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Black Rock Desert
Black Rock Desert playa and Old Razorback Mountain
Country United States
State Nevada
Part of Great Basin
Location lakebed/playa
 - elevation 3,848 ft (1,173 m)
 - coordinates 40°54′37″N 119°03′18″W / 40.91028°N 119.055°W / 40.91028; -119.055
Basin 11,600 sq mi (30,044 km2)
Area 1,000 sq mi (2,590 km2)
For public Federal lands (including the playa) are open to the public with regulatory restrictions. Some private lands are in the region and are closed to the public.
Easiest access State Route 447
Timezone Pacific (UTC-8)
 - summer (DST) PDT (UTC-7)
location of Black Rock Desert in Nevada

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 ft (150 m) of water.[1][2]

The area was used in the mid-1800s by branches of the California Trail and Oregon Trail for settlement of the US West Coast.[3] Since then, the area has been host to scattered mining activity. The Black Rock Desert also hosts various recreational, scientific, commercial and record-breaking activities which take advantage of the playa's enormous flat expanse.

Most of the region 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.[4]



Black Rock Point[5] with mirage

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. The Black Rock Desert is separated into two arms by the Black Rock Range. It lies at an elevation of 3,848 ft (1,173 m)[6] and has an area of about 1,000 sq mi (2,600 km2).[7]

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 sq mi (30,000 km2)[8] including the Upper and Lower Quinn River, Smoke Creek Desert, Massacre Lake, and Thousand Creek[9]/Virgin Valley[10] 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.

The following mountain ranges are within or bordering the Black Rock Desert region.


Thrust SSC team after land speed record, November 1997
CSXT first amateur rocket launch to space, May 17, 2004

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.[3] 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.[5] 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 a 1997 successful attempt on the World Land Speed Record[11]. In 1983, Richard Noble drove the jet-powered Thrust2 car to a new record of 633 mph (1,019 km/h). 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 766 mph (1,233 km/h).

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[12 ] set at Black Rock:


Prospecting and mining has occurred in the area since the 1800s. US Gypsum Corporation operates a gypsum mine and drywall (brand named Sheetrock) manufacturing plant in Empire.[16][17][18] 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.[19] An opal mine is in the base of the Calico Mountains on the west side of the desert.[20]

During World War II, the Black Rock Desert was used as a military bombing range.[21]

Black Rock's unusually flat landscape has been a recurring set for movies, TV, videos and commercials. Examples include The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), The Misfits (1961), Far From Home (1989) and MythBusters (2003, Episode #1: Rocket-Assisted Chevy).


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

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 or early August, and "eXtreme Performance Rocket Ships (XPRS)" in September.[22] The Arizona High Power Rocketry Association (AHPRA) hosts "BALLS" in September. It is a significant launch site for high power and amateur rocket hobbyists. These organizations arrange airspace waivers from the FAA up to altitudes of 100,000 feet (30,000 m) and sometimes higher.

The flat surface and frequent winds also attract land sailing enthusiasts.[23] Similarly, glider pilots from Reno host a regional annual soaring race from Reno to Black Rock called the Gerlach Dash.[24]

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.[25]


Black Rock Point[5] in dust storm

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.[26][27] 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.

Typical hazards include muddy surface, vehicle breakdowns, dust storms, hot days and cold nights. Dehydration is always a factor in the desert. It's easy to get lost on the vast flat surface. The lakebed and dirt roads are generally impassable in the wet season.

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.[28]


The main highway in the area is Nevada State Route 447 from Interstate 80 at Wadsworth and Fernley to Gerlach.[29] 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.[30]

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. Union Pacific Railroad (owner of the WPRR line) operates a freight switching station in Gerlach. There is no passenger rail service in the area.

The Empire Airport[31] in Empire has two unpaved runways.[32] Light aircraft have also landed on the Black Rock Desert playa to attend events there. The nearest commercial airline service is at Reno.

It is possible to drive on the Black Rock Desert playa when it is dry. See the Hazards section above. Parts of the playa may be wet any time of the year, including after isolated summer thunderstorms. The Friends of the Black Rock Desert organization maintains a current conditions page.

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.[4][33]

Hot springs

Fly Geyser

Black Rock is home to multiple hot springs which attract tourists. However the springs have proven hazardous in the past, as in 2000 when a woman died at Double Hot Springs after her dog jumped into the 200 °F (93 °C) water and she jumped in after it.[34] The family's subsequent lawsuit[35] led BLM to launch a "Stay out and stay alive" advertising campaign, including pamphlets and even billboards along Interstate 80.

Fly Geyser

Fly Ranch[36] features two geysers, one of which is dormant. The other, Fly Geyser, was accidentally formed by a water well drill that hit a geothermal source,[37] and continuously sprays hot water. Fly Ranch is private property and does not allow visitors.

