An oasis outside of Black Rock City

By Jim Scripps * Photos by Rick Gunn
Each year, the loin-clothed legions arrive, buzzing with the optimism of fans tailgating pregame at the Super Bowl. They drive janky RVs – thousands of them – still covered in last year’s playa dust, roofs mounted with haphazardly strapped tarps flapping over stacks of second-hand bikes with fur-covered frames. They pour into Reno, Nevada from all directions, but mostly from the San Francisco Bay Area, in the waning days of summer, and fill up on supplies at grocery stores with parking lots configured like dystopian demilitarized zones, cases of plastic water bottles stacked on pallets surrounded by chain-link fence.
From Reno, the artists, bohemians, hipsters, tech bros, polyamorists and Germans who make up the cohort known as Burners leave again, en masse, and head 100 miles north. The train of RVs, some pulling fantastical art cars and trailers of cartoonish miscellany, meet their destination a few miles beyond the northeastern Nevada town of Gerlach, at the edge of the mind-bending, expansive Black Rock Desert. For the week ending on Labor Day, Burning Man hosts 80,000-plus revelers who come together to play, dance, catch a buzz and confer their humanity on each other during maybe the greatest annual festival the world has to offer. Burners call it coming home.

For the other 51 weeks, this part of the Great Basin is a different place. There’s the majesty of the flat alkaline playa, but venture 50 miles to the other side and a classic high-desert landscape rises with pinion, juniper and sage in the shadow of towering red sand and decomposing granite walls. Spring-fed verdant canyons framed with willow and golden aspen create habitat for all variety of critters: sage grouse and chukar, rabbits, pronghorns, deer, elk and bighorn sheep. Under a blue skyline that bends heavy with earth’s horizon, it looks and feels remote, a place measured in geologic time that also brims with life. 

This is where our adventure starts, a bikepacking sojourn up High Rock Canyon to an old Bureau of Land Management desert cabin at Steven’s Camp and a dirt road loop back the next day. For dedicated bikepackers, it’s a relative stroll – the fall weather is mild, and at the end of day one we’ll be met by our sag wagon driver, Jonathan Hurt, flat ground to pitch our tents, a home-cooked meal and two coolers of high-brow beer (this may not even technically count as bikepacking). There are eight of us with varying levels of experience, and seven bikes (two ride tandem). Photographer Rick Gunn has literally ridden around the world (some parts twice), and Kurstin Graham, shop manager at Reno Bike Project, has been on a years-long mission to lay rubber on every desolate stretch of Nevada road and trail, adding to the extensive catalog on his Bikepacking Northern Nevada blog (bikepackingnv.blog). 

Graham is serving as our Nevada backcountry emissary, along with Stacey Wittek, executive director of the Friends of Black Rock High Rock. The non-profit, headquartered in “downtown” Gerlach, connects visitors with the 1.2 million acres that comprise the Black Rock Desert–High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area and its ten companion wilderness areas. Beyond High Rock Canyon, there is a vast amount of land to explore. Photo: Rick Gunn

We’ve decided to meet at a sign at an intersection of dirt roads near the mouth of the canyon at first light. After adjusting wheels, hanging bags and double-checking pack lists, from here we’ll start pedaling a Jeep road up High Rock Canyon with the goal of making about 35 miles by late afternoon. Off-road capable vehicles (with clearance, suspension and oversized tires), can navigate the canyon most of the year, although there are a couple of relatively deep water crossings. We took our trip during chukar season, known outside of Nevada as “fall,” so as we inch along trail on mountain bikes weighed down with snacks, water and gear, we enthusiastically wave hello to the hunting groups driving through, just to make sure they know we’re terrestrial and human. This route is also popular with overlanders, especially in summer.

Husband and wife Marc Pfister and Caille Gash ford a water crossing with their tandem bike during a bikepacking trip in northwestern Nevada’s Black Rock Canyon Photo: Rick Gunn

From the flat edge of Black Rock desert, the walls of the canyon grow around us as we make progress. Our group is following High Rock Creek and crisscrossing through it on a winding double-track dirt road. This area is ancestral tribal land for the Northern Paiute people, and a heavily trafficked route for early white settlers headed west by wagon train to California and Oregon in the mid-1800s. Along the way, the walls tell the stories of that era of westward expansion, with the pioneer graffiti of names and dates scratched into the rock. These imprints of the western land grab also serve as reminder of conflict in this region, another of many in which colonial expansion overwhelmed and took from native people. We are nearing the Oregon border to our north, and California is close to the west. 

Rock graffiti marks the history of westward expansion of white pioneers heading to Oregon and California. The area is ancestral land of the Northern Pauite people. Photo: Rick Gunn

For Wittek, the wilderness around High Rock Canyon has had a spiritual draw since she first started exploring the area at age 16. “All the hubris of culture kind of fades away on the edges, to allow for bigger thoughts about what humanity is, what culture is,” she says. “When you’re there, you see yourself within a billion years of contextual awareness of history.”

Northern Nevada’s topography is expansive, a high-desert escape on the edge of the Great Basin, about two hours north of Reno. Photo: Rick Gunn

Indeed, as we pedal along the solitude is palpable, but there’s also an enigmatic energy that comes from being surrounded by the high desert while moving through it. Traveling by bike allows for a deep appreciation of this effect. We hear the wind, the leaves in the brush and we feel the cool of the creek as we ford deeper sections. Move slowly enough, you’ll see the life force of the desert all around, feel the smallness of yourself in the bigness of the place. As we approach Yellow Rock Canyon, three wandering pronghorn antelope make a silhouette on a rise one valley over before darting down the other side.

Yellow Rock Canyon is one of numerous canyons to explore by bike in the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. Photo: Rick Gunn

Nevadans have made this area part of their identity for generations, but since the early 1990s, when Burning Man moved from San Francisco to what would later be dubbed “Black Rock City,” the area has been inextricably linked to the festival, and the festival to it. Will Roger Peterson, who has led Burning Man’s growth in the desert for the last two decades, made Gerlach his full-time home. “The power of the place is really strong or I wouldn’t have moved here,” he says. “There’s an awe to it. I get to go out there by myself. There’s a real strong sense of being back in nature. Nature’s so big up here. It’s often what’s missing in our lives.”

Spring-fed streams and snowmelt sustain life in the canyons of the High Rock Canyon and surrounding areas. Photo: Rick Gunn

Peterson believes that Burning Man facilitates similar connections. Being in the Black Rock Desert is part of what makes it work. “I feel like we’re introducing people to nature,” he said. “One of the things our culture lacks is a connection to nature. [Burning Man] brings a bunch of people together to experience nature and community and the artistic community … all of the things that we need to put our society back on track.”

If a week of “radical self-reliance” in the desert offers Burners a taste of the region’s natural elements, an adventure with a small group of friends into High Rock Canyon is a whole meal. Our group stays relatively together, and with relatively few mechanical issues along the way. At the end of day one, Steven’s Camp is a welcome sight. It’s basic, done in the “cinderblock aesthetic” architectural style, but it has a remarkable repose on a grassy hilltop, set in a series of grassy hilltops. There’s a firepit, and an adjacent meadow fed by a bubbling spring. Tomorrow will be stress-free, an easy ride back on a graded dirt road. We set up our tents, and talk and laugh into the evening, reflecting on the ride and this place that touches your soul in a way no other place can.     

Far from light pollution interference, the stars shine bright at Steven’s Camp, at the top of High Rock Canyon.Photo: Rick Gunn

A bikepacking rig, set up for desert dirt-riding. Photo: Rick Gunn

Jim Scripps is director of the journalism program at Sierra Nevada University in Lake Tahoe.