About the NCA
IntroductionThe Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA), is a unit of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) National Conservation Lands (NCL). The NCA is located in northwest Nevada, and was established by legislation in 2000. It is a unique combination of desert playas, narrow canyons, and mountainous areas.
The Great Basin encompasses most of Nevada, the lower third of Idaho, the western half of Utah, the southeast corner of Oregon, and a small portion of northeastern California. The name comes from the geography -- water is not able to flow out and remains in the basin. The Great Basin is a rugged land serrated by hundreds of mountain ranges, dried by wind and sun, and blessed with spectacular skies and scenic landscapes. The Great Basin is sometimes called "the Big Empty." It is big, but it isn't empty. Plants, animals and people have adapted to this region.
Land of Extremes
The Black Rock-High Rock Country is a land of extremes. Wagon travelers on the Black Rock Playa in the 1840s crawled along at less than two miles per hour. In the 1990s the world land speed record was set on the playa at over 760 miles per hour. Surroundings can vary from some of the most primitive, isolated wilderness in the United States to the temporary swarm of humanity at "Black Rock City," when 40,000 people show up around Labor Day for the annual Burning Man festival. One day the weather may be hot and sunny; the next cold and snowy.
In the 19th century the Black Rock Desert was a desolate, harsh landscape that explorers, gold seekers and pioneers struggled to get through on their way to other destinations. The landscape hasn't changed - the isolated vastness, the flat, cream-colored playa, the jagged mountains and the high-walled canyons remain the same. What has changed is the motivation of those who travel here. Today's travelers to the Black Rock seek what the area offers: watching wild horses, finding solitude, driving fast across the playa, launching high-altitude rockets, and retracing historic trail routes. Pioneer wagon ruts and historic inscriptions are visible in sections of the Applegate-Lassen emigrant trail from Rye Patch Reservoir, northwest through the Black Rock Desert and Mud Meadows, then west through Fly Canyon and High Rock Canyon, and on to Vya.
NCA & Wilderness
The Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area Act of 2000 gave special designation to 1.2 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in northwestern Nevada known as the Black Rock-High Rock Country. The Act designated 799,000 acres as a national conservation area (NCA) and 752,000 acres as 10 wilderness areas (378,000 of the wilderness acres overlap the NCA). Congress created these special areas specifically to protect 180 miles of historic emigrant trails used by pioneers to travel from the eastern States to Oregon and California in the mid-1800s. Also protected is the surrounding landscape of rugged mountains and high desert that is largely unchanged since those early days of national expansion. Recreation, hunting, trapping, livestock grazing, commercial events, activities requiring special permits, and previously existing, valid mining all continue in the NCA.
The 10 wilderness areas protect a panoramic landscape forged by the forces of nature along the historic trails and offer visitors vast areas of solitude in which to reestablish ancestral ties to the natural world. Tent camping, hunting, rock climbing, rock collecting, backpacking, nature study and photography are all pursued in wilderness areas. Motor vehicles, mechanical transport, mountain bikes, chainsaws and other kinds of motorized equipment cannot be used in wilderness. Hiking and horseback riding are the methods of access to wilderness, sometimes with the help of outfitters and guides with BLM permits.
Primitive & Vast
Just as was true for 19th century emigrants, today's visitors need to be well prepared in the Black Rock-High Rock Country. In the entire Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area and its associated wilderness areas, encompassing 1,857 square miles - an area the size of the State of Delaware, there are no paved roads and cell phones don't work. There are no improved recreation sites in the NCA or wilderness areas. There are no camper hookups, electrical power or safe drinking water, and very little shade.
There are few road signs, so natural features such as mountains, canyons, distinctive rock formations, playas, and river channels become some of your most important navigational landmarks. It is vital to take maps with you to help orient yourself in relation to these natural landmarks. Please review the information within the Survival section of this eBook.
For those who seek solitude, few places in the contiguous 48 states can rival the Black Rock-High Rock. With the exception of Gerlach and Empire, which have a combined population of about 350, fewer than a dozen people live year-round in this area. Most visitors stay near roads and a few favored spots, such as the Black Rock Desert Playa and Soldier Meadows. It is a place where it is still easy to find a place to be alone. For total solitude, 10 wilderness areas offer lots of room to wander.
