Cool Places: Black Rock Desert, Nevada

We rode into the wind. It was just chilly enough that I put my son in a sweater, but my wife and I pedaled our bikes in shirt sleeves. His helmeted head bobbled above the cracked mud and kept bumping me in the back as he repeatedly kicked my legs in excitement. We rode for 20 minutes and nothing seemed to change, but when we stopped, our campsite seemed like it was miles away, our tent a speck in the distance.

Family bike ride on the black rock desert

Family bike ride on the black rock desert. Photo by Mike Henderson

Most people know of the Black Rock as the place where the annual counter culture Burningman festival takes place, and where the Mythbusters occasionally head to test myths. But, like anything, it’s much more than what you’ve seen on the news and it’s an awesome place to go camping with the family.

We hit the Black Rock Desert for our first camping trip this year. It’s a quick 2 hour drive from Reno and is fairly low key. We got there Saturday evening, went for a bike ride, spent the night under the biggest full moon of the year, had breakfast and rolled home. If you’re looking for a relatively approachable trip to what is undoubtedly an extreme environment, the Black Rock is an awesome place to go.

About the Black Rock Desert

Geologically, the Black Rock is a Playa, or a dead flat pan of dry mud and dust. It is the relic bottom of an ancient lake that once filled the broad valleys of the Great Basin, which is a region of valleys and mountain ranges that spans from California to Utah. Over the last 10,poo years or so Lake Lahontan dried up leaving the Black Rock and nearby Winnemucca Dry Lake the flat desolate and beautiful landscapes they are now.

The Black Rock Desert region is in northwestern Nevada and the northwestern Great Basin. The playa extends for approximately 100 mi (160 km) northeast from the towns of Gerlach and Empire, between the Jackson Mountains to the east and the Calico Mountains to the west. [Wikipedia]

The Big Moon

When we visited the Black Rock Desert it was on the night of the biggest full moon of the year. Full moons on the playa are always amazing because of the lack of any trees or nearby hills to block the light. Once the moon comes up, the reflective dust surface of the playa lights it up like daytime. Here’s a time lapse video of the moon rising and crossing the sky above our camp on the Black Rock.

Because of a fluke of orbital timing, the full moon of May peaked late Saturday just as the moon was passing its perigee, the closest point to Earth of its orbit. The result was the biggest full moon of the year, which NASA and other scientists nicknamed the supermoon of 2012. []

Visiting the Black Rock Desert

I wrote an article for a local Reno magazine a few years ago, you can check it out here and get a better idea of what there is do do on the Black Rock Desert playa and the nearby Soldier Meadow and High Rock Canyon.

Bike Touring on the black rock playa

Bike touring on the black rock playa. Photo by Sara Jenkins

Driving across the playa is a trip; you drive and drive and drive and when you look around it’s hard to detect much change in position. Since out in the middle of the area you’re between 6 and 17 miles from the nearest landmark the scenery changes slowly and your perception is fooled by the unfamiliar perspective.

But there are a few dangers to driving the playa in your car. For one, don’t go motoring out off the main routes at high speeds (40 MPH +) unless you’re in a vehicle that can do A-Team type maneuvers without major damage. Second, even on the main routes things can rush up on you really quickly that can pose problems. Wind can push dunes over the road and alter the surface in ways that is really hard to see from too far off. Discerning the difference between mirage and vast stretches of open water, which DO appear from time to time, is not as simple as it seems. [Exploring The Middle of Nowhere]

Playa Camping Tips

Camping on the black rock is an amazing experience and I encourage you to give it a try. If you’re used to camping in campgrounds, there are a few things you need to do when visiting the Black Rock:

  1. Go with a full tank of gas. Fill up in the nearby town of Gerlach Nevada.
  2. Take a lot of water. There is nowhere to get it out there.
  3. Bring a hat, sunblock and sunglasses. There is no shade but what you bring with you.
  4. There are no bathrooms. There aren’t even bushes to crouch behind. So think about that…
  5. Phones don’t work out there. So don’t count on them as an emergency plan.
  6. Bring a battery jumper/pump. If your kid (or wife) leaves the car door open and the battery dies, you’ll need it.

Black Rock Desert Guides and Maps

Black Rock Desert Resources


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