“I usually go to places with water, trees, rocks. But you picked a place with nothing. I think this is my new favorite place to ride”, Dean commented after the first 20 minutes of our ride. I was so excited to make this first trip to a playa I had passed north of Nixon, NV on my way to Gerlach and the Black Rock Desert. I had studied the maps of this dry lake bed and estimated it was between 65 and 80 miles to circumnavigate the playa on dirt roads and NV 447. I have picked playas as features to explore in northern Nevada because they are distinct to our basin and range geology. While the circumnavigation remains my goal, I promised Dean only a 6 hour day, with as many stops for photos as desired, and a significant lunch break at the halfway point. Oh the concessions I make to retain my riding partners.
The roads and terrain we covered proved NOT to be “a place with nothing.” Winnemuca Lake is formed between the Lake Range to the west, the Truckee Range to the southwest, the Nightingale Mountains to the east, and Selenite Range to the north. Very quickly we spotted the first of dozens of horned lizards (horny toads, Phrynosoma). The ubiquitous Blue Bellies (spiny lizard, Sceloporous) were out as well. We saw our first snakes of spring, a beautiful 3-4 foot specimen, Bull or Gopher snake (Pituophis), in addition to a feisty junior were sunning in the road for us to photograph.
In accordance to my promise to make stops along the way I also suggested we checkout any side roads or attractions as they presented. The first little box canyon excursion made us curious as to how it would be to be out here during a thunderstorm with subsequent flash flood. Clearly water had done much to shape the geology around us. The bathtub shaped walls of the Nightingale Mountains were scored with rivulets that converged into dry washes that ended in a dune system on the east side of the playa.
The first major turnoff from the playa road was Coyote Canyon seperating the Truckee Range from the Nightingale Mountains. The road through it skirted and converged with a large arroyo. Dean was interested in exploring the road and when the road goes up, you go up. What was otherwise a flat day of riding gained an 1,800′ climb to Sage Hen Valley. Along the way we explored a shallow cave with a high ceiling coated in tufa. Above this feature the local landowner posted signs of his private lands asking travelers to stay on the road.
Sage Hen Valley became our lunch spot. The valley swept away from us to the south and east. We ate near Nightingale, a historic mine site, and below Nache Peak (6,552′). Sage Hen Valley offers plenty of open space networked with roads to explore but this was a turn around point. The descent through the canyon back to the playa road was quick trip.
I then decided we would travel about an hour further north before we cut across the southern tip of the playa. My main experience with playa travel was crossing a short section of the Black Rock Desert it was very hard packed and fast. Winnemuca Lake proved to much more variety in our 5 mile crossing. First we hiked across a very fine sand dune system. I had talked Dean out of bringing his fat bike on this trip but by now I think he has stopped listening to my advice. We were dodging shrubs on the intermittent edge of the playa. Then we encountered a course sand section built up into stiff wind formed ridges which gave us a wash board experience. And finally we did cross a wide open expanse of grey and salt-white playa.
Although we were only a few miles from NV 447 the feeling of remoteness was incredible. My repeated comment to Dean was, “We are out here!” The drive was less than an hour and a half from Reno using the first pull off on NV 447 outside the Pyramid Lake Tribe reservation.The roads around the playa were in good condition suitable for fat 700c tires or mountain bikes. I was on my Surly Instigator with 26+ tires and Dean was riding an older mountain bike with 26×2.3 tires. Yes, Dean wished he was on his fat bike for descending Coyote Canyon, where it was rocky or loose in sections, as well as for the dunes. Exposure to the elements is extreme and there is no water. We were riding in the upper 60’s-70 and were comfortable. The potential to ride north on dirt from the canyons on the east side of Winnemucca Lake make this an area I will return to.
Dean shot and edited this little video of our ride. His YouTube channel has more of our adventures as well.