The southern approach to High Rock Canyon in the Black Rock Desert is a graded, relatively smooth road that seems passable for any modern vehicle—but it’s a bait-and-switch.
After entering the 16-mile trail that winds through towering cliffs and affords views of a spectacular landscape, hazards crop up: sharp rocks litter the ruts; the trail’s steep sides can tilt vehicles at alarming angles; gauntlets of water-filled potholes, some more than a foot deep, are common; recent washouts may block the road, which crosses High Rock Creek several times; the canyon’s orange mud is the consistency of wet concrete—and dries like it; piles of fine sand defy traction; and the hefty volcanic rocks scattered everywhere imperil the gas tanks and exhaust systems of SUVs with less than about nine inches of ground clearance.
The remote canyon, about 160 miles north of Reno, is nearly as pristine as it was when Indigenous people walked through it for thousands of years. It is as remote as it was when John C. Frémont came through in 1843, and when Gold Rush emigrants trundled the trail that was dubbed the “Death Route” to California from 1849 to the early 1850s.
A place of breathtaking vistas, it’s also wild and can be dangerous. No “improvements” to the route are ever made. No amenities—or cell phone service—are available.
That’s the point.
“High Rock Canyon is to be managed so it is undeveloped, wild land,” said Dave Cooper, who retired from the Bureau of Land Management 14 years ago and was the first manager for the Black Rock Desert/High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA), created in 2000. The designation encompasses 1.2 million acres of protected public land, including 10 wilderness areas.
Nature and history converge there. “In the conservation area, we have 150 miles of the most pristine sections of the California Trails system that have changed very little since the 1840s and 1850s,” said Cooper, who is on the board of directors of the Friends of Black Rock-High Rock, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the region’s historical, ecological and scenic resources.
“In the NCA, there is wildlife habitat and some endangered species,” Cooper said. “We created a couple of areas of critical concern in those 1.2 million acres—and High Rock Canyon is one of those.”
Formed over millions of years
The steep walls of the canyon, hundreds of feet high in many sections, provide evidence of its genesis. The layers of gray, orange, white and brown rock formations, a blend of basalt and rhyolite, tell of the lava flows from volcanic eruptions more than 17 million years ago. In places, more ancient rock, part of a sea floor that became the west coast of North America, peek out of the walls; the tiny fossils of extinct sea creatures can be found throughout the NCA.
About 9 million years ago, tectonic forces opened faults in the volcanic rock. Water from uncounted storms followed those cracks for millions of years, patiently carving High Rock and its side canyons. The walls of the defiles are dotted with small holes and larger caves, the result of gas bubbles trapped in the lava flows.
The Northern Paiute people and their forebears used the canyon as a migration and trade route for millennia. In December 1843, explorer John C. Frémont and his survey party traveled through High Rock Canyon southward to Pyramid Lake. The pathfinder was seeking a mythical river called the Buenaventura, which was said to flow from the Great Salt Lake to San Francisco Bay.
That waterway never existed, but Frémont found other wonders, including the gorge of High Rock.
“On both sides, the mountain showed often stupendous and curious-looking rocks, which at several places narrowed the valley that scarcely a place was left to camp,” Frémont wrote in his report to Congress. “It was a singular place to travel through shut up in the earth, a sort of chasm, the little strip of grass under our feet, the rough walls of bare rock on either hand, and the narrow strip of sky above.”
In 1846, seeking a safer and more direct wagon road to Oregon, Jesse Applegate and Levi Scott pioneered a route from the California Trail near what is now Rye Patch Reservoir, northwest across the Black Rock Desert and through High Rock Canyon. Peter Lassen guided 12 wagons to California on the route in 1848. Even though the detour was 200 miles longer than the Truckee River Route and crossed nearly 100 miles of a waterless playa, more than 20,000 gold-seekers followed the cutoff for years afterward. The Applegate-Lassen Trail became known as the Death Route.
“On we plodded, my horse and I, over 30 miles from food or drink either way, whether before or behind,” wrote pioneer Joseph Alonzo Stuart, who crossed the playa in 1849. “… (The desert was) a dreary waste stretching as far as the eye could reach—a scene of death and desolation. On either side of the road and almost walling it in were the dead and decaying carcasses of horses, mules and oxen mingled with the deserted and dying beasts of the day. One never can realize the horrors of such a situation.”
After the brutality of the playa, High Rock Canyon must have seemed like a respite, but it was still hard travel for the ox-drawn wagons and weary emigrants.
It remains hard travel today.
Keeping things wild
“That route is for experienced, high-clearance, four-wheel-drive operators only,” Cooper said. “You need the knowledge, skills and abilities to navigate that trail, which will take the better part of a day. It’s a high-risk, challenging type of recreation opportunity—and it needs to stay that way.”
