Ian's Black Rock Pages
Black Rock Desert, Nevada

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Uncertain times for residents of Black Rock... US Gypsum will close the Empire mine and drywall plant Jan 31, 2011. The town's residents can stay until the end of the school year. Then it's unknown at what level USG will maintain caretaker status of the company town. A shut down of all the utilities would force the store and gas station to close too. USG is also the major employer for residents of Gerlach.

The Black Rock Desert's Claims to Fame

The Black Rock Desert is possibly the largest flat surface on the face of the Earth. Well, that's what some locals will tell you. Actually we need to qualify it as possibly the largest alkali/mud flat since there are salt flats that are larger and flatter. But they don't get used like Black Rock because they're more fragile.

It also has several other claims to fame.

It was a stop on the Pioneer Emigrant Trails, including the Applegate Trail to Southern Oregon and the Lassen and Nobles Trails to Northern California.

Amateur rocketry enthusiasts call Black Rock the best launch site on Earth because of the flat lakebed and uncontested airspace above it. AeroPAC hosts 3 high-power rocketry launches (MudRock, Aeronaut and XPRS) and AHPRA hosts 1 launch (BALLS) each year during the dry season.

It's usually a wilderness most of the year, except for one week when the famous, infamous and controversial Burning Man event is held. The people who go there often refer to Black Rock as a city.

The world supersonic land speed record was set there in October 1997.

I've called Black Rock "the Kitty Hawk of the 21st Century" after the world's first amateur launch to space occurred there in May 2004. I led the search teams which recovered the spacecraft.

Introduction to the Black Rock Desert

The Black Rock Desert in Northwestern Nevada is a perennial dry lakebed, meaning that it's dry most of the year. The wet Winters serve to re-flatten the surface of the lakebed, or playa (pronounced PLI-yuh). The locals claim it's the largest flat spot on the face of the Earth. Even if it isn't, there can't be many competitors.

It's as flat or flatter than an interstate freeway. And you can go in any direction. But your tires don't grip the surface like pavement. So don't do any sudden maneuvering at high speeds. Keep that in mind and you'll safely avoid the risk of a rollover accident.

It's so flat that it causes optical illusions. Soon after sunrise on any warm day, the mirage begins. Objects more than 1/2 mile away slip below the horizon as the mirage bends your field of view away from the ground. Yet mountains 20-40 miles away may seem crystal clear. A car driving near the mirage terminator from you may at first appear as a low flying aircraft because you can see some refracted sky below it. Even though it's been described to you, you will still burst into laughter when you see your first flying car. You can't help but laugh when you see that.

It's so flat that driving requires attention in two dimensions to watch for other vehicles. If done properly, this search pattern is very similar to looking for other craft while piloting an airplane or boat .

But caution is warranted... Some years you have to be more careful than others about small dunes nicknamed "playa serpents" that can form in seemingly-random places, usually downwind (northeast) from any site where the playa surface has been disturbed and loosened. And ruts along travel-worn paths and from former improperly-cleaned-up campsites can be hazards too. These hazards can all be difficult to see in time if you drive too fast.

It's a wilderness. Anyone telling you about Black Rock is not saying the whole story unless they tell you that. It has been left nearly pristine by previous generations and we owe it to following generations to leave it for them as well. That means pick up every last scrap from your campsite and anywhere you go. Pick up garbage anywhere you find it - it doesn't belong there. Leave no trace.

It can be dangerous for the unprepared. Don't travel alone on the playa. Don't go anywhere without a two-way radio that people wouldn't know to look for you. Don't travel on the playa without enough food and water in case your vehicle breaks down or gets stuck in a patch of mud. (See "How to avoid needing a rescue at Black Rock".)

If you will be venturing away from an established camp site on the playa, bring a GPS with you or you probably won't find your camp again. Remember, due to the mirage you can only see along the surface about 1/2 mile, more on cool days, less on hot days.

Up until recently, the nearest cell phone coverage was 80 miles to the south. In July 2009, AT&T installed a cell site in Gerlach, with voice-only service, no data. Verizon roams on the service. We're still collecting more reports. It doesn't even reach the "3-mile entrance" up the playa - so if you're out of range, there's no way to call 911! Outside of the cell coverage in Gerlach, the only phone coverage is by satellite phones by Globalstar or Iridium. The best communications solution continues to be to have at least one licensed Ham Radio operator in every group that ventures from your campsite. And have Hams at your group's base camp. With a mobile Ham radio, you can transmit with enough power to talk anywhere in the Black Rock area. However, if your group doesn't have any Hams, Family Radio Service handheld radios will work for short distances (a couple miles at best if the antenna is outside your vehicle) on the playa. CB Radios may also work for several miles on the playa, but are vulnerable to interference via HF propagation of distant CB stations.

If you think this isn't really serious, let me mention that on many of my trips to Black Rock, I end up participating in some kind of rescue of someone who got stranded. People who were prepared had water, snacks, GPS and radios with them. They could wait for a rescue to arrive and assist in locating them. In those cases, the rescue was quick and only their pride was hurt. But people who weren't prepared have been in varying stages of dehydration which made their trip into a nightmare by the time we found them. And it could have been worse. Though I haven't seen this first hand, people have been found dead in the Black Rock region who got stranded unprepared and didn't survive for rescue to reach them. Don't let that happen to you or people who travel with you.

