Black Rock Desert

Black Rock Desert

Black Rock Desert, arid region of lava beds and alkali flats, NW Nev., in Toiyabe National Forest, stretching c.70 mi (110 km) NE from Gerlach. The Jackson Mts. rise to the east; the Black Rock Range to the west. A land speed record was set there in 1983. The desert has been the site of the Burning Man festival, a self-styled temporary community and weeklong arts festival that attracts thousands, since 1991. Smoke Creek Desert, to the SW of Gerlach, is an extension of Black Rock.
The Black Rock Desert is a dry lake bed and the surrounding endorheic basin in northwestern Nevada in the United States. The flat expanse of dry lake, or playa, is a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, which existed between 18,000 and 7,000 BC during the last ice age. During the lake's peak around 12,700 years ago, the desert floor was under approximately 500 feet (150m) of water.

The area was used in the mid-1800's by branches of the California Trail and Oregon Trail for settlement of the US West Coast. Since then, the area has been host to scattered mining activity. The Black Rock Desert also hosts various recreational, scientific and record-breaking activities. Most of the area is federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), including the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area and 10 federally-designated wilderness area which protect the areas that had been part of the historic trails. BLM also manages recreational activities in the area.


The Black Rock Desert region is in northwestern Nevada and the northwestern Great Basin. The playa extends for approximately 100 miles (160km) northeast from the towns of Gerlach and Empire, between the Jackson Mountains to the east and the Calico Mountains to the west. The Black Rock Desert is separated into two arms by the Black Rock Range. It lies at an elevation of 3848 feet (1172 m) and has an area of about 1,000 square miles (2,600 km²).

There are several possible definitions of the extent of the Black Rock Desert. Often people refer just to the playa surface. Sometimes terrain which can be seen from the playa is included. The widest definition of the Black Rock Desert region is the watershed of the basin that drains into the playa. The intermittent Quinn River is the largest river in the region, starting in the Santa Rosa Range and ending in the Quinn River Sink on the playa south of the Black Rock Range. The watershed covers 11,600 square miles including the Upper and Lower Quinn River, Smoke Creek Desert, Massacre Lake, and Thousand Creek/Virgin Valley watersheds of northwestern Nevada as well as small parts across the borders of California and Oregon.

Humboldt, Pershing and Washoe Counties of Nevada intersect at the Black Rock Desert.


In the mid-1800s, particularly during the California Gold Rush, the Applegate-Lassen Cut-Off of the California Trail left the main route of that Trail near present-day Rye Patch Reservoir, and crossed the Black Rock Desert, on the way to Goose Lake in northeast California, and the California gold fields. The explorers who mapped the routes through the area and the emigrants who followed them named the Black Rock Desert for a prominent point near a spring along the route now known as Black Rock Point. It is still often called simply "the Black Rock".

The flatness of the surface has led to its use as a proving ground for experimental land vehicles. It was the site of the most recent successful attempts on the World Land Speed Record. In 1983, Richard Noble drove the jet-powered Thrust2 car to a new record of 633 miles per hour. Noble also headed up the team that beat the Thrust 2 record. In 1997, ThrustSSC became the world's first and only supersonic car, reaching 763+ mph.

In addition to the flat surface, the uncontrolled airspace over the area also attracts experimentation with rockets. The following are highlights of amateur rocketry records set at Black Rock:


Prospecting and mining has occurred in the area since the 1800's. The Sulphur mining district on the east side of the desert has been the location of sulfur, mercury, alunite, silver and gold mining including a currently-active gold strip mining operation. An opal mine is in the base of the Calico Mountains on the west side of the desert.