See also


  1. ^ "History". Walker Lake Interpretive Association. Retrieved 2008-11-04.  
  2. ^ "Lahontan State Recreation Area". Nevada Division of State Parks. Retrieved 2008-11-04.  
  3. ^ a b "National Trail Map" (PDF). US Forest Service.  
  4. ^ a b "Background Documents for Black Rock High Rock Emigrant Trails NCA". Bureau of Land Management. 2008-04-07. Retrieved 2008-10-26.  
  5. ^ a b c "Black Rock Point". Geographic Names Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2009-05-03.  
  6. ^ Black Rock Desert Larry Turner
  7. ^ Wright, John W. (ed.); Editors and reporters of The New York Times (2006). The New York Times Almanac (2007 ed.). New York, New York: Penguin Books. pp. 456. ISBN 0-14-303820-6.  
  8. ^ Boundary Descriptions and Names of Regions, Subregions, Accounting Units and Cataloging Units, United States Geological Survey, April 2, 2007,, retrieved 2008-01-11  
  9. ^ "Thousand Creek". Geographic Names Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2008-01-13.  
  10. ^ "Virgin Valley". Geographic Names Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2008-01-13.  
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Lindsey, Clark, - Advanced Rocketry: Records, Achievements & Competitions,, retrieved 2009-05-24  
  13. ^ "Video of the RRS 50 Mile Flight at Black Rock". Rocketry Planet. 1998-07-04. Retrieved 2009-05-24.  
  14. ^ "GoFast Rocket Maximum Altitude Verification" (PDF). Press release. Retrieved 2008-10-22.  
  15. ^ Wade, Mark. "Astronautix - GoFast". Retrieved 2008-10-22.  
  16. ^ "Major Mines of Nevada 2007: Mineral Industries in Nevada’s Economy" (PDF). Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology. 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-12.  
  17. ^ "USG Locations". USG Corporation. Retrieved 2008-12-12.  
  18. ^ "U. S. Gypsum Empire mine (Selenite quarry), Gerlach District, Pershing Co., Nevada, USA".  
  19. ^ Mine Development Associates (January 2006). "Technical Report, Vista Gold Corp, Hycroft Mine" (PDF).,%20Nevada,%20January%202006.pdf. Retrieved 2007-03-25.  
  20. ^ "Little Joe opal mine (Black Rock mine; Little Jo mine), Donnelly District, Humboldt Co., Nevada, USA". Retrieved 2007-03-26.  
  21. ^ Evanoff, John C. (August 2005). "The Black Rock Desert: An Extraordinary Playa". Nevada History. Retrieved 2010-01-13.  
  22. ^ Association of Experimental Rocketry of the Pacific (January 2007). "AeroPAC Schedule". Retrieved 2007-07-08.  
  23. ^ Starrs, Paul F.; Peter Goin (September 2005). Black Rock. University of Nevada Press. pp. 85,234. ISBN 0874175917.  
  24. ^ Lord, Ed; Mason, Clark. "2007 Gerlach Dash" (PDF). BASA Bugle (newsletter). Bay Area Soaring Associates (BASA). Retrieved 2008-10-29.  
  25. ^ "Rock Collecting". Bureau of Land Management, Winnemucca District Office. 2008-03-18. Retrieved 2009-07-30.  
  26. ^ BLM (2007-04-27), Desert Survival Tips,, retrieved 2008-01-08  
  27. ^ Stratofox Aerospace Tracking Team, How to avoid needing a rescue at Black Rock,, retrieved 2008-01-08  
  28. ^ "Husky pilot helps rescue man dying in desert". Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. 2008-07-31. Retrieved 2008-10-10.  
  29. ^ "Nevada State Maintained Highways: Descriptions, Index and Maps" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-10-11.  
  30. ^ "Nevada Log: Routes 0 through 99". Retrieved 2008-10-11.  
  31. ^ "Empire Airport". Geographic Names Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2009-05-03.  
  32. ^ FAA Airport Master Record for 1A8 (Form 5010 PDF), Federal Aviation Administration
  33. ^ "Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area Fact Sheet". Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved 2007-12-29.  
  34. ^ Poole, Gary Andrew (November 1, 2002), "JOURNEYS; Drawing a Hot Bath From the Center of the Earth", New York Times,, retrieved 2008-10-13  
  35. ^ "Double Hot Springs". Geographic Names Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2009-05-03.  
  36. ^ "Fly Ranch". Geographic Names Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2009-05-03.  
  37. ^ Leininger, Merrie. "Playa playground - indulge your primitive side at Northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert". Nevada Magazine. Retrieved 2008-10-13.  

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