by John C. Evanoff
One of the geologic wonders of Nevada is the high
desert playa named the Black Rock Desert. Located north and east
of Gerlach from Highway 447 (Pyramid Lake Highway), just over a
hundred miles north of Reno, State Highways 34 and 49 move from
Northern Washoe County into Northern Pershing County into what some
call the flattest spot on earth. Along with the Smoke Creek Desert
to its west, these two basins are truly deserts of distinction.
Millions of years ago, the planet went through some extraordinary
tectonic upheavals and collapses. Because of these massive fault
movements, hot water vents still protrude from the desert valley
floor in several places throughout this region. After the last major
ice age some 15,000 years ago, the great inland Lake Lahontan sprawling
across Northern Nevada for thousands of years finally began to dry
up leaving vast alkaline silt basins known as playa. The hills and
mountains around the area show the shorelines etched into their
sides more than 500 feet higher than the basin floor. The bones
of wooly mammoth, camel and saber-tooth tigers have been found all
around this locale. Man ventured into the area around 11,000 years
ago as evidenced from caves in the area and the Northern Paiute
took up residence some two thousand years ago.
Nearly thirty miles wide and almost
100 miles long, the Black Rock Desert remains as one of the most
well known arid regions in Nevada and the west due to the Burning
Man Festival held annually on the lake bed where as many as 25,000
people congregate at Black Rock City (A city for only two weeks)
for a week of enjoyment of self-expressive themed modern art projects.
With over 400 square miles to explore,
the Black Rock is also an attractive area for weekend tourists who
find this wonderful desert to be both hostile and invitingly tranquil.
Activities include sand railing (three-wheeled land-sailing contraptions),
amateur rocketry (the first successful amateur space rocket), rock
hounding (opals, meteorites and crystals), off-road vehicle use,
horseback riding, dark-sky astronomical viewing and listening to
the quiet. On a still weekday fall evening in the middle of the
Black Rock, you can hear absolutely nothing.
In the late 1840's and through the
1850's, the Lassen-Noble-Applegate trails moved thousands of pioneer
settlers through the Black Rock and into the upper western valleys
above the desert and into Northern California and Oregon. From around
Rye Patch Reservoir near Lovelock, the pioneers ventured north on
the Lassen trail and into and through the Black Rock Desert. Many
of the animals moving with the pioneers would die along this stretch
because of lack of food and water. Some areas were so covered with
carcasses; the wagons had to actually move over them. Entering from
the east, the mud hole at Black Rock Springs was the first and only
water hole the settlers would see for over forty miles. Many pioneers
wrote of these and other tragedies along the way into and through
this vast expanse. The Black Rock is actually a monolith at the
eastern gate of the desert and is littered with the names of these
pioneers who slowly moved their wagons west and left their scribbles
as testament to the nemesis that lie behind and ahead of them. The
wagon trail can still be seen in many sections of the eastern and
western canyons entering and exiting the Black Rock Desert.
This area's mountains have a rare
beauty well known to regular travelers. The Granite Range to the
west, the Black Rock Range to the east and the Calico and Selenite
Ranges are filled with birds such as the Great Horned Owl, Northern
Pygmy Owl, Ground Owl, peregrine and prairie falcon, Golden Eagle,
red tailed hawks, goshawks, harriers, kestrels, bald eagles, quail,
chucker, sage-hen, gnatcatcher, bunting, poorwill, mud hen, flycatchers,
other desert songbirds and the tiny desert wren. Animals include
bobcats, mountain lion, mustang, marmot, squirrel, desert chipmunk,
kangaroo rat, badger, Jack and Cottontail rabbit, mule-deer, mountain
goat, bighorn sheep and a rather large population of pronghorn antelope.
In fact, the Sheldon Antelope Range north of the playa has one of
the largest herds of pronghorn antelope on earth and their annual
movements take them into all parts of the mountains of the Black
Rock. I remember growing up in the early 50's and hunting with my
dad in the Soldier Meadows and Leadville areas and seeing as many
as a hundred sage grouse flying above us and over a hundred antelope
grazing below us in early canyon spring mornings.
The Black Rock desert is home to
only a few hardy plants including sagebrush, greasewood, rabbit
brush, bitterbrush, yellow willow, Fremont cottonwood, chokecherry,
buffalo-berry, and several species of salt grass and salt bush.
In the higher reaches of the desert mountain sides the Western and
Utah Juniper sparsely cover the slopes and canyon faces with occasional
Jeffery Pine and Incense Cedar in the mix. Numerous species of lizard
and snakes including the Great Basin Rattlesnake also roam the desert
and several species of scorpion and tarantula also inhabit the area.
But on the playa itself, nothing stirs and very little life exists
except an occasional devil wind.
During World War II, the Black Rock
was used as a bombing range and weapons practice area and for many
years afterwards, you could find live ammunition littering many
places throughout the expanse. Still today on occasion, the Navy
Air Training Center at Fallon flies low-level practice routes over
The flatness of the area was a resounding
hit with a British team trying to best the world land speed record.
At the time in 1983, the regular land speed record area known as
the Bonneville Salt Flats was saturated with water and Richard Noble
discovered the Black Rock to be just what he needed to move his
car called the Thrust II over the measured mile to an average 633
mph on two back to back runs in October 1983 and achieve the land
speed record. None of this would have happened had it not been for
the residents of Gerlach and Empire, who signed a petition asking
the Bureau of Land Management to let Noble try this amazing feat
in their coveted Black Rock Desert in 1980-81. I was proud to be
part of this happening since I was running for Washoe County Commissioner
at the time in the area and decided to help get the residents together
to meet with the BLM and move the project forward.
Fourteen years later, Noble came
back to the Black Rock wanting to go faster with a machine called
the Thrust SSC. He wasn't alone on the playa though. Craig Breedlove,
five time world record holder representing the USA, brought his
team and Spirit of America car to the desert and immediately hit
speeds over 650 mph. But Craig had problems with achieving higher
speeds and on one run where he hit 675 mph, the car swung in a large
arc on the flats and almost crashed. Craig was alright but hasn't
been back to try to best the world record in several years.
Meanwhile, Andy Greene, the pilot
of Thrust SSC began runs that proved the machine was faster than
sound achieving a two-way average of Mach 1.02 and a 763mph world
land speed record. I was there that day in September 1997 and was
later presented an autographed poster from Noble and Greene in commemoration
of their exploit and my help with their project. A historical world
first land sonic boom was achieved and the Black Rock Desert was
in the news around the world again.
Whether you wish a peaceful place to be with nature and the desert
or a fun place to play in the playa, Black Rock is definitely a
priority to visit. Its vast expanse and ethereal qualities including
mirages and ghostly shadows make the Black Rock Desert one of my
favorite and rewarding trips through Northern Nevada. Just remember,
the desert can be disorienting sometimes, so keep plenty of food
and water with you and tell friends where you have gone to get away.
Just outside Gerlach a sign says it all
"Where the pavement
ends and the West begins."