Current info: roads, weather, news

Services and supplies near Black Rock

See also my Black Rock Camping Checklist.
Nearest camping supplies
Empire Store (Empire)
Nearest fuel
Bruno's Shell (Gerlach) - more expensive, open 24 hours
Empire Store (Empire) gas station (775)557-2383 - now with car service/repair shop as of Oct 2009
Nearest food
Bruno's Restaurant (Gerlach)
Empire Store/Deli (Empire)
Nearest lodging
Bruno's Motel (Gerlach) (775)557-2220
Black Rock Bungalow (Gerlach)
next-nearest motels are at I-80 in Fernley (70 miles south of Gerlach)
Nearest medical facilities
small clinic in Gerlach
Lassen Medical Center (Susanville)
  • moved to upgraded facility in 5/2003
  • nearest hospital heliport to Black Rock
  • phone (530)252-2000
Washoe Medical Center (Reno)
  • nearest major hospital w/ trauma center
  • phone (775)982-4100
Enroute fuel
Pilot Travel Center, I-80 at Exit 46 (Fernley)
truck stop, Hwy 447 near I-80 at Exit 43 (Wadsworth)
others in Reno, Sparks, Fernley and Lovelock
Enroute camping supplies
Cabela's (Verdi/West Reno), at Boomtown off I-80 exit 4 near CA border
REI (Reno), Plumb Lane west of US395/Airport
Costco (Reno), next to REI
Wal-Mart (North Reno), N McCarran east of US395
Wal-Mart (Susanville, CA), Hwy 36 at River Rd
Wal-Mart (Winnemucca), I-80 at Exit 176
Enroute electronics supplies
Radio Shack (Fernley) on Hwy 343
Radio Shack (Sparks) at Silver State Plaza
Radio Shack (Susanville, CA) next to Wal-Mart
Radio Shack (Lovelock) 12th St downtown
Radio Shack (Winnemucca) Hanson St downtown

Annual rocketry events at Black Rock

Three prefectures (regional chapters) of the Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA) hold seven annual high-power rocket launch events at Black Rock. Spectators are strongly discouraged on research/experimental launch days. If you'd like to see what high-power rocketry is, come to a regular launch. The dates below are the usual times of year that each event is planned. The organizations post calendars on their web sites by Spring each year. Note: BLM charges these groups $5/day/attendee - so spectators cost money. Upon arrival, please find registration and offer to pay your share. Or show more support by joining the organization if you like what you see.

General Black Rock links

Pages about the Black Rock Desert at my site

Pictures I have taken of the Black Rock Desert

I've posted literally thousands of pictures of Black Rock on my web site.

Black Rock info from Stratofox

Stratofox is an aerospace tracking and recovery team.

Respect for the Wilderness

In this case "wilderness" just means the outdoors...

Black Rock info at AeroPAC

AeroPAC is the Association of Experimental Rocketry of the Pacific.

Black Rock info at University of Nevada, Reno

Black Rock info at BLM

The US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the landlord of publicly-owned lands at Black Rock

Black Rock info at USGS

These are other government-provided links about Black Rock

Federal Wilderness Areas at Black Rock

In this case "wilderness" is a federal land designation

Airports in the region

Airports are listed in order of distance from the town of Gerlach, only the nearest airport for its level of service in any given direction.

Local Government Links

Controversial Topic: Black Rock Impact Structure

Even though this is a theory I initiated, I'll list it among the controversial topics because that's what it is. At least until more research is done.

In January 2007, I discovered a possible impact crater at the Black Rock Desert. The Stratofox team and other volunteers have assisted in researching it. It'll be called "possible" or "suspected" until geologists confirm it and papers are published. You can see the evidence so far for yourself. We'd appreciate any assistance in investigating this theory.

We had been observing rock patterns like breccias and deeply fractured rocks. The theory got a boost in January 2009 when I found a 54-mile/87km ring in the terrain surrounding the Black Rock Desert, an apparent deeply-eroded rim which happens to include 7 mountain ranges and all the highest peaks in the region. But a scientifically-accepted proof can only come from finding evidence of impact shock in the rocks.

Critics have dismissed the theory because I'm not a geologist. Others because very specific proof is required for impacts. Most proposed impact theories start with skeptical reactions and have an uphill path to earn acceptance through field research.

This is listed as a "possible" impact structure on the Impact Field Studies Group's Impact Database. In this case, possible means it is neither rejected nor confirmed, and is assigned no particular probability until further study.

Controversial Topic: "Granite Fox" Coal Power Plant

A coal power plant was proposed west of the Black Rock Desert by Sempra Energy of San Diego. Presumably it was named for the nearby Granite Range and Fox Mountain. The proposal was withdrawn in Mar 2006 under strong opposition.

Controversial Topic: Burning Man

This annual event is both famous and infamous for bringing about 48,000 attendees to a week-long festival at Black Rock. Proponents claim it's an artisan fair and a marvel of civil engineering. Opponents decry the lawless atmosphere, drug use and issues with a nearby permanent "staging area" on ranching lands.

Controversial Topic: National Conservation Area

While intended to protect historical landmarks and conserve the environment, some worry this will become increasingly restrictive on recreational uses of the Black Rock Desert as bureaucrats are given possibly-unchecked regulatory authority.

BlackRockNevada.Info is maintained by Ian Kluft. Internet hosting is by Layer42 Networks.

This Black Rock info was previously located on Ian's personal web site from 1999-2009.
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