Trundling through the canyon in October, it is easy to imagine what the emigrants endured; their traces are everywhere. Wagon ruts and pioneer graffiti are visible, carved on the cliff walls or painted with axel grease and protected from the elements beneath rock ledges.
“That’s the pristine nature of the Applegate-Lassen Trail,” Cooper said. “The diary accounts tell stories of life and death, hopes and dreams, and the struggles they went through.”
Unlike other historic areas, there are few interpretive signs in the canyon.
“The intent was not to ‘sign’ everything,” he said. “The idea is to allow people to create their own adventure out there, seek out places (and) experience self-discovery.”
Preparation is essential. “Some people go in there who are totally unprepared,” Cooper said. “I’ve heard of people who had three flat tires and had to walk out by themselves. I always recommend that people not go in there alone. … It’s best to have two vehicles or more if you are going to go all the way through.”
Camping is allowed in designated areas of the canyon. Vehicles are allowed only on the main trail. The side canyons, including Fly, Yellow Rock, Little High Rock and Mahogany canyons, offer hiking trails.
“It’s wilderness on both sides (of the jeep trail),” said Cooper, who enjoys hiking into Mahogany Canyon. “Watch the cliffs for bighorn sheep; most of the time, you get to see them.”
At places along Mahogany Creek, the canyon walls narrow into slot canyons. Cliff walls host nesting birds. The canyon floor is often worn smooth, sculpted by water over millions of years. Pools in Mahogany Canyon are the habitat of fish that once thrived in ancient Lake Lahontan, the ice-age lake that once covered about a third of what is now Nevada. The Black Rock playa is one of Lahontan’s lake beds. The plateaus above Mahogany Creek’s headwaters were ancient lava flows.
A ‘place for contemplation’
“It’s a whole different kind of beauty,” said Jenn Welsh of Davis, Calif., who usually hikes in the high country of the Sierra Nevada, but went backpacking in the High Rock Canyon Wilderness last year. “You have the feeling you are in some primeval place or a Western (movie). … The views are incredible.”
Welsh said she had always thought of the Nevada desert as barren, but discovered it is teeming with wildlife and a variety of landscapes. Sierra trails often are crowded, she noted, but Nevada’s wilderness is a place of solitude.
“It’s uncivilized, and that’s its attraction,” Welsh said. “It’s a place for meditation and contemplation. You have the feeling you may be the first human to be there.” There’s a lot to discover, she said.
In High Rock Canyon, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons and golden eagles nest high on the cliffs. Wild horses make their way across the canyon rim. The calls of chukar and quail echo against canyon walls. Rabbits, ground squirrels, lizards and voles scurry across the jeep trail. Rattlesnakes sunbathe on ledges. Mule deer, bobcats and mountain lions make their homes in the canyon.
Wildflowers present a riot of colors in the spring. Travelers through High Rock in the fall will need to navigate high stands of sagebrush, saltbush and rabbit brush. In October, the green willows along the creek bed turn rusty. Aspens along creek beds glow with golden leaves.
The conservation area is protected, but development nibbles at its boundaries. The BLM is leasing nearby hot springs for geothermal projects. There’s a gold mine just outside the northwest part of the area, with exploration for gold and lithium deposits nearby.
“The threats of development are there on the outside of the NCA, but it and the wilderness areas remain protected,” Cooper said. “They should remain that way in perpetuity.”
Reversing the protections would be difficult, but not impossible. “They were designated by Congress, so it would require an act of Congress to undo that,” he said. “It would be very difficult to do, given the popularity of those areas. It would depend on public opinion.”
The region remains a public resource regulated by the BLM. The road through High Rock Canyon is closed from Feb. 1 until the second weekend in May every year to minimize human disturbance on nesting raptors and lambing bighorn sheep. In the wilderness area, mechanized travel is restricted to 800 miles of roads and trails, but the vast dry lake bed of the playa is open for vehicles. Tent camping, hunting, rock climbing, backpacking and other recreational activities are allowed in the wilderness areas. Mountain bikes and game carriers are considered to be forms of mechanical transport and are not permitted.
It’s no Disneyland. When vehicles break down or someone gets hurt, help is many miles away, as is phone service. The weather in the NCA may change rapidly; temperatures can fluctuate more than 50 degrees in a day. It’s easy to get into trouble and very hard to get out of it. Trekkers stranded in High Rock Canyon, for example, may not encounter other people for days—or weeks.
“You need the right knowledge, skills ability and equipment,” Cooper said. “It’s not for everyone. I can’t over emphasize the caution that is needed to go through there.”