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Black Rock Desert Nevada 4x4 Adventure - Westward Ho!

Exploring Nevada's Historic Black Rock Desert

Harry WagnerPhotographer, Writer

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.

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.

High Rock Canyon is closed from February until the beginning of May for raptor breeding and bighorn sheep calving. The sheep were reintroduced to the area in 1996 after being absent for more than 50 years. We arrived at the southern mouth of the 16-mile canyon just two weeks after it reopened to the public, and early enough to beat sweltering summer temperatures. There is no fuel and very little drinking water available in the Black Rock Desert, so those who venture this way are wise to be well prepared and selfsufficient.

The rock that makes up High Rock Canyon was deposited 17 million years ago when the volcanic activity of the Columbia River Plateau deposited lava here. Eight million years later, the lava was faulted, tilted, and uplifted to form the Calico Mountains. In geologic time, man has made but a brief impression on High Rock Canyon. Still, there is evidence of inhabitants as long as 10,000 years ago lurking between the 300-foot-high walls, waiting to be discovered. In more recent times, the canyon was recorded by Captain John Fremont and his expedition, which included legendary mountain man Kit Carson in 1844. The Applegate brothers guided emigrant wagon trains through the canyon on their way to Oregon's Willamette Valley starting in 1846. By 1849, High Rock Canyon had become a well beaten path to the gold fields of California.

Mahogany Creek runs through the canyon, and with it comes an abundance of flora and fauna. The flowers we noted blooming in the canyon included Indian paintbrush, globe mallow, wild iris, phlox, larkspur, and penstemons. A few of the lucky ones at the front of the group witnessed bighorn sheep, while all were treated to numerous hawk and grouse sightings. Mud swallows' nests were also visible along the high canyon walls, well above the danger of four-legged predators. At one point we had to cross the creek, but the water was low enough that even the stock vehicles in the group executed the crossing without incident.

After a full day, our destination for the night was Stevens Camp. From Soldier Meadows, this is the only camp containing toilets, running water, and shelter for miles in any direction. Unfortunately, another group was already occupying the site. Normally we would consider sharing a site with others, but the occupants were brandishing weapons in one hand and open beers in the other, leading us to look for shelter elsewhere. With light failing, we raced across Stevens Camp Road looking for any flat spot large enough to accommodate the eight vehicles in our party.

After traveling approximately 10 miles, we came to a wide, grassy meadow that was relatively flat and free of sage brush. On a windy night Stevens Camp would be preferable, but fortunately the air was calm as we circled the Toyotas and set up camp. Tents and stoves were erected shortly before the sun departed from the sky. After dinner, the group sat around in camp chairs, sharing stories and talking shop. We elected not to have a fire to minimize impact on the land, so the evening festivities did not last long before everyone decided to turn in. It was a calm, cool night, with only the howls of nearby coyotes to break the silence.

The next morning, we awoke with the sun and prepared breakfast before packing up. The meals were as diverse as the participants, running the gamut from cold Pop Tarts to three-egg omelets. After breakfast, everyone had the opportunity to get their hands dirty troubleshooting Nial Maloney's carburetor. The F engine in his FJ55 had been gasping for fuel on the previous day, and changing the fuel filter did nothing to remedy the problem. Disassembling the carb revealed a stuck accelerator pump. After adding a dab of grease and working the pump by hand, the carburetor was reassembled and worked perfectly.

With the '55 fixed, we were off to a late start. Fortunately, Stevens Camp Road was smooth, allowing us to travel at a much higher rate of speed when compared to the previous day. Eighty miles separated us from Gerlach, along with scores of hot springs and historical sites. It is easy to lose track of time in the vast expanse of the Black Rock. We continued on to the little town of Vya, where Maloney and family bid us farewell and split off to return to Sacramento. The rest of the group continued back towards Gerlach, leaving enough room between vehicles for the dust to settle.

We stopped for lunch at the George W. Lund Petrified Forest, home of one of the most tragic sites we have ever witnessed: A petrified tree completely encased in a chain-link cage. While we would regret to see anyone steal the tree, surrounding it with metal certainly takes away from the splendor. Road conditions improved again after the petrified prison, allowing the group to further quicken the pace. Soon we were passing Fly Geyser on our way back in to Gerlach.

The ritual of topping off fuel tanks was once again practiced, and most of the group continued on Route 447 back to Reno. Since the author had missed out on the festivities at Smoke Creek on Friday night, he chose to take the road less traveled, heading down dirt roads past Smoke Creek and over Sand Pass along the west side of Pyramid Lake. Suddenly, time had restarted as quickly as it seemed to stop, and our adventure was over. Rising temperatures have forced us to wait until the autumn in order to return to the Black Rock Desert in comfort. Rest assured that when the aspens change color, we will be there to witness them.

Where: Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Getting There: From Reno, east on I-80 to exit 43. Head north to Gerlach on NV-447. From Gerlach, take Route 34 north to the playa.
Vehicle Requirements: High-clearance 4WD, little concern for scratching your paint.
Camping: Camping with water and toilets is available at Steven's Camp and Soldier Meadows. Unimproved camping is available in a variety of locations (without any facilities).
Seasons And Weather: Temperatures in the summer can reach 120 degrees and drop by as much as 40 degrees at night. Dressing in layers and drinking plenty of water are key. Winter temperatures are more comfortable with highs in the 70s, however, precipitation can make the playa impassible. Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit, but High Rock Canyon is closed from February until May for raptor breeding.
Supplies And Fuel: Fuel and limited supplies are available in Empire and Gerlach.
Permits: Campfire permits are free of charge, and may be obtained from the Bureau of Land Management. The nearest field office is located in Cedarville.
Information: Bureau of Land Management: www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/surprise/highrock.html
Friends of the Black Rock: www.blackrockfriends.org
Trails West: www.emigranttrailswest.com