Wilderness Areas & Mountain Ranges
Great Basin Geology
Nevada is part of what geologists call the Basin and Range Province; an area extending from northern Mexico to southern Oregon and Idaho that is dominated by long arid valleys separated by north-south mountain ranges. It's a rugged area formed by uplifted and downfallen blocks of the Earth's crust with faults lying along both sides of the valleys.
Click here for NCA Wilderness maps
With 314 mountain ranges, Nevada is the most mountainous state in the United States. Five of these ranges are to be found in Black Rock-High Rock Country; many others are within sight. The higher areas of these five ranges are designated as wilderness areas. The wilderness areas and much of the other mountain areas provide exceptional natural scenery and extraordinary opportunities to experience solitude and the natural environment. The mountain and wilderness country is sprinkled with hidden natural wonders that are well worth a hike or horseback ride into the back country. One such spot is Colman Creek in the North Black Rock Range Wilderness, boasting a rare perennial stream with a waterfall in its upper reaches.
Total wilderness area is 1,175 square miles, which is more than three-quarters the size of Rhode Island. The ten wilderness areas in Black Rock-High Rock Country range in size from 25,000 to 315,000 acres. This vastness provides ample space in which to experience solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation.
Wilderness areas are closed to motor vehicles and mechanical transport and equipment, including mountain bikes, wheeled game carriers, chainsaws, and similar kinds of motorized or mechanized equipment. However, persons requiring the use of wheelchairs may use them in wilderness, but no special accommodations are made for such use. Roads that are outside of wilderness areas or that have been excluded from wilderness designation, such as the 33 cherry-stem roads that dead-end into wilderness areas, are open to motor vehicles, mountain bikes, and mechanical transport and equipment.
There are three outstanding peaks to climb in the wilderness areas. King Lear in the South Jackson Mountains Wilderness, at 8,923 feet is the highest point in Black Rock-High Rock Country and features a nearly 3,000 foot clear prominence at its top.
Pahute Peak (pronounced pi yoot) or "Big Mountain" in the Pahute Peak Wilderness, at 8,594 feet provides great views of the northern part of Black Rock-High Rock Country.
Donnelly Peak is centrally located in the Calico Mountains Wilderness, and at 8,533 feet offers spectacular panoramic views of nearly the entire Black Rock-High Rock Country.
Sites of Interest
Black Rock Desert Playa
The playa is like being on a large lake, except you are on a firm deep layer of silt. It is a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan. This may be the largest playa in the United States. It covers an area about 35 miles long by 12 miles wide. It is where the world land speed record of 763 miles per hour was set in 1997. When the surface is dry, visitors can drive around the playa without regard for following a road. Drivers on the playa must look out for transient dunes, ruts, campers and other vehicles.
With precipitation, some areas of the playa become wet and muddy. Do not drive on wet areas of the playa. You will get stuck. Ask about conditions on the playa in Gerlach before venturing out.
The playa is open to all-terrain vehicle use except at the dunes, vegetated areas and in the southeast part of the playa, which is the site of Gary Cooper's first film, The Winning of Barbara Worth, which was filmed in 1926.
Camping on the playa is unlike any other camping experience. The stars come out at night and the meteorites, too. Campsites on the playa need to have reflectors or beacons to help protect against being struck by motor vehicles at night.
More than 250 species of neo-tropical birds and many other water birds stop in Black Rock-High Rock Country for varying lengths of time. When wet, especially in spring, the playa is a favorite place for these winged visitors to rest and feed. If the playa is wet for a month or so, the shallow waters team with fairy shrimp born of eggs that lay dormant in the silt crust for long periods of time - sometimes for many years. The edges of the playa and the Quinn River Sink stay wet longer than the rest of the playa, which concentrates the fairy shrimp and migratory birds in those areas.
In summer, several commercial activities, competitive events and large organized events are scheduled on the playa.
High Rock Canyon and side canyons
High Rock Canyon is one of nature's masterpieces. It is a narrow defile cut 800 feet deep through layers of dark lava and multi-colored volcanic ash. The canyon can be traversed by high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles except between February 1st and the second week in May when the road is closed to protect wildlife during nesting and lambing times. Hiking is allowed year round. Vehicle camping is restricted to primitive, designated sites only. This is the best place in Black Rock-High Rock Country to view bighorn sheep and raptors.
The Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail passes through High Rock Canyon. Graffiti scratched into the rock walls or painted on with axle grease, known as emigrant glyphs, can still be seen here. These glyphs are important cultural resources graphically documenting a unique period in American history and are not to be damaged or embellished by adding modern graffiti.
