BLAUERT: WIDE-OPEN SPACES AT STATE'S END

November 20, 2012 

Some time ago a reader asked, "Where is the remotest place in California?"

At first glance, it seemed like an easy question to answer. Then it dawned on me that there are actually several kinds of "remoteness." We could be talking about the furthest distance from any kind of road. We could also be looking for areas that are not accessed by any kind of maintained trail. Steep terrain could make two spots with equal remoteness "as the crow flies" completely unequal in the time, exertion, and skill required to get there. Lastly, it's also worth remembering that there are some pretty remote spots located on rough, unpaved roads -- far from any paved highway.

In a September 2008 article in Backpacker Magazine, Mark Jenkins identified the most remote place in the lower 48 states. "Destination Nowhere" is located in the Yellowstone National Park Wilderness and it is the only area remaining where you can get more than 20 miles from a road.

Candidates for California's "most remote" area would have to include the wilderness areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and contiguous roadless area made up of northern Yosemite and the Emigrant Wilderness. Northern California's Trinity Alps and Marble Mountain Wilderness areas would also be strong contenders. My vote for the remotest spot reachable by vehicle would be the Saline Valley in Death Valley National Park -- an 80-mile drive on dirt and gravel.

Just over the state line, Nevada offers a wide range of similarly remote areas that require long, rough drives. Over the Veterans Day weekend I headed out to the frontier-like Black Rock Desert with one of my buddies. No matter which way you cross the desert, it's at least 70 miles between paved roads and 100-plus miles to the next gas and supplies.

The Black Rock Desert is the ancestral home of the Northern Paiute and was one of the most difficult stretches of the emigrant trail to Oregon and California. Today it is part of the BLM-managed Black Rock Desert -- High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, a little-visited region of dry lakebeds, volcanic mountain ranges, scenic views, wilderness areas, and wildlife. The 1.2 million acres offer endless opportunities for exploration with 90 miles of primitive roads and eight wilderness areas. Popular activities include driving, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, photography, hunting, hot spring soaking, rock hounding, and ATV riding.

Excluding the annual August "Burning Man Festival" when more than 50,000 people flock to the area, the desert sees few visitors. Wildlife greatly outnumbered people -- deer, pronghorn, and wild horses. A herd of bighorn sheep also inhabits the area, but we didn't manage to spot it. A nice side effect of the area's remoteness is the magnificence of its nighttime star show -- one of the brightest I've seen anywhere.

The most common route into the Black Rock Desert starts at Gerlach, 105 miles northeast of Reno. This tiny town of less than 200 people is the last stop for gas and supplies before heading out into the outback. The first 10 miles out of Gerlach on County Highway 34 are paved but that ends when you turn on Solider Meadows Road at a large sign that reads "Soldier Meadows Guest Ranch -- 50 Miles."

For the first 30 miles of your journey from Gerlach, a great playa (dry lakebed) of white clay silt stretches out to the north and east. This 35-by-12-mile expanse is a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan. Still devoid of vegetation thousands of years after the lake dried up, it provides a starkly beautiful contrast to the colorful mountain ranges that surround it. This flat surface provided the ideal location to set the sound barrier-breaking world land speed record of 760 mph in 1997. Visitors to the desert are allowed to drive on the playa when it is dry.

Most visitors camp at primitive campsites along the roads. One of the most developed of these is at Soldier Meadows where the BLM maintains six campsites and an outhouse. Adjacent to the campground is a vigorously flowing hot springs creek with several soaking pools. Outside of camping, the only other option available to visitors is to book a reservation at the nearby Soldier Meadows Ranch and Lodge, one of the few inhabited spots within the desert.

If you like remote, wide-open spaces, the Black Rock Desert might be the place for you. Considering the summer heat, spring and fall are often the best times to visit. During our mid-November visit daytime temperatures averaged 50-60 degrees, but dropped to 10 degrees (possibly lower) at night. Roads can be rough, especially if rain or snow has fallen recently. High clearance is necessary and four-wheel drive is strongly recommended, becoming necessary in times of wet weather and if you plan to travel some of the side roads such as the historic emigrant trail through High Rock Canyon. While most roads are passable year round in good weather, High Rock Canyon is closed from February until the second weekend in May. No matter when you go, be prepared for all possible conditions and pack everything you might need including many gallons of water.

If you're interested in planning a trip to the area, check current conditions and obtain additional information from the BLM website (www.blm.gov/nv) or by calling the BLM directly at (775) 623-1500.

Adam Blauert can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.

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