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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.