Side canyons to High Rock include Little High Rock, Fly, Pole, Yellow Rock, and Upper High Rock, as well as the unusually formed Box Canyon. Each offer hiking or horseback adventures.
Between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago, two landslides blocked the drainage from intermittent High Rock Lake. The second slide caused Box Canyon to go dry and created a new lake outlet through Fly Canyon. Fly Canyon is best known today for its "potholes." These potholes were carved in the bedrock of the canyon by sand and gravel swirled in whirlpools and can reach depths of several dozen feet. One large pothole is a dizzying 78 feet deep. Fly Canyon also contains the visible remnants of a difficult wagon slide traversed by the emigrants.
Mahogany Canyon is closed to motorized vehicles. It has perennial water where nature has reestablished a few trees in the wake of the emigrant migration and now offers hikers a cool, shady respite from the summer sun.
In Pole Canyon, remnants of homesteads begun in 1915 and abandoned before World War II can still be seen. Several of the homesteaders settled on lands that were already owned by a large ranching concern. This resulted in a four-year court battle that was eventually decided in favor of the large ranch.
Yellow Rock Canyon, named for yellowish-green rock composed of volcanic ash altered by plumes of hot water, shelters a stone garage built by homesteader David B. Fox shortly after 1915.
Stevens Camp is the remnants of an old buckaroo camp. There is an old line shack available to visitors on a first-come, first-serve basis. There are several information signs, a good horse corral, and a vault toilet, one of only a few in the NCA!
Upper High Rock Canyon is an extremely narrow, rocky section of the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail that is closed to motorized vehicles. Because of the difficulty of travel there, the emigrants thought it was 10 miles long, but it is actually only one mile in length.
Little High Rock Canyon is considered to be the site of the last Indian massacre in the United States.
Massacre Ranch has a two-room cinder block cabin available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Legend has it that the area was named after a party of emigrants killed by Indians. No supporting information for this supposed massacre can be found. Obsidian, the black volcanic glass, is common in this area.
Parts of two historic trails pass through Black Rock-High Rock Country. In 1843-44, explorer John C. Fremont, with scout Kit Carson and party, traveled from the northwest through High Rock Canyon and Soldier Meadows, along the edges of the Black Rock Desert Playa, and camped near present-day Gerlach enroute to Pyramid Lake and beyond. No traces of Fremont's travels can be found, but he created maps that were used by later explorers and travelers.
In 1846, the Applegate Brothers back-tracked Fremont's route to establish a wagon route to Oregon that would avoid the treacherous Columbia River. Two years later, Peter Lassen took the same route though the Black Rock Country thinking it was a quicker route to his northern California ranch. He got lost and ended up blazing a new road, the Lassen Trail, to get to his ranch. From this combination of interests the Applegate-Lassen Trail was born.
In 1851, William H. Nobles found a cutoff from the Applegate Trail west through present-day Gerlach that shortened the journey to Northern California via today's Susanville. This short cut, known as the Nobles Cutoff, was established as an emigrant trail in 1852. Initially, the trail left the Applegate Trail at Black Rock Hot Spring and traversed the bulk of the Black Rock Desert Playa. In 1856, an alternate route was found that leaves the Applegate at Rabbit Hole Spring and passes by Trego Hot Spring.
Many traces of the passage of these early emigrants remain at various points along these routes, such as wagon wheel ruts, axle grease markings on rocks, and emigrant glyphs. It is possible to follow along much of these trail routes today by vehicle. There are short sections where motorized vehicle routes leave the original trail to protect the evidence of early emigration from damage, but even here the available motorized routes closely parallel the historic trails. The views from these historic trail routes are virtually identical to those seen by the emigrants who traveled here in the early to mid-1800s.
More information on these trails is available from the Oregon-California Trails Association. A virtual tour of the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail is located at Trails West, Inc. A trail guide is also available for purchase from Trails West.
Soldier Meadows Ranch
Black Rock Desert Playa
Gary Cooper made his acting debut in 1926 in a western movie called The Winning of Barbara Worth that was filmed in the southeast part of the playa. This area is closed to motorized use to protect the few remaining traces of this epic of the silent movie era. The film provides evidence that the scenery visible to today’s visitors to Black Rock-High Rock Country were not materially changed by human activities during the tumultuous 20th century.
Please see blackrockdesert.org/ebook