Nevada History by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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The Black Rock Desert: An Extraordinary Playa

August, 2005
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 this area.

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."


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