Pyramid Lake Love Letter
A lifetime of memories still in the making at an ancient desert lake.
BY MEGG MUELLER
Until 2020, I don’t think there was ever a year that I didn’t go to Pyramid Lake. That means, for 54 years, no matter where I lived, I made sure to get to my favorite lake at least once a year. My parents started taking me to Pyramid when I was just a baby, and today, I take my grandchildren there. I think I have the lake’s dirt in my blood, and I know I have it in my soul.
For those unfamiliar with the lake, it is located about 35 miles east of Reno and all 125,000 acres are on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. The Tribal Nation graciously shares much of this sacred land with those who can’t get enough of her slightly salinized waters, tumbleweed-flanked dirt beaches, massive Cui-ui fish, exotic rock formations, and phenomenal desert vistas. Most of my family falls into that category.
When I was just a small child, summertime brought the nearly-every weekend ritual of packing a Plymouth Belvedere station wagon with my parents and six kids, plus coolers full of fried chicken, PB&Js, sodas, and beer for the parents.
The drive from our house in northwest Reno felt like it took an eternity; once we crested the hill out of Sparks on the Pyramid Lake Highway, there were only a few scattered houses to see as we made our journey 30 miles eastward. Our neighborhood caravan generally consisted of 4-5 vehicles and at least a dozen children. Whether we were sitting in the back of an open pickup or in one of the cars, we counted the distance by the cattle guards on the then-rural highway: there were three, and we’d scream with delight as we crossed each one. After the last one, we’d press forward to see which of us could spot the lake first as we rounded the final hill. When the turquoise water flashed before us, it was worth the long, hot car ride. We’d be in the water soon.
Abandoned railroad tracks greeted us each time we turned off the main road to head to the beach, and inevitably, the station wagon would get stuck. This happened more times than I can count: the sand was deep and the tracks perfectly placed for disaster. We kids would run down to the beach, leaving the job of digging our car out of the sand and off the tracks to the men. My nose thickly coated in zinc oxide—a heavy white paste that was the only sunscreen we had—I’d head straight for the water and rarely emerge for the rest of the day.
Shade structures were dutifully erected, and the moms would set up their chairs to face the water and keep a constant count of bobbing heads. Horseshoes, storytelling, sneaking Cokes from the cooler, and exploring the lake’s silty bottom kept us busy until we were eventually cajoled to come out of the water for meals and zinc oxide applications.
Some weekends, we would pile into boats and take a then-legal sojourn to the southeast side of the lake where the pyramid stands. The ride over was about 45 minutes depending on the speed and the waves, but the entire way we’d watch the massive rock grow ever larger before us. The huge tufa formation that gives the lake its name rises like a great spire some 600 feet above the beautiful blue waters.
After some time spent exploring this shore, we’d head back to our camp, stopping along the way to let people jump in the deep water. Sometimes, someone would endeavor to ski all the way back. Those who were successful were hailed as the strongest of us all and brought beers their sore arm muscles could barely lift.
They were glorious summers, filled with sunburns, stickers in our feet, cows wandering in the desert above the beach, swimming, waterskiing, and sleeping under pristine Nevada skies. It was the perfect place to be a kid.
Even as we got older, there were always trips to Pyramid in one group or another. Water sports were still the top draw along with swimming and—before we knew better—baking in the sun. Kneeboards became a thing, so did ladder fishing and jet skis. We started having kids of our own who learned to swim, took their first boat rides, and had their first camping trips at the lake. We introduced a new generation to the shores and the azure waters that continued to call to us year after year.
My eldest brother Mike was the main fisherman in our family, and he would teach the kids to cast from shore or his canoe. I don’t know if he ever told them the world record for Lahontan cutthroat trout was pulled out of Pyramid Lake—all 41 pounds of it. There are five different species of fish in the lake and massive fish can be caught year-round. The colder months see a preponderance of that strange breed, the ladder fisherman. These diehard sportsmen carry ladders far out into the water in an attempt to get closer to the natural shelves that provide the perfect habitat for fish. Photos of the monster-sized fish pulled from the lake often haunt me as I swim. To date, I have never had my toes nibbled on despite my brothers’ attempts to fool me when I was a child.
While most of my memories feel idyllic, Pyramid Lake can be a tempestuous place and deserves the utmost respect. The lake, we always said, is perfect…until it is not. Nevada’s wicked winds can kick up out of almost nowhere, leaving campsites upended, umbrellas sailing through the sky, and people scrambling to find cover from the sandblasting their skin and eyes endure. I’ve been on the lake in a houseboat with 3-foot waves crashing over the bow as my father raced toward the dock, desperately trying to outrun a sudden storm. These are vivid memories, but they do nothing to diminish my love of Pyramid Lake.
About 10 years ago, the Tribal Nation was forced to close down most of the northern and eastern sides of the lake due to the actions of people I can only imagine were raised by wolves. No offense to the wolves, but how anyone could desecrate the land so sacred to the Paiute or deface the striking tufa formations is beyond me. I miss being able to see those areas of the lake, but I am thankful to still be able to share what I can with my grandchildren.
Visitors were not allowed for much of 2020 due to the pandemic, but as 2021 heads toward its end, it’s clear that break did nothing but fuel the fervor for recreation at Pyramid Lake. On weekends, the shorelines are full of trailers, tents, and popup shelters that often denote a day user. Watercraft make waves and pull people on wake boards, and the shores are filled with families enjoying the temperately glorious waters.
For thousands of years, the Paiute who call Pyramid Lake home have known the wonders of this miraculous body of water. The only source of water—aside from precipitation—is the Truckee River, flowing more than 100 miles from Lake Tahoe. The river drops 2,500 feet in elevation, and against all odds, it can make the trip through the desert terrain. Pyramid Lake simply should not be, but it is. While there have been challenges over the years, it remains an incredible jewel in the barren landscape.
PAY YOUR RESPECTS
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitor’s Center is the place to start your visit to this historic and beautiful lake. Interactive exhibits explore the ancient people and their lives in the area. You can also learn the natural history of the lake and its animal inhabitants, including the American White pelicans that live on Anaho Island (a national wildlife refuge). Information about obtaining required recreation permits is also available, although permits are not sold at the museum.