The area is also used by several prefectures (regional chapters) of the Tripoli Rocketry Association. The Association of Experimental Rocketry of the Pacific (AeroPAC) hosts "MudRock" in June, "Aeronaut" in late July/early August, and "eXtreme Performance Rocket Ships (XPRS)" in September. The Arizona High Power Rocketry Association (AHPRA) hosts " BALLS" in September. It is a significant launch site for high power and amateur rocket hobbyists. When any of these organizations refer to maximum altitudes for their "waivers", they are talking about approval to use the airspace which they have obtained from the FAA. The allowed ceiling in these FAA waivers is commonly up to 100,000 feet, and can be expected to grow higher following the capabilities of hobby rocketry technology.

The flat surface and frequent winds also attract land sailing enthusiasts.

Another recurring recreational activity is rockhounding. BLM places regulatory limits on quantities of rocks which may be removed per person per day from public lands that it manages.

Black Rock is the site of the annual Burning Man festival. It is the largest event that occurs there.


The Black Rock Desert region has vast areas of land where travelers who experience a breakdown might not be found by others. The ease with which a visitor can drive onto the playa allows newcomers to take risks that they may not realize. Some web sites about the area have suggestions about preparation and survival. These and other sites have in common the usual desert travel advice to carry enough water, let people know where you plan to go and bring enough supplies to wait for a potential rescue if needed. In general, they advise taking the dangers seriously and giving some thought to survival skills. The hazards of the desert have led to fatalities as long as people have visited the area.

Sometimes well-prepared travelers have come to the assistance of others in distress. In July 2008, a particularly unique rescue was reported. A general aviation aircraft pilot, John Morgan, flying across the Black Rock Desert noticed an injured and dying man lying face-down isolated on the playa. Morgan landed his Aviat Husky on the lakebed and taxied to where the man was lying. He contacted a passing airliner on the radio and arranged a message to be relayed so the man could be taken by medevac helicopter to a hospital in Reno.


The main highway in the area is Nevada State Route 447 from Interstate 80 at Wadsworth and Fernley to Gerlach. Some pre-1978 decommissioned highways remain mostly as dirt roads which are generally not usable in wet or snowy conditions, and may require high ground clearance even in good conditions. Old Highway 34 provides access to the playa on the west side and to the Hualapai Valley. Old Highway 49, also known as Jungo Road, is a dirt road that provides access to the playa from the west and connects to Winnemucca via the ghost towns of Sulphur and Jungo. Old Highway 48 is a dirt road that connects the playa to Lovelock.

A freight rail line goes through Gerlach and up the east side of the playa on its way between Oroville, California and Winnemucca on the Feather River Route. It was built as part of the Western Pacific Railroad, now part of Union Pacific Railroad. There is no passenger rail service.

The Empire Airport in Empire has two unpaved runways. Light aircraft have also landed on the Black Rock Desert playa to attend events there. The nearest commercial airline service is at Reno.

Federal lands

The Bureau of Land Management manages the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (often shortened to "Black Rock-High-Rock NCA") and the following 10 wilderness areas in the Black Rock Desert region.

  • Little High Rock Canyon Wilderness
  • North Black Rock Range Wilderness
  • North Jackson Mountains Wilderness
  • Pahute Peak Wilderness
  • South Jackson Mountains Wilderness
  • Hot springs

    Among many recreational activities at Black Rock, some people like to visit hot springs. BLM distributes pamphlets and even has billboards on Interstate 80 saying "Hot springs on public lands - stay out and stay alive!" They describe reasons in their press release, "Hot springs on public lands: unique habitats for native species but hazardous for people" An obvious question is what makes them different because they're on public lands. BLM's "stay out and stay alive" campaign was the result of a lawsuit filed against it by the family of a woman who died in 2000 at Double Hot Springs. She fell in the 200 degree Fahrenheit water trying to save her dog that had jumped in.

    Fly Geyser

    At Fly Ranch, the Fly Geyser is one of two geysers at the ranch - the other being dormant, possibly because of the upheaval of the second geyser. The Fly Geyser continuously sprays hot water. This hot spring fountain was accidentally formed by a water well drilling that hit a geothermal source. Fly Ranch is private property which does not currently allow visitors.

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