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Black Rock Desert Nevada 4x4 Adventure - Westward Ho!

Trail Front View
Harry Wagner | Writer
Posted May 1, 2008

Exploring Nevada's Historic Black Rock Desert

Before this road was cut through Fly Canyon, pioneers had to lower their wagons and livestock down to the bottom on the canyon with a rope. At times, it would take a full day to travel only a few hundred yards.

Geologists, ornithologists, biologists, and historians are drawn to the Black Rock Desert like moths to a flame. All were represented behind the wheels of their Toyota vehicles when we recently joined the Battle Born Cruisers on a weekend trip to explore this remote corner of northern Nevada. We met in the small town of Gerlach on a sunny Saturday morning. Half of the group had camped at Smoke Creek the previous night, while the other half arrived in the morning from Reno and Sacramento. Once making introductions and topping off our fuel tanks, the adventure began.

We headed north from Gerlach to the sound of Mormon crickets crunching between our tires and the pavement. Soon, however, the convoy was off the pavement and parked on the famous playa. Sixty thousand years ago, this area was the bottom of Lake Lahontan. Now, the playa plays host to the infamous Burning Man Festival at the end of summer and also attracts adrenaline junkies seeking to set land speed records. By September, the playa is dry and hard, but during our visit in May, the condition of the ground was less certain. You do not want to hit any soft, wet patches when traveling across the playa at a high rate of speed. The soil turns to grease, and there is nothing solid to winch to for miles in any direction. Throwing caution to the wind, we decided to embark north across the playa. Well, perhaps we exercised some caution, as we left ample space between ourselves and our fearless leader, Jack Peeler-if there was mud to be found, we would let Jack find it.

The high walls of High Rock Canyon stand in stark contrast to the flat-as-a-board playa we had just left. The water and safety offered by the canyon make it a haven for wildlife.

Fortunately, everyone made it across the playa without incident. We arrived at the far end of the playa, at the famous "black rock" and Black Rock Springs. The contrast between the black basalt of the mountains and the white silt of the lakebed is striking. This formation was a visual marker used by settlers traveling through the area. At Black Rock Springs we encountered the first of many markers and guest books installed by Trails West, marking the path of the Lassen-Applegate Trail. Trails West is a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to locating emigrant trails from southern Idaho to northern California and marking these locations with informative signs. Also present was a covered wagon, complete with wheels and bows, lying in a suspended state of decay in the dry desert climate.

Continuing on, we traveled across rutted two-track toward Double Hot Springs. A number of hot springs are located in alluvium along the west side of the Black Rock Range. The springs are along a major range-boundary fault that allows heat from the mantle to rise closer than normal to the earth's surface. Double Hot Springs is so hot, in fact, that pioneers purportedly cooked meat in the spring. The spring is now fenced off, and numerous signs warn of its dangers. Downstream, however, convection cools the water at a rapid pace. Taking advantage of this, enterprising desert rats installed a galvanized "hot tub" years ago and plumbed water from the spring in to the tub. We yearned to stay and soak under the stars, but unfortunately our schedule did not allow this to happen.

Forging ahead, we passed Soldier Meadows and Mud Meadow. The fine, dry silt hung in the air as each vehicle passed over the road, leaving the occupants of the open-topped FJ40s covered in white dust from head to toe. Continuing on to Fly Canyon, the road became rockier and the dust subsided. We were now out of the lakebed and into the Calico Mountains. Soon we arrived at our destination: High Rock Canyon. At this point, Jack Peeler turned the reins over to Shawn Waymire and took up position as tailgunner.

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