The following appears in the June, 2009 issue of RLife Magazine
I closed my eyes and kept pedaling. You’d be surprised how hard it is to stay upright on a bicycle without any visual reference. It was quiet; no sound of cars, or people, or dogs barking or birds or anything of any kind. Just a slight wind at my back. I opened my eyes. When I closed them I’d been going into the wind. There was nothing and no one in sight. I’d been riding blind for maybe 5 minutes and now Trent, who had been just ahead of me, was gone.
Into the desert
I slowed and stopped, turned every direction. It was my first time out in the Black Rock Desert about an hour and a half northeast of Reno near Gerlach, Nevada. The vast area of almost perfectly flat land is called a playa, which means it once was the bottom of a large lake and the silt and minerals that compose its surface are left over from evaporating water.
The area is 35 miles long and 12 miles wide and there were 6 of us in the group stretched out far enough that when looking through binoculars we could just see the stragglers rising slowly out of the mirage. I found Trent. With my eyes closed and no reference for direction in the completely flat and uniform surface I had swung around and was riding the opposite direction. I turned around and made a B-Line for him and eventually caught up.
Crossing the Playa
Bicycle touring across the Black Rock playa can be challenging. Since there is no drinkable water out there you have to carry everything you want to drink with you. The whole area is open to motor vehicle travel so you are more or less free to roam across it at will. A number of well traveled routes are de facto roads across the playa and depending on the weather and recent traffic they can get you to just about any point.
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.
Don’t mess with water in the Black Rock. When water mixes with the dusty and salty playa surface it forms sticky, heavy, slimy goo that holds on and won’t let go. As the signage warns as you enter the playa from the designated access points, “you will get stuck.”
Beyond the Black Rock
But the Black Rock Playa isn’t the only thing to explore out there. The Soldier Meadow area just up the Soldier Meadows road (dirt but fully maintained and passable) gives you access to camping, hotsprings, the Soldier Meadow Ranch, and is a great staging point for day trips to High Rock Canyon, High Rock lake and Little High Rock Canyon.
There are three ways to stay in Soldier meadow. Two campgrounds are perched on the flanks of the range to the West of the Meadow near a series of hot springs that are suitable for soaking. They’re not really well signed from the main road, but if you head towards the rising columns of steam (on a cold day or morning) you’ll have no trouble finding them.
There is a little hunter’s cabin down in the meadow that is easily spotted from anywhere in the area. It is free, and first come first served. If there is someone there you can ask to join them, but it’s a small cabin. There is a wood stove and a supply of wood for heat, picnic tables, spring beds and a BLM outhouse. On the whole a great little cabin. But it was a tad on the creepy side when I was there by myself in January.
There is also the Soldier Meadow Ranch on the main road as it heads north out of the meadow towards Summit Lake. They have a small ranch house with bathrooms, and a dining hall where they serve hot GOOD meals. After riding all day from Gerlach on our bike tour, the ham, corn, potatoes, gravy, juice, applesauce, salad, coco and pie hit the spot in a MAJOR way. Prices are reasonable and they have heated cabins, grass for camping, and horse and ATV tours of the surrounding mountain and wilderness areas.
High Rock Canyon is a at times a hard core dirt road that follows the old California Trail Route through the mountains. The canyon is beautiful and peaceful as the road is “cherrystemmed” into the High Rock Wilderness. While open to vehicle traffic, the surrounding land is all Wilderness and you are not allowed off the road in motor vehicles.
As the road winds through the canyon and crosses the streams you are flanked by sheer cliffs with 150year old graffiti left there by the emigrants on their route West. The road has many turnaround points, but it is definitely only fully passable by a real 4×4. However it is short enough to be a great mountain bike ride. Ride from the access gate (closed February through May) for a good half day out and back through the canyon.
Driving, riding and hiking around the remote stretches of Nevada gives you a sense of relief from the city, technology and the normal every day life intrusions into your solitude that persistently remind you of where you are and what you’re doing. And it’s easy to loose yourself in the black rock, to literally loose sight of what brought you there, in the stunning mountains, alarming topography and the vast distances. But there’s always that trail, the track you came in on, to prove that solitude, remind you why you came and guide you safely back.
Links and Resources:
- Soldier Meadows Ranch
- Black Rock Desert
- Hiking Nevada
- Hiking the Great Basin
- Nevada Atlas and Gazetteer
- More photos by Sara Jenkins
- More Photos by Mike Henderson
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Mike Henderson is a Reno based Writer, Photographer and Podcaster who loves the fact that the middle of nowhere is so easily accessible in almost any direction in Nevada.