Blauert: Black Rock Desert offers plenty for those looking to get away

12/04/2013 10:04 AM

12/04/2013 10:06 AM

About 60 miles north of Reno, my phone made a combination of sounds that I’d never heard before. The message on the screen informed me that I was roaming internationally and I needed to inform the phone of what time zone I was in.

No worries. In the Black Rock Desert there’s no phone service and time zones are irrelevant. As one of the remotest spots in the lower 48 states, it’s a great place to get lost for a few days. Although we were still 45 miles short of the end of the paved road and the desert’s true beginning, it was time to turn the phone off.

We saw fewer than 10 people over the course of the next three days, but we did see wildlife, stars, and beautiful views in abundance. We made this trip because our first trip last year more than exceeded our expectations and there was still plenty of desert left to explore when it was time to go home. After two unforgettable trips, there are four things that stand out to me as Black Rock “bests”:

•  Wildlife

As dry and inhospitable as the landscape may seem, it nevertheless supports impressive populations of pronghorn antelope, mule deer, wild horses, and wild burros. California bighorn sheep may be spotted with some effort. The nearby Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge (more details next week) provide additional outstanding viewing opportunities.

•  High Rock Canyon

Many pioneers to California and Oregon followed the Applegate Trail across the desert and through this narrow, beautiful canyon. Although less than 20 miles long, we spent most of a day exploring it – the road is rough (4wd and high clearance required) and the scenery requires frequent stops. The most exciting road obstacles were two ice-covered creeks. We broke through ice more than 4 inches thick making the crossings and the water was up to the bottom of my truck’s doors on the deeper crossing.

•  Stars

There are a lot of places were the stars are bright, but this desert may offer the brightest views I’ve seen. More than 100 miles from any major settlement or town, there’s not a hint of light pollution. With low atmospheric moisture and a late-rising moon, the stars really shine out here.

•  Remote and beautiful landscapes

Black Rock offers an astonishing variety of terrains and landmarks, including a 35 mile long dry lake, volcanic mountain ranges, scenic views, wilderness areas, and hot springs. It’s a beautiful landscape that changes color with the sky and is reborn when the mountains are dusted with a light winter snow. With 900 miles of primitive roads and eight wilderness areas, it’s impossible to run out of things to do. Popular activities include driving, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, photography, hunting, hot spring soaking, rock hounding, and ATV riding. Our favorite camping spot is at Soldier Meadows, a primitive campground with a vigorously-flowing hot springs creek that offers several soaking pools.

We’ve made both of our trips in November, mainly because of school holidays. Daytime temps have been in the 50’s to low 60’s while nighttime temperatures have dropped below 10. If you plan on camping, a late September or early October visit might be more enjoyable. Three very rustic, user-maintained cabins with wood stoves for heat are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, though availability is not guaranteed. More reliable guest accommodations can be found at Soldier Meadows Guest Ranch (, a privately owned property within the 1.2 million acres of Bureau of Land Management public lands in the Black Rock Desert.

Roads can be rough, especially if rain or snow has fallen recently. High clearance and tough tires are essential and 4WD is strongly recommended, becoming necessary in times of wet weather and if you plan to travel some of the side roads such as the High Rock Canyon route. 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 plenty of water and a spare tire.

The most common route into the Black Rock Desert starts at Gerlach, 105 miles northeast of Reno. This tiny town of less than 200 is the last stop for gas and supplies before heading out into the outback. You can also start your journey in Cedarville on the eastern edge of California.

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

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