October might become an annual Black Rock Desert – High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area trip. Last year we made our way through High Rock Canyon and with the help of our journalist friends, Jim Scripps and Rick Gunn it became a feature in Adventure Sports Journal. Carlo Luri suggested I do it again, so here we go! I had a route in mind, one I had written-up for Ride with GPS’s Ambassador Program. Their ride publishing feature is the most full-functioned template I have encountered. It allows for fully integrated ride descriptions with detailed maps and photos. I decided to feature The Black Rock Desert Hot Springs Loop because everyone loves hot springs, crossing the playa is a unique experience, Black Rock Point was named by the first American explorer John Fremont, the route follows portions of the Applegate Emigrant Trail, the solitude gives you a place to imagine the experiences of the first people to walk this land and be its caretaker for thousands of years before us, and the route is rimmed by several mountain ranges and wilderness areas, all exemplifying the NCA. Ultimately I want the riders to have a primer to riding in the NCA to inspire future stewardship. This was my longest group trip to date, 100+ miles, with the most participants, 9. Of those 9, 4 I was riding with for the first time, and 3 were bikepacking for the first time! Great stats for any group, long live BurritoPackingNV!
For trips out at the Black Rock I like to start them at the Friends of Black Rock High Rock visitors center. I think it is important to indoctrinate visitors to the only resource supporting this vast area. It is an easy promise to make, that your trip to the NCA will only be enhanced by research on Friends’ website and a chat with whoever might be staffing the center. More over it is the first principle of Leave No Trace, Plan Ahead and Prepare. No one can help you more than Friends. For this trip, Karleena Hitchcock and Stacey Wittek greeted us with coffee and snacks. They answered all our questions and had stories for every part of our trip. For some this was their first visit to the Black Rock, others it was their first visit outside of Burning Man. It was going to be a great trip!
We started at 12 Mile Access point. Noah, Courtney, Corby, Meg, Peter, Marty, Alan, and Marc… what a group! We had about 19 miles of flat fast playa to cover. What a sensation, landmarks in the distance seem motionless for long periods, close your eyes, keep pedaling, all very strange sensations. We could have visited Coyote Dunes, we could have extended the trip to Frog Pond and Trego Hot Springs all possibilities for a three day trip. As we approached the dunes on the east shore of the playa at Black Rock Point the designated route was lined with a pole fence to keep visitors out of fragile dune ecosystem. The NCA is designed to preserve the landscape with minimal alteration. The pole fence is a reminder of the value of preserving such a habitat.
We regrouped at Black Rock Hot Springs, below Black Rock Point. There really is a Black Rock that all of this is named after. The Spring and the numerous springs along this eastern shore of the playa are responsible for acres of lush green vegetation that was critical feed for emigrants on their way to northern California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. To me it just made me wonder after crossing the barren alkali flat, “where am I surrounded by all this green?’ This is a great place to stop and enjoy the silence. Then the silence is broken by a songbird hiding in the tall grass wetland produced by equally hidden springs. We pushed north through the dunes to Double Hot Springs, the next key stop along the emigrant trail.
Double Hot is famously know for its twin pools of extremely hot water. The pioneers did their wash as well as cook their meals in it. You can feel the heat of the water even from a distance. The group scouted around the oddity of having water so close to magma that it boils to the surface. If you are inclined to take a soak there is a tub with water diverted to it that has cooled to an enjoyable temperature.
We continued north along the Black Rock Range. We passed Hardin City, the silver boom town that only fizzled. We were now riding along the edge of the Pahute Peak Wilderness Area. Riding the edges of wilderness area is a theme when bikepacking the NCA. The NCA is home 10 wilderness areas within 800,000 acers and yet has 500 miles of designated routes and trails. If you expand this scope just beyond the NCA’s boundaries the figures grow exponentially. The options for bikepacking can fill years of dedicated exploration. If you only have a week or weekend to ride you will be tasked with making a hard choice. The wilderness area do not get in the way! They are stitched together by roads where in one direction you are looking into one wilderness area and in the opposite you are looking into another, as far as the eye can see! You will be surrounded by the solitude that only wilderness can offer. From the designated routes you are teased by “cherry stem roads” that poke into the wilderness. You already are motivated by the curiosity of, “Where does this road lead?” so follow it! You won’t be disappointed.
