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Black Rock Desert - Vistas From The Granite Mountains

Posted in Events on December 1, 2009
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Traffic seemed sparse for Memorial Day weekend. At the self-serve Shell station, a pair of BMW motorcycles readied for an overnight stay on the playa. Bruno's Restaurant, a Gerlach landmark, had its breakfast crowd, mostly locals and a handful of conspicuous outsiders. The locals mused about the mild spring weather and eavesdropped on the California trio lamenting the Golden State's deficit and the permit process for launching amateur rockets across the Black Rock Desert...

By 8:30 in the morning, an hour and a half's drive from home, a hearty Bruno's breakfast made sense. With our order underway, we turned to the route map. Between bites and a friendly exchange with the locals, we studied coordinates and marked the trail ahead.

According to plan, the group's base camp rested high in the Granite Mountains. The sun well up now, breakfast would be sizzling on Coleman stoves and campfires. This annual Memorial Day Run began 25 years ago with a group of four-wheeling friends from Fernley, Nevada. In the late '90s, the Hills Angels 4x4 Club members ( got an invite and have made the run ever since.

Check paid, along with a tip for the attentive waitress, we headed out to the Cherokee. Washed and polished to resist brush scratches, the XJ stood out among the dust-blanketed trucks and SUVs in the parking lot. In minutes, we would be stirring up our own share of alkaline silt.

Just north and east of town, the playa unfolds, a thousand square miles of stark, primeval lakebed. Alongside the road, the BLM's visitor kiosk shares details about the vast Black Rock Desert. To the northwest, the Granite Mountains rise steadily as State Route 34 skirts the desert floor. Seasoned drivers leave the highway at the Playa access, leaving long plumes of dust in their wake. For the Black Rock, saving time means driving the barren lakebed and avoiding the elliptical, manmade routes. Once familiar with the unique traction and drift of the desert, one quickly realizes why Craig Breedlove and others have chased land speed records across the Black Rock Desert Playa.

Caution: Rain and mud, ruts and drifts, the Black Rock's floor is seldom perfect. Pay attention to weather and local conditions before striking out across the Playa. Avoid winter treks and wet or stormy conditions. Stranded on this desert in summer is as risky today as it was for the pioneers 160 years ago!

The Black Rock Desert
Challenges are common for the Black Rock Desert. Historians describe the High Rock Canyon emigrant trails that brought settlers to Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley and the fields of California's Gold Rush. Although Captain John Fremont and his scout, Kit Carson, visited High Rock Canyon in 1844, they were not the first people to use the pass. Native Americans, the Paiute most recently, had frequented a trail through High Rock Canyon for eons. By 1846, the Applegate brothers explored this route as a safer way to get settlers into western Oregon's fertile valleys. Today, within the Bureau of Land Management's National Conservation Area, High Rock Canyon is accessible to recreational four-wheelers, equestrians, and hikers interested in tracing the path of the pioneers who scaled the canyon in wagons and on foot.

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The Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon conservancy provides visitors with a variety of resources. Hot springs like Soldier Meadows, mountain wilderness areas, the Applegate and Nobles historical routes, plus the expansive desert Playa, each offer outlets for exploration and family activities. Four-wheel drive vehicles with adequate ground clearance can ply the more mountainous reaches and find sites of historical, geological, and archaeological interest.

An ancient lakebed, the Black Rock Desert Playa was once part of the great Lake Lahontan. The waterline of the lake reached 500 feet above the Playa. A remnant of the last Ice Age, prehistoric Lake Lahontan covered approximately 8,500 square miles of western and central Nevada from 12,700 to 9,000 years ago. Evidence from this period includes human archaeological sites along the shoreline of the enormous lake, including today's Black Rock Desert fringes.

Note: En route to Gerlach from Interstate 80, State Route 447 overlooks the eastern shoreline of Pyramid Lake, one of the two remnant waters of ancient Lake Lahontan. Walker Lake near Hawthorne, Nevada, is the other natural survivor. Today, the Truckee River feeds Pyramid Lake, and the Walker River feeds Walker Lake.

The Granite Mountains
A variety of mountain ranges and geological formations line the Black Rock conservancy. BLM maps, available at the visitor center near Gerlach, share trails for 4WD trucks and SUVs (less challenging areas can be reached with an AWD car). Outside the conservancy, shown in lesser detail, the Granite Mountains lie west of the Black Rock Playa. At higher vantages, like 9,056-foot Granite Peak, the Granites offer a 50-plus-mile view east across the Black Rock and west to the distant Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Granite Peak can be approached from either Nevada S.R. 34 or S.R. 447. The paved 447 highway leaves Gerlach and heads northwest, becoming California's Route 81 leading to Cedarville, California. Nevada's S.R. 34 plies north from Gerlach, parallel with the western boundary of the Black Rock conservancy. Where the pavement ends, the route continues northward within Washoe County, providing several jump-off points into the Granite Mountains.

The county keeps the region open for outdoor recreation, camping, hunting, hiking, and horseback use. Primitive and without public toilet facilities, the range once served as grazing land for sheep and cattle, with numerous aspen groves and meadows marking the drainages. Snowmelt and springs feed Cottonwood Creek, its chilly water trickling eastward from the higher reaches toward the desert floor.

In contrast to the stark playa, the Granite Mountains resemble the high desert areas of the Eastern Sierra and northern Nevada. Semi-arid, the flora includes steppe sagebrush, wildflowers, aspen, and grasses. Typical of high desert, signs of life exist wherever water flows. With an early Memorial Day in 2009, the region was abloom with colorful desert flowers that carpeted hillsides and lined the four-wheel drive roads. Warmer spring weather had melted snow at the lower zones, making trails accessible and relatively mud free.

Leaving S.R. 34 called for a shift to four-wheel drive, low range. The trail soon crisscrosses Cottonwood Creek, climbing steadily toward clusters of aspen and small meadows. The four-wheeling group had settled for the weekend near a local landmark known as the Basque sheepherders' oven. Sheltered by an aspen grove, the provisional campground consisted of off-road tent trailers, traditional tents, and an ample amount of camping gear. Seasoned four-wheelers, these families came prepared.

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The Granite Peak campout has been an annual affair for nearly three decades. By mid-summer, many of these club members will tackle the Rubicon, Gold Lake, and Sierra Trek trails. Granite Peak, however, holds a special meaning. This yearly Memorial Day run celebrates an end to winter and the first access to high country recreation.

An hour from the hum of Bruno's Café, we reached the encampment to find morning chores wrapped up. After a hearty welcome and introductions all around, several 4x4s fired up for our ascent to Granite Peak. While one spur presented a deep snow obstacle, the remaining trails brought us to the peak's base.

On the plateau fanning east of the peak, a large antelope stood silhouette against the distant Black Rock Desert. Off the southwest slope of the divide, the Smoke Creek Desert playa pointed toward Pyramid Lake. From snowfields above timberline to the grazing meadows, wildflowers and quaking aspen groves below-this rarified vantage says it all!

Note: Our next trips to the Black Rock region will explore High Rock Canyon, the Black Rock Playa, and side trips to the local ghost towns of Jungo and Sulphur. And of course, there's always Granite Peak in the fall!

For a BLM map of the Black Rock Desert/High Rock Canyon Areas, see:
Bureau Of Land Management Map

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