Getting to the Black Rock Desert

Getting to the Black Rock Desert is usually a significant effort. This focuses on getting to the rocket launch events there. Though it may be useful for other events as well.


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Empire and Gerlach

You'll normally be planning your trip to arrive at the towns of Empire and Gerlach. You can get specific directions from any mapping web site or your mobile GPS.

The town of Empire has a store. The store itself has ice, a small selection of food and camping supplies and a deli counter which makes good sandwiches to order. There was a business interruption from 2008-2009. Everything is open again. The store re-opened first. Later the gas station re-opened with the addition of a car repair shop.

The town of Gerlach has a gas station, motel and restaurant. The gas station also sells bags of ice. The motel is very basic accommodations - but if you don't like camping then this is an alternative with a bed and a shower.

Be sure before leaving town to have enough water, food, camping supplies (even in case of emergency if you're not camping), and ice before proceeding to the playa.

Coming from California

For people coming from Central California, the Bay Area and Sacramento, the usual plan has been to take I-80 to Reno. In 2009 and 2010, CalTrans has some significant road construction to rebuild I-80 over the Sierras. I-80 was originally built between Sacramento and Reno to support the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley/Lake Tahoe. It is now a 50-year old highway which has been badly beaten up by the harsh high elevation Winters and heavy traffic.

CalTrans has a web site with current construction information at getacross80.com. Most important is the travel information page.

CalTrans has current highway information at 800-427-7623. Or see their online status for I-80. Obviously this is only useful on the California side of the border, since it's by the California state government.

The Donner Pass rest areas, both eastbound and westbound, are closed for rennovation until May 1, 2011. Alternative places to stop along I-80 are the CalTrans rest area at Gold Run, gas station/mini-marts at various exits, as well as the towns of Auburn and Truckee.

CalTrans has no plans for full road closures due to construction in 2010. However, lane closures may cause delays. And traffic accidents can cause unscheduled road closures. Check road conditions when you travel.

Alternatives to I-80 over the Sierras

The frequent lane closures and occasional road closures on I-80 over the Sierras with detours will cause very significant delays in 2009 and 2010. If there's anything going on at all at or near the times you plan to cross, you may just want to leave extra time and take an alternate route anyway. You have a number of choices. Keep in mind that none of these is an interstate freeway - but then again we're using them because I-80 is expected to have times with serious backups and delays.
US 50 via Placerville, South Lake Tahoe, Carson City and Reno
This route takes about an hour longer than I-80. The views of Lake Tahoe alone may make the detour worth it.
SR 88 via Stockton, Kirkwood, Minden, Carson City and Reno
This route takes about 2 hours longer than I-80. This also has very nice scenery in the High Sierras.
SR 70 via Oroville, Quincy and Reno
This route takes about 3 hours longer than I-80. If you're crossing the Sierras in Winter, this can be a good alternate in snowy conditions because the pass is around 5000' instead of 7000+' on the other routes to the south. It may be open when all the other routes are closed or jammed. In Summer it's a last resort unless you have plenty of time and choose it for the scenery of the Feather River Canyon.
SR 32, SR 36 and US 395 via Chico, Chester, Susanville and the Smoke Creek Desert
This route takes about 2 hours longer than I-80. It's the only route from Northern California that does not go through Reno. It's a scenic route with views of Lake Almanor and Mount Lassen. The road becomes dirt at the CA/NV border. You shouldn't take this route alone or in just one vehicle.

Carson City alternatives

Two of the Sierra crossing alternatives take you through Carson City. There are construction and traffic issues along the corridor between Carson City and Reno, where US 395 is being upgraded to become Nevada I-580 (as opposed to California I-580 in the Bay Area and Central Valley), planned for completion in 2011. But this construction is mostly a separate new road. So it isn't nearly the kind of problem as rebuilding I-80 over the Sierras.

If you want to avoid Reno, such as during large events like the "Hot August Nights" car show (August 1-8, 2010), go from Carson City to Fernley via US 50 eastbound and Alternate US 95 northbound. It's actually slightly shorter anyway once you're there.

Getting from Reno to Black Rock

There are mainly 2 routes from Reno to the Black Rock Desert. They converge at Pyramid Lake in the town of Nixon. Both the routes are about the same distance as they go opposite sides around a mountain range. One is on faster roads. The other is more scenic. You choose.

Something to watch for in this area is the lower speed limits in the small towns, as low as 25 mph.

It is unlikely that the State of Nevada or the Paiute Indian Reservation will find funding any time in the foreseeable future to build highway bypasses around these towns. So we'll all just have to co-exist - let's respect the residents and their kids by following the speed limit and driving safely.

And in case the plea for safety doesn't work for you, listen to this... The problem with speeders has led the Nevada Highway Patrol to often set up speed traps in all these towns. So really, just be patient with the small towns and go the speed limit.

Expect gas prices in Gerlach and Empire to be about $1/gallon more than at stations along I-80. I recommend filling up before entering the deep desert.

Alternative #1: I-80 to Wadsworth

This is the faster route. If you need to stop for gas, food and/or ice, you have the most options before leaving the Reno/Sparks area. At Exit 43, there's a small truck stop. Or if you want, there are more truck stops and fast food 3 miles ahead on I-80 at Exit 46. After you're done there, don't get back on the freeway - proceed north on Hwy 427 for 2 miles. Make a right at the junction of Hwy 447 toward Gerlach.

Alternative #2: Pyramid Highway

This is the slower but more scenic route. It's fairly easy to remember the highways to take because they're in numerical order - Highways 445, 446 and 447. There are other ways to get to Pyramid Highway in the Reno metro area. In particular, McCarran Blvd, the loop road around the Reno area is a likely choice to use.