Our next point to regroup was Mud Meadow Reservoir. Here is a crossroads with Soldier Meadows Road marked by a surprising body of water, the result of damming Mud Creek that would naturally flow into the Black Rock Desert playa. I have heard opinions for the undamming of Mud Meadows Creek where the natural flow would be more beneficial to wildlife but I haven’t seen a proposal for the removal of the dam.
As the sun was dipping behind the Calico Mountains we made our final push to the Soldier Meadows campground. There were a few folks dispersed camping outside the campground as well a handful in camp. We setup camp in a clearing in twilight. The home tour ranges from a hooped bivy to tarp tents and 1 and 2-person tents. Big Angus seems to be a popular brand on all these trips. We gathered around for dinner, story time, and flask sharing. The moon rose as the sun set and it was a bright night.
The next morning coffee was served in the hot springs. The morning warmed quickly so no one was chilled getting out of the tub. As we were packing up I couldn’t help but to ask Courtney and Noah what sort of trips they had been on in the past. Courtney answered, none – this is our first bikepacking trip. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I asked for clarification. Noah added, their success was the product of over-planning. From my perspective their trip was flawless, from bikes, to gear, to fitness, to attitude – I didn’t see a chink in their bikepacking armor. I asked Noah for details on their over-planning: they both have a love for human powered adventure. They acclimated to long days in the saddle and tested their bikes and abilities over a variety of terrain. They budgeted and invested in quality gear, “buy once, cry once.” They researched how to pack their bags. They connected to the bikepacking community, Bikepacking Northern Nevada and BurritopackingNV. Noah had long chats with a good buddy who had experience bikepacking in Alaska. Noah had lived in Arizona so felt a sense of place connection to Nevada’s desert as well. Noah added that beyond all the planning and desire to get out on a trip there needs to be the activation energy that only a solid, friendly group can provide. I can speak for our bikepacking community that we are lucky to have Noah and Courtney.
Our return on Soldier Meadows Rd was a very different experience than our ride out. The weather had made a change. Outbound was still and warm, now we had a stiff headwind and ominous clouds. On the horizon we could see rain showers. It was interesting perspective seeing the Black Rock Range from a distance knowing the day before we were riding along its base. Soldier Meadows Road was a much different route than the two track we had been following the day before, in some ways the washboard sections seemed much rougher than the rocky two track on the other side of the playa. And then there was the traffic! On day one we saw a few motorcycle riders at Black Rock Point. Today we must have been passed by at least 4 pickups returning as we were from Soldier Meadows! This was a real traffic jam for the Black Rock. Even on the busiest of days you will experience solitude in Black Rock Country.
Even though we had to endure a headwind on the return the change in weather had a lot more to offer. Clouds were marching towards us from the south. As they blocked out the setting sun deep shadows were cast across the playa, alternating what is in contrasting light; mountains vs the lake bed. As the clouds crossed the Granite Range you could see squalls of rain and snow.
We regrouped at the vehicles for a beer and a chance to say farewell to a new group of friends. And then Stacey and Damien showed up from a day of stewardship in a Friends of Black Rock High Rock truck. They had been removing abandoned barbwire fencing and we saw bundles of barbwire near the entrance of Soldier Meadows, evidence of their recent efforts. Meg became the newest member of Friends of Black Rock High Rock by finding, documenting, and disposing of a Mylar balloon. These balloons are such an eye-sore Friends has placed a bounty on their heads. I encourage you to learn more about Friends groups in your area or the places you visit (Lands Conservation Foundation), get involved, protect our wild places.
This had been a great trip. So many new adventurers. Peter pointed out how great it was to see couples participating. We have had some great pairs on our trips, Carrie and Nick, Caille and Marc, Meg and Corby, and Courtney and Noah. What is next? Marty is off to the Baja Divide. The rest of us are planning trips for the next few months. As far as next October’s trip to Black Rock Country I am thinking the route needs to include Fly Canyon. But there will surly be trips to the NCA in between. Peter and I talked about a trip to the micro playas above Black Rock Point, it’s a plan! Huge thanks to everyone on this trip, especially for sharing their photos, perspectives and laughs.