerlach on SR 447, since 1974. The couple has three galleries of pottery and one gallery displaying landscape paintings. John calls the desert an inspiration. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s all around you-this dynamic landscape. It’s infectious,” he says.
An only-at-Black-Rock sight is the colorful Fly Geyser, a hot-water spout created by the drilling of a well in the 1950s. Minerals in the water have formed iridescent cones. Although it is on private land, the geyser can be viewed from Route 34 in Hualapai Flat.
At High Rock Canyon, you can see wagon ruts made by 19th-century travelers. Pioneers on the Applegate-Lassen Trail and 49ers heading to the California Gold Rush chipped-or painted with axle grease-their names and dates on the walls of a cave at the mouth of the canyon. It is strongly recommended that you use your topo map to get in and out of the area.
If you don’t want to camp, you can stay at Soldier Meadow Ranch, 62 miles north of Gerlach on Soldier Meadow Road off Route 34. In the mid 1860s, the ranch site was the operations center of sutlers who provisioned Camp McGarry, some eight miles to the northeast near Summit Lake. The camp housed Army troops defending pioneers traveling the Applegate-Lassen Trail to California and Oregon. Owners Kathy and Jim Kudrna serve breakfasts and dinners buffet-style in the cookhouse with the ranch crew. The guest ranch has a landing strip for those who can travel by air.
Hunters have traditionally been the ranch’s clients, but ATVers, hikers, wildlife watchers, and history buffs often make the ranch their base. There are two opal mines nearby, and geodes, agates, and obsidian litter the area. Visitors can soak in the medium-hot springs and park their RVs at a shady green campsite.
The bed-and-breakfast-style F-Ranch, a cattle operation that offers four-wheeling, hunting, and fishing, is 26.2 miles north of Gerlach. You drive on paved Route 34 for 20 miles, then on a gravel road for five. The turn onto the driveway is marked with the only mailbox for 100 miles.
Owner Sylvia Fascio says the remote, off-the-grid solar-powered ranch is used by outdoor enthusiasts as a base for their wilderness-area explorations.
Bureau of Land Management
Winnemucca Field Office
Friends of Black Rock/High Rock
Planet X Pottery
F-Ranch Bed and Breakfast