About the Black Rock Desert Playa
The Black Rock Playa in northwestern Nevada is one of the largest, flattest, surfaces on Earth, covering approximately 200 square miles. Standing on the playa taking in the 360-degree view is an experience you won’t soon forget.
What Is a Playa?
Desert playas are dynamic, harsh ecological systems that are exposed to lengthy aridity, strong winds, and occasional inundation by salty, turbid, alkaline water during periods of high precipitation.
When they are dry, their openness makes them attractive for hiking, vehicle travel, military activity, and other uses that disturb soils. When they are wet, they sustain a variety of life forms.
The Black Rock Desert playa’s flatness is largely because the playa represents the former bed of Lake Lahontan, an ancient lake that occupied many of the basins in northwestern Nevada approximately 15,000 years ago.
A number of large mountain ranges and other areas of natural and cultural interest surround the playa, together forming an expansive area now contained within the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area.
The playa is characteristically wet during winter and early spring (even during years without rain or snow) when deep mud makes vehicle travel impossible.
Durability and hardness of the playa surface changes between periods of moisture.
In years of heavy rain, the playa is hard the following summer and evidence of vehicle traffic is minimal, which suggests the surface is relatively durable.
Durability and hardness decrease annually between storms. The cumulative decline in these factors, as well has heavier car and truck traffic, is evidenced by lack of hard, compact playa soil and an increase of puffy soils and transitory ripples.
The Black Rock Playa is affected by a multitude of processes, and flooding is one of the more important. Black Rock Playa floods occur every few years or sometimes more frequently.
When the playa does not flood for a few years or more in a row, the surface can transform from a hard, durable surface to one that is soft and loose. With frequent flooding the playa surface is firm and minimal wind-driven erosion occurs.
Aquatic Life on the Playa
Playas are harsh environments for aquatic life because they are infrequently flooded by turbid, saline, and alkaline water that is followed by drought that may last many years.
The climate of the Black Rock Desert playa in particular is semi-arid with mean annual precipitation of about 6.75 in. Maximum summer temperatures can exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and minimum winter temperatures are often below freezing. Evenings can be below 45 degrees in the summer and over 110 degrees in the day.
Nevertheless, there is aquatic life to be found here.
When flooded, the playa supports phytoplankton, bacteria, other microbes, and crustaceans that are a rich food resource for migrating birds.
Most of the aquatic species on the Black Rock Playa are branchiopods – including fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, and water fleas. All of these animals have a common life history where eggs lie encased in dry playa soil and do not hatch until the playa is flooded for enough time for adults to grow and reproduce.
Recreational use of the Black Rock Playa by vehicles and long-term camping decreases branchiopod egg abundance.
Uses of the Black Rock Playa
Use of the Black Rock Playa has increased during the past 25 years, and it is now annually visited by tens of thousands of people and many thousands of vehicles.
The most intense use is focused at Black Rock City during the annual Burning Man Festival, which covers only three percent of the playa.
Intensity of human use varies across the playa. Recreational use is greatest during the summer and autumn along the Soldier Meadows/Double Hot Springs Road and Trego Road (primarily vehicle traffic use), and at Black Rock City (foot traffic, camping, and relatively heavy vehicle traffic annually for a minimum of six weeks late summer).
The potential impact of human activity on the playa is of concern to agencies charged with management of this resource. Since 2006, for example, playa lakes have been smaller every year.
Studies began in 2006 to assess physical processes operating on the playa surface, and to identify aquatic life, in hopes of gaining insights into how both are affected by camping and vehicle travel.
Driving on the Playa
Driving across the playa surface can bring inherent problems. From soft soil, to wet surfaces, cars and trucks can get stuck and people can be stranded for days at a time.