Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management

By Stacy Fisher

  Black Rock Desert Wilderness offers visitors a vast wilderness experience, creating an overwhelming feeling of isolation in the semi-arid region of lava beds, alkali flats, narrow canyons, and mountainous areas. The expanse contains more than 120 miles of historic trails within the park’s 314,835 acres.

   Located in northwestern Nevada west of the Jackson Mountains the Black Rock Desert playa is under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management.

   The main access is along the county roads that form the eastern and northern boundaries; by county route 34/2094, forking right just north of the town Gerlach in Washoe County, the gatekeeper to the desert wilderness.

   Vehicles may drive onto the lakebed at two places, after three miles and 12 miles (entrance to the annual Burning Man event), otherwise motorized transport is prohibited beyond designated areas. 

      This includes the use of motor vehicles (including OHVs), bicycles, wagons, RVs, motorcycles, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters. Contact BLM or visit their website (www.blm.gov/visit/black-rock-desert-wilderness) for more information regarding the use of motorized vehicles and other regulations.

   About 120 miles northeast of Reno, Black Rock Desert makes for an interesting day trip or weekend. Camping is allowed in the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area.

   In addition, there are many dispersed campsites located along the western edge of the Black Rock Desert playa in the “bays” and other nooks, including certain areas in the middle of the playa.

   Camping offers a unique experience for those who enjoy hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing, as well as offering many photographic opportunities.

   The region, at an elevation of 3,907 ft., is notable for its numerous volcanic and geothermal features — common throughout the expanse — but particularly in the northwest Nevada volcanic region, including two points (west and east) at the southern end of the Black Rock Range. 

   For such a dry area, the Black Rock Desert has a surprising amount of hot springs, some of which are not safe for bathing, and hot enough to scald and very dangerous.

   Many hot springs provide habitat for species that are found nowhere else on earth; vestiges of Pleistocene life forms isolated long enough to have evolved into distinct species that are found only in those springs.

   Soldier Meadows Hot Springs (travelnevada.com/hot-springs/soldier-meadows-hot-springs) is a private hot spring, but visitors are allowed to camp for $12 per night.

   The desert includes the 19th-century Emigrant Trails to California, as well as a historic venue for rocketry, and as an alternative to the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah, for setting land speed records.

   Also of scientific interest is at least two woolly mammoths excavated in 1979. The beasts met their end bogged down in the prehistoric remnant of Lake Lahontan’s once muddy shore during the Pleistocene. It took 14 years of preparation to reconstruct the mammoths’ fossilized skeletons, which can be viewed at the Humboldt County Museum and the Nevada State Museum, respectively.

   According to Wikipedia, humans have been in Black Rock Desert since approximately 10,000 BC. Around 1,300 AD the Paiute people settled the area.

   The Paiute and later emigrants crossing the area used the large “black rock formation” as a landmark, composed of Permian marine limestone and volcanic rocks and featuring a large hot spring and grassy meadow at its base. It was an important place for those crossing the desert headed for California and Oregon.

Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management

   John Fremont and his party were the first white men to cross the desert in 1843, and his trail was used by over half the 22,000 gold seekers headed to California after 1849.

   For bird watchers, more than 250 species of migrant birds stopover in Black Rock-High Rock Country for varying lengths of time. The playa is a favorite place for these winged creatures to rest and feed, especially in spring.

   In 1916, Fly Geyser, known for it’s unusual formation, vivid colors and unique beauty was created when a shaft was drilled in hopes of striking water for farming and the drill head struck a geothermal pocket, resulting in a geyser of boiling water, subsequently turning the area into a desert wetland.

   Fly Geyser is located on private land in Washoe County, about 20 miles north of Gerlach via State Route 34. Fly Ranch (flyranch.burningman.org), a 3,800-acre spread has reopened through Sept. 2021. Reserve your spot through Ticketleap.com or on the Fly Ranch website to explore scenic Fly Ranch on a guided Nature Walk.

   Black Rock Desert Wilderness provides endless opportunities for visitors to immerse themselves in the natural world with family and friends for a relaxing day or as a prospect for hiking or horseback riding. It’s an experience unlike any other.

   For more information on Black Rock Desert Wilderness, regulations, links, including an online map, go to the BLM website: www.blm.gov/visit/black-rock-desert-wilderness. BLM Phone: 202-208-3801.