Stevens Camp: An Oasis in the Black Rock Desert
May – June 2015
Stevens Camp: An Oasis in the Black Rock Desert
Amid the dust and heat, a wildly verdant area beckons adventurous campers.
STORY & PHOTOS BY PETER PEARSALL
Outside of Burning Man, few visit the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada. While living and working there for two consecutive summers as an AmeriCorps volunteer, endeavoring to garner support for the region’s conservation, this realization weighed heavy on me. Is it because the Black Rock is so far away, or could it be the perception there’s nothing to see—no attractions, no worthwhile incentive to make the trip beyond that otherworldly arts festival in August?
To the question of distance; it’s undeniably true. Black Rock country is really out there. A hundred miles from Reno, 240 from Sacramento, 460 from Boise, 430 from Grants Pass, Oregon. Few see reason to drive all that way in the sweltering heat, generally passing through desert only to arrive at…a more deserted desert.
To the second question, I’d argue that there is plenty to see. So much that you’d never manage to see it all. Never. So says Dave Cooper, who worked in the Black Rock Desert as a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee for more than a decade. It was his job to check the area’s recreation sites on a regular basis, so if anyone should know a thing or two about the vastitude of the Black Rock, it would be him. The nearly 1.2 million acres of public land known collectively as the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon-Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA) are not only boundless, undeveloped, and exceedingly remote, but they are, according to Cooper, literally impossible to fully explore.
“I’ve worked here for 10 years, lived here for 12, and there are still places in the NCA I’ve never seen,” says the former Black Rock field manager who retired in 2011. “You could spend a lifetime wandering these mountains and canyons and still come up short.”
Part of the reason is the sheer tracklessness of the place. Many of the roads winding through the NCA are primitive at best—gravel, dirt, rutted two-track, grapefruit-size macadam—and some are downright atrocious. There are areas inaccessible to vehicles of any sort, reached only by foot or on horseback.
The other part is, well, it’s huge. Some 900 miles of unpaved road wend through the Black Rock area—roads with scant few signs and no names. Visitors can camp just about any- where in the NCA, free of charge; the land is publicly owned and overseen by BLM. But it’s no-frills country, considerably lacking in creature comforts such as potable water, human settlements, shade, shelter, that kind of stuff.
Unless you know where to look.
IS THAT A MIRAGE?
There is one recreation site nestled in the NCA’s northwest corner that arguably bests all others, a spot esteemed by everyone fortunate enough to chance upon it: Stevens Camp, a veritable Hilton in the hinterland. Three-room cabin, spring-fed kitchen and shower, and unparalleled views of High Rock Canyon country. No fees, no registration. If the NCA is a diadem atop Nevada’s sweeping, sun-parched pate, then Stevens Camp is its crown jewel.
It all started with the spring. Whatever declension of fault line or contortion of rock served to debouch that cool, miraculous torrent from the hillside, it transformed the place from useless to oasis. There is no denying the appeal of perennial water in the desert. The place’s greenness attests to that: thriving aspens and willows, the wild rose and wild iris, the monkey flowers, goldenrod, and bog mallow, all crowding the spring’s channel. The dozens of resident bird species attest to it also, as do pygmy rabbits, badgers, mule deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. So do the knapped arrow points scattered about, the ancient rock-stacked hunting blinds and smoke-blacked caves, the piled bones of repasts long ago. All unimpeachable evidence that this spot—known cartographically as Stevens Camp, coordinates 41º 29’ 24.92” N, 119º 29’ 29.42” W—is a treasured spot indeed.
Heading toward the north end of High Rock Canyon—after its steep roan walls fall away and its craggy ledges smooth out into the rolling gray-green hills of sagebrush country—one finds the route opening up wide onto a spring-fed meadow. The central wash (one imagines a stream coursing along in less droughty times), lined with wild rye and lupines, leads straight uphill to the spot.
In addition to the aforementioned cabin, there is an outhouse, some picnic tables, a horse corral and a fire ring. A runnel runs through the property, cool and gurgling. Tent sites are found just west, under the aspen grove. The spot affords far-reaching views to the south and east, of canyons and piedmont and purple-hazed peaks beyond. Within minutes—without an extraordinary show of effort—one grasps the appeal.