Coming from points east

Coming from Winnemucca and points east or north from there... Some mapping sites, including Google Maps, may direct you to take Jungo Road west from Winnemucca. It's possible. But it's a dirt road with no services. Everyone has a flat tire story from taking that road. Don't go there alone or in just one vehicle unless you're ready for that. Just take I-80 to Fernley. And if the mapping sites don't make it easy to re-route, get directions to "Fernley, NV" and then from there to Gerlach.

Coming from Las Vegas, take US 95 north to Fallon, then US 50 and US 50 Alternate west to Fernley.

Coming from points northwest

Coming from the Pacific Northwest... Mapping sites may offer alternate routes via Jackson Creek Ranch Road and Jungo Road. These are rough dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. Do not travel on them alone or in just one vehicle.

Getting from Gerlach to the playa

Officially NV 447 ends in Gerlach. But the signs are ambiguous about that. There are a mix of signage beyond there that continue as either Washoe County Route 447 or Nevada State Route 447. But that doesn't matter because 1/2 mile after you leave Gerlach, you'll turn right at the for in the road. You'll follow "Old Highway 34", a decommissioned state highway which is still signed with its old number. That's the road that continues to the right along the Black Rock Desert playa.

There are several playa entrances, called "Three Mile", "Eight Mile" and "Eleven Mile". Some people have other names for them. For example, "Twelve Mile" is another name for "Eleven Mile" - there are two entrances near each other at roughly the same spot. None of these numbers are actually accurate - but the names are close enough to the number of miles that the entrances are from Gerlach.

Going to the AeroPac and AHPRA launches, you'll use the 11 mile entrance. The GPS coordinates of the 10-mile entrance are (pick your favorite format)

If it's your first time on the playa, make sure those coordinates are in your GPS so you can get back out again. Also, from about a mile onto the lakebed, stop and look back at the entrance - learn to recognize where Old Highway 34 dips down to the playa level and what the terrain looks like above it.

Not every GPS is useful on the playa. There are some dumbed-down consumer models that hide latitude and longitude and won't accept them for navigation. Those won't be any help at all on the playa. You also need one which can be set for off-road or point-to-point navigation. Any handheld GPS that can also be taken outside and used for hiking can do this. It's becoming less common with mobile GPS's. Try it ahead of time rather than being unpleasantly surprised that your GPS is useless when you arrive at the lakebed.

Driving on the playa

The first thing everyone notices when driving on the playa is that it's wide open. You can drive in any direction.

What not everyone realizes at first is that means you have to watch for traffic in all directions. If you've piloted a boat or airplane then you already know how to do that. If not, slow down and keep looking around for traffic with your head on a swivel. And make all your passengers help look for traffic too.

Your tires don't grip the sandy surface of the lakebed like they would on a highway. So you must not make sharp turns while driving at speed. It's easy to roll your vehicle that way. Rollover accidents have led to very serious injuries - it's a guaranteed way to ruin your visit to Black Rock. So no maneuvering at speed.

Be aware that on any sunny Summer or Summer-like day, the mirage will limit your vision along the surface to about 1/2 mile. So oncoming traffic can fade into view from the mirage at 15 seconds away if both you and they are going about 60 mph.

Like in a watercraft or aircraft, if you are on a collision course, bear right to avoid a collision.

You can tell if you're on a collision course by watching where the other vehicle moves in your field of view. If it isn't moving in your field of view, then a collision is imminent and evasive action is necessary. Don't forget that in a car, you have the option to slow down. That will give you more time to think.

Also be aware that there are small micro-dunes, nicknamed "playa serpents", which are not good to hit high speed. However, it would be worse to cause a rollover accident trying to avoid one at the last minute. So if you can't avoid them slowly, don't bother to avoid them at all - just slow down straight ahead and run over them.

Be very careful about blowing dust. You can't see oncoming traffic in it. If the visibility goes down, your speed needs to go down.

Don't travel where no one knows to look for you. If you're alone and don't have two-way radio communications with anyone who can rescue you, then don't wander off from the track between the playa entrance and the event site.

It's really important not to wander away from potential rescue. The vast expanse of the Black Rock Desert makes it trivially easy to get to places where you can get stranded and survive for days but not be found for weeks. Always carry extra food, water and emergency supplies, just in case.

Especially water. Remember, it's the desert.

Driving in sand storms has been done by GPS. However, it's not always a good idea, especially along the bee-line route between an event and the playa entrance. That's almost begging for a head-on collision. If you must drive in a sand storm, proceed slowly and stay off the heavily traveled track in order to mitigate the collision risk. And if you don't know where you're going, just stop. Expect other stopped or moving vehicles at any time. If that sounds scary, yeah, it should.

Finding the Rocket Launch Sites

The large rocket launch event sites move around each time out of necessity. After 20 years of holding rocket launches at Black Rock, everyone has learned that large events loosen up the playa surface until the Winter season's rains and lake re-harden the surface. Sometimes the lakebed is still wet and the launch has to be moved to a dry spot. So GPS coordinates saved from a previous visit probably won't help.

If you're attending an AeroPac launch, that's the easiest to find. AeroPac places a "cone road" with orange cones spaced at 1/4 mile intervals for many miles onto the lakebed. If you lose sight of the cone road, you may have missed a turn. Just backtrack to find it again.

Do not attempt to find it at night if you aren't experienced with navigating at Black Rock. It's way too easy to get hopelessly lost at night, and possibly stuck in the mud too. Instead, wait at the playa entrance and ask arriving drivers if you can follow them. Make sure they're going to your event! Otherwise you may find you're not welcome in a private camp and can't find your way back.

Directions to AeroPac launches are on AeroPac's web site.

Arizona High Power Rocketry has a link to their annual web site for the BALLS rocket launch, which has directions.


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