Ride Report; San Emidio Desert

Hillcrest Road drops down to Empire Farms, San Emidio Desert

April, 27 2020 The San Emidio Desert has been on my list of places to visit for years now. If you are driving on Nevada State Route 447 between Nixon, Empire, then Gerlach it is on your left or to the west. Unfortunately you don’t get to see much of the desert as most of it is hemmed in by the Lake and Fox Ranges. North of Empire starts the Black Rock Desert although to the uninitiated the Black Rock is mostly to the north of Gerlach.

Textured desert as a result of geothermal activity
Variety in geology shaped by the forces of Basin and Range

Dean Magnuson and I crossed the Lake Range at Three Mile Canyon and climbed San Emidio Canyon on a great day trip. I am often looking for roads that cross mountain ranges and the Lake Range has few roads. The intention to return was set. Just to the north of Three Mile is a power line accesss road and to the north of that is the turnoff for Empire Farms and the geothermal plant on Hillcrest Rd. This is where my ride began.

San Emidio Canyon, into the Lake Range, Tohakum Pk

After a few fast miles on pavement I had crossed the low shoulder of the north end of the Lake Range. I turned south on a groomed dirt road headed past a mostly invisible (except by satellite images) open pit mine. I couldn’t find any specific information about the mine. Next up was the Ormat geothermal power plant. Just outside the plant were some unusual geologic formations that I wonder if they are related to the geothermal activity in the area. Nevada rocks keep me curious.

White Sage Flat

Beyond the power plant I started to loop west crossing the point where Dean and I had crossed into the desert and approached the mouth of San Emidio Canyon. Dean and I climbed into this canyon but also enter the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Reservation. Currently the reservation is closed to non-tribe members so I respect the tribe’s wishes.

Boundary to Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation, I will return to ride Sheep Pass

I crossed White Sage Flat on a road that has several arroyos crossing it reminding me of the the power of some of the storms we get in northern Nevada. I wish I could be a fly on the wall for some of these events, but I wouldn’t want to get stuck in the impassible mud. The next feature is a cattle guard and fence line at the reservation boundary. This is the entrance to Sheep Pass in the Fox Range. I look forward returning to this when prudent.

Crossing arroyos, the insects and birds were deafening over the silence of the desert
Looking south

Turning north the roads are so little used the desert has reclaimed them. I made my way to Trail Canyon and the road’s end. Beyond the roads is the Pole Creek Wilderness Study Area. To exit rather than backtrack I noticed the the arroyo that created Trail Canyon eventually crosses the road I wanted to be on, so down I went! The soft creek sand was fun to slalom through. The 3″ wide tires and maintaining a bit of speed make this possible. Lower in the desert the arroyo started to close in on itself but I made it to the road before it completely petered out in the sagebrush.

End of the road in Trail Canyon
Descending the arroyo at the mouth of Trail Canyon

My next target was Rattlesnake Canyon. This “Cherry Stem” into the Pole Creek WSA satisfies that itch to bike in wilderness areas. I didn’t see any snakes but the lizards were out. I saw my first Desert Peach in bloom, always a favorite. The road continues a bit to the west and south. I would return to see where these go.

Top of Rattlesnake Canyon at a choice piece of private property

The next canyon I was hoping to visit was Rodeo Canyon. Unfortunately access is blocked by Empire Farms. Too bad. But I did a little climb to Jackass Springs before making the big loop around the Farms.

Jackass Spring, not a lot of water on this ride

I followed the “road” along the Farms’ fence line and the ride was going well until their irrigation flooded the desert to the east. Now I was trying to skirt a “wetlands” complete with blackbirds flitting about. Beyond the Farms I was nearing the transition between the San Emidio Desert and the Black Rock Desert.

Looking north to the Granite Range and Black Rock Desert

Now I was following a power line to Cottonwood Creek. I don’t like following power lines. I don’t like the crackle of high power transmission, I don’t like my view blocked by steel towers and transmission lines. But I do like long straight roads that get me places. I have a mantra, there always needs to be a reason for a road.

Cottonwood Creek, looking forward to exploring this soon

Cottonwood Creek was a surprise. If it had come earlier in the ride I would have pushed into the Fox Range. The road is the dry creek bed so the sand requires extra power. It is now on the list to return, maybe on the fat bike and explore the canyons of the norther cap of the Fox Range.

Working my way north
The north end of the Fox Range

Heading north I traveled along the east side of the northern tip of the Fox Range to the tracks of the Western Pacific railroad. At this point my intention was to cross the Black Rock Desert to Empire. There were signs on my route that the road was being reclaimed and to stay off. While one might assume it is ok to cross by bike, I choose to respect the wishes of land managers. So I continued north to Gerlach. After passing along Godeys Rock I crossed Godeys Gap, the separation between the Smoke Creek and Black Rock Deserts.

Looking to the Smoke Creek Desert
Selenite Range across the southern tip of Black Rock Desert

I reached SR 447 where Granite Point dips down to the highway. At this point I decided I would make time on the highway back to the car. I passed through a very sleepy Gerlach. A few tourists passed me on my way to Empire. The rumor was California’s San Francisco Bay Area was flocking to the Black Rock Desert. If a dozen Bay Areans were out on the playa it would seem like a flock. Plenty of room for social distancing. The Empire Store had a few local customers. Then I was back at my car after admiring the crest of the Selenite Range.

An eerily quiet Gerlach
Along SR 447

By the numbers: This ride was 75 miles, about 25 on pavement and 50 on dirt roads of varying quality. It was 98% rideable as the flooded section along Empire Farms required some hike-a-bike. As a desert playa loop the climbing, about 4,300′, was primarily in exploring the canyons.

The highlights of this route is in its mystery. What is this hidden desert tucked to the south of the great Black Rock Desert? What separates the two? Lying between the Lake and Fox Ranges, how do these mountains come together? Then there are the numerous canyons to explore, San Emidio, Stag, Sweetwater, Sheep Pass, Trail, Rattlesnake, Rodeo, and Cottonwood Creek just to name the named!

2 thoughts on “Ride Report; San Emidio Desert

  1. Robert Rollins

    Really nice images and captions. Thanks much for your tour of the area. Last spring and again in the fall I shot a lot of images in the High Rock Canyon area, north east of Gerlach, You can see some of the images I shot in Nevada Magazine in the latest may/June issue. You have a nice touch photographing.Thanks again.

  2. Excellent ride. I really love the remoteness of this area. Nice to see some old roads being reclaimed by the desert, a feat that seems to take forever in this fragile environment. Really like your comment, “…there needs to be a reason for a road.” Too bad the Natl Forest Service, largest road-building entity in the world, doesn’t practice this.
    Time to go ride. Nice post.

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