Black Rock Field Station Gerlach
Friends of Black Rock/High Rock
320 Main St. Gerlach, NV 89412 blackrockdesert.org 775-557-2900
Bureau of Land Management Winnemucca Field Office
510 E. Winnemucca Blvd.
Winnemucca, NV 89445
MORE WAYS TO EXPLORE
Black Rock Rendezvous
May 22-25, Memorial Day Weekend A leave-no-trace camping event with hot spring tours, speakers and more. blackrockrendezvous.org
National Trails Day
June 5-7 Stevens Camp
Burning Man Aug. 30-Sept. 7 burningman.org
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Stevens Camp Cabin
41º 29’ 24.92” N, 119º 29’ 29.42” W
PIONEERS AND A COUNTRY STAR
The first whites to see this site were probably John C. Frémont and company, passing through in December 1843 during their second exploration of the area. Many more would follow in the next six years, as men like Jesse Applegate, Levi Scott, and David Goff pioneered overland routes to Oregon and California that drew emigrants by the thousands. By late 1849, as the gold rush began to slow, fewer came to pass the spring. That year, one such emigrant, a J. Goldsborough Bruff, mentioned it in his journal:
“I walked up to examine the spring, following its meandering streamlet up. The ascent was considerable, and about 400 yards from the road. Tall grass and willows, with small cotton-wood, marked the line of this rill; the granitic blocks were picturesquely piled about. When I reached the Mountain Spring I was delighted: A pool, at the base of a large rock, circular margin of pebble-stones, pebbly bottom, and the clearest, coolest, and sweetest water I ever drank. The beautiful reservoir was supplied by a large fountain gushing from a fissure in the large block above it, and delightfully shaded by a surrounding grove of willows and poplars.”
The early 1860s saw cattle arrive to the spring and its meadow, and the site would change hands from drover to drover for the next century at least. Various structures were erected through the years to house these buckaroos and their stock; one cabin burned down, others were dismantled and rebuilt. Sometime during this interval the spring took on an appellation—named after a Stevens family in nearby Surprise Valley, supposedly—and the surrounding property became known as Stevens Camp.
In the 1950s the property was owned by musician and entertainer Ernest L. Ford, who called himself Tennessee Ernie Ford and became famous for his country, gospel, and pop recordings of that era. Best known for his rendering of the coal miner’s lament “Sixteen Tons,” which in 1955 spent 10 weeks atop the country music charts and eight weeks atop the pop charts, Ford constructed much of the cabin occupying the site today.
After more than 100 years as a ranching homestead, Stevens Camp found itself subject to a governmental land swap. In 1975 the Bu- reau of Land Management acquired the property from White Pine Ranch and shortly thereafter opened it to public use on a first-come, first-served basis. Free of charge. The only rules: Clean up after oneself, pack out all trash, maximum stay of 14 days, and respect the place as a privilege of the commons.
The site’s become a desert mecca of sorts. Pilgrims arrive from far and wide, often returning regularly throughout their lives, bringing first-timers into the fold. Most of them leave their mark in some fashion—such as signing the log book—and come away changed, often for the better. Hunters, trappers, off-roaders, bikers, horse riders, honeymooners, emigrant descendants, birders, Burners, Boy Scouts, BLMers, volunteers, adventurers, researchers, escapists, poets: the appeal is practically universal. People come and people go, and the place, remembered—current incarnation notwithstanding—stays with them.
Ode to the Cowboys
BY MONICA M. MORADKHAN
A tribute to the spirit of the kindred cowboys of the West and in honor of the 2015 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering festivities in Elko. My inspirations are the cowboys I have been blessed to cross paths with; they have left golden footprints on my heart.
The Whispers of the West
The rural West is a majestic masterpiece, created by the grace of our Maker’s hands Tirelessly nurtured and protected by the pioneers who cared for the lands
The kindred cowboy spirit has blessed the western hills and plains, beyond what our eyes can see
Like a stream, their unconditional love runs through our hearts, as we embrace all they have given so selflessly They have taught us that loving God, country, thy neighbors, and Mother Earth are part of the cowboy way
All while being humble and never asking for anything in return, except for hope that we share these values each day These salt of the earth gentle souls, possess great love and loyalty, with no end
Upon meeting a cowboy you soon realize you have gained a lifelong friend
They walk beneath the shining stars and the moon guides them through the night
To me they are legends, yet their humble hearts don’t ever wish to be in the spotlight Cowboys gently whisper words of wisdom and have a special twinkle in their eyes We thank God for placing these extraordinary beings into our lives