Museum Monday: Designated Route

By Claire Schmotzer

Today on Museum Monday, we’re discussing designated routes. We have a steel designated route sign at the Last Chance Outpost, but you might have to spend some time poking around to find it.

Our Post & Designated Routes in the NCA

There are some 800 miles of designated motorized roads and trails in the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA) and surrounding Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). All of these routes are marked with steel Designated Route or End of Route signs. The BLM installed the signs about 10 years ago. They approved an extra sign, which is on display at our visitor’s center.

All of the designated routes in the NCA are unpaved. The graded gravel roads help visitors travel between sites and get from the NCA to Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). Because of legal protections, motorized and mechanized vehicles cannot enter WSAs. The roads are also the only way to access the backwoods when the playa is impassable. The Black Rock Desert Playa itself is the largest open designated route in the NCA. Anyone can drive on the flat, open surface of the playa when it’s dry. But beware any moisture! Driving on wet playa is a sure way to get stuck, and that’s a long hike to town followed by an expensive tow.

The designated route signs are low-visual impact. Sometimes it’s hard to see them. This is on purpose. Whenever we add signs and information to the landscape, we don’t want to detract from its natural beauty. Make sure you have maps and a good guidebook to plan your trip. Check in with us before heading out, especially over the cooler months, when the playa’s often wet.

Route Designations

The BLM has different categories for vehicle use in the NCA.

Stay on the path
  • Open use areas, like the playa, have few restrictions. There isn’t a speed limit on the playa, and all vehicle types have access.
  • Limited use areas, like Soldier Meadows and High Rock Canyon, have some restrictions. Travel only on designated routes in these areas. Going off-road or cross-country isn’t allowed and can damage sensitive habitats and historic sites. The speed limit on designated routes is 45 miles per hour in the NCA. Designated routes in these areas have different types of restrictions. Limited use open routes are always available to vehicle traffic. Limited use limited routes have special restrictions, like seasonal closures. An example is the emigrant trail through High Rock Canyon, which closes annually from February through May. Limited use closed routes are only for emergency and administrative traffic.
  • Closed use areas, like the Calico Mountains WSA, ban motorized and mechanized traffic. You must either hike or ride a horse to visit closed areas. Closed areas are marked. When you plan to visit a closed area, you can drive on the designated route to the end of route sign. Then leave your vehicle. The NCA and WSAs have a lot of cherry-stem roads that lead into closed use areas. Make sure you stay on the trail and park at the end of the route.

Polite and Proper Use

Remember your environmental ethic. For vehicles, we recommend following the Tread Lightly! principles:

  • Travel and recreate with minimal impact: Stay on designated routes. Travel in groups for safety. Don’t drink and drive.
  • Respect the environment and rights of others. Think of the Golden Rule and behave accordingly. For example, limit noise, speed, and dust around camping areas and other users.
  • Educate yourself: Plan your trip before you go. Learn which areas are limited or closed and their restrictions. Pack supplies including food and water, and make sure that your vehicle is up to date on maintenance.
  • Avoid sensitive areas: For instance, stay off the dunes and hummocks around the playa because they’re home to kit foxes and cryptobiotic crusts, and avoid crossing the Soldier Meadows creek or entering hot springs because pollution from your vehicle may harm protected species like the desert dace.
  • Do your part: Don’t litter, and pack out litter that you find. Use raised burn barrels for fire on the playa, and follow burn restrictions. Build a community with other land users- maybe even volunteer to help us take care of the NCA!

Our motto is Access with Safety and Respect. Designated route signs like the one in our office help everyone have a great time on their trips and preserve the NCA for future visitors. Start planning your visit with our OHV page then stop by the Last Chance Outpost in Gerlach for free maps and guides, including new Playa OHV information brochures.

Special thanks to Dave Cooper for help unraveling the history of our route post and providing information on route posts in the NCA and WSAs.

*Correction: Wilderness Study Areas are separate from the National Conservation Area, though both have legal protections. Language was edited to clarify this fact.

Onward!