Around the Calico Mountains Wilderness Overnight, Rides with Friends #3

Waking up above the playa, Black Rock Desert

We rode for two days and only saw one truck. The solitude of Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trail National Conservation Area made a huge impression on the the ride participants. Here we are, the middle of June, in the middle of spectacular public lands, and we have it all to ourselves. I have started taking this sort of thing for granted. Others who have been on my trips understand this to be normal. But I had riders from Reno, Carson City, Santa Cruz, and London who were obviously impressed. Solitude, even in nature, is something missing in most of our lives.

Rides with Friends; new friends were quickly made on this trip

The ride starts low near the playa. But in the high desert, low is around 4000’. From this vantage the mountains climb to 6-8000’. Some are close, others are miles away. The vistas are huge. After 13 miles north on Soldier Meadows Road we turned west to climb a road that creates the boundary between the Calico Mountains Wilderness and the High Rock Lake Wilderness. The climb begins gradual only to get steeper. But every few hundred feet in elevation the vistas to the east grow exponentially. Once you were hemmed in by mountains now, you can see past to two more ranges. The once massive mountains now look like ridges in the desert. The grand vistas of NCA are also missing from our daily lives.

Meg rides into the infinite on Soldier Meadows Road, Big Mountain, Black Rock Range ahead
Photo Marc Pfister

We were traveling as a group of seven, 5 from Reno/Carson City, 1 from Santa Cruz, California, and 1 from London, England. We gathered at the Friends of Black Rock High Rock Visitors Center in Gerlach, Nevada. Marc and I camped Friday night at the beginning of Soldier Meadows Road and by coincidence both had the Spicy Tandoori Chicken sandwich at the 76 Station in Fernley. The hot tip for next time is the Tandoori Chicken Pizza is a local favorite. But the other hot tip is if you are adventuring in the Black Rock, start at the Visitors Center. Mark and Max drove “over the hill” from Santa Cruz for their first visit to the Black Rock. Corby and Meg drove out this morning, as well as Alan, from Reno. They were veterans of my rides including trips to Black Rock Country. We were welcomed by Karleena and Olivia, not only with smiles and helpful information, but coffee, snacks, water and an inspiring meeting point. We caravanned out to the south east corner of the Calico Mountains Wilderness to start our journey.

Starting low on the playa’s edge we are surrounded by mountains, Granite Range behind
Photo Corby Cobb

We biked north on Soldier Meadows Road following a similar path as John Fremont in his first visit to the area. Similarly this route was used by emigrants crossing the area though the recognized emigrant trail follows the Black Rock Range and crosses the Calico Mountains through Fly Canyon and High Rock Canyon. It is easy to imagine a single defined route that pioneers followed but I would think overtime there could be much variation.

Max riding eyes wide shut on the micro-playa near Jackass Flat
Photo Mark Yakushev

We turned off Soldier Meadows Rd, 13 miles into our journey, at Jackass Flat. This was a good spot for a snack and a little side trip on a micro-playa adjacent to our route. It was just a taste of riding on playa. It is a re-occurring theme, I love checking out playas. With experience you discover each has its own character. We climbed past a homestead and stopped again along a wet meadow complete with spring and trough. The climbing was about to get serious.

The climbs into the Calico Mountains were steep and loose, but the perspective was well worth the effort
Photo Max Iakouchev

On my first trip over this route the jeep route was either wet or snow covered. Traction was good, or I was hiking through snow. Now the steep sections were dry and loose. But the views were incredible. The Black Rock Range was thousands of feet above us, now it looks like a small ridge below us. Loose steep climbs meant hike-a-bike. For some, getting off to push the bike is the worst. I get it, I would rather ride. But I see it as chance to have a snack, take a photo, give my legs a break by going through a different range of motion. Through out the the trip the consensus was the trip was well worth the hike-a-bike.

Indian Paintbrush high above the Black Rock Desert, Black Rock Point in the distance
Photo Marc Pfister
Flowers up the middle on this two-track
Photo Marc Pfister
Lupine and Mule-ears were abundant, Donnelly Creek
Flowers in camp at 5,700′

I told Max the desert was really showing off for him. The flowers were in full bloom above 5000’. Memories being what they are, this was the best bloom I have experienced in Black Rock Country. It would be a curious project to track the blooms from year to year. I could imagine picking a mid-elevation canyon, north facing, and getting some great early morning shots to chronicle the blooms.

Meg pushing under stormy skies
Photo Marc Pfister
Alan and Meg finding curiosities in camp

The weather continued to be threatening. Dark clouds moved through, the wind gained strength, but overall we were sheltered. There wasn’t any significant precipitation but when we arrived at Donnelly Creek we decided to make camp rather than chance getting caught in the rain. This leeward side of the mountain offered much better conditions in the wind than my proposed ridge-top camp. I had a still, cool, cloudless night in mind, but Black Rock Country had other plans for us.

Nestled in the sagebrush and aspens
Photo Mark Yakushev
Sausage, it’s what’s for dinner as Meg commandeers Marc’s tarp for cooking

Camp was great! We were sheltered in tall grasses, Mule-ears, sagebrush and aspens. Donnelly Creek was flowing modestly. There was plenty for the senses to take in. Once we were settled, dinner was made. Corby was trying out a new cook kit to make sausage and hash browns. On an overnight you can afford to bring a little extra and have a camp gourmet meal. Marc’s palatial tarp tent became the mess hall. From the laughter I think Meg and Corby were also hosting camp-stand-up. Laughter is a good sign of a trip going well.

So many stars captured by our phone cameras, more than the eye can see

I woke in the middle of the night. The wind was blowing but the skies were partially clear. I took my phone and tripod setup to the road for some night shots. I enjoy experimenting with night photography. The digital cameras pick up more than I can see with my old eyes. The skies are so dark the star gazing is phenomenal on its own. I have yet to plan a trip where the night sky is the focus, but it is on my list.

Waking up to blue skies and the moonset
Photo Marc Pfister

There was a concerted effort to get on the trail early the next morning. Partly cloudy, windy, and cool made for good riding conditions. Maybe now I will translate the topo map’s uphill jeep trails as potential hike-a-bike. I remember on one trip with significant climbs I would hike anything above 17% percent grade. It became a little game to help the miles and elevation pass. There was still consensus that the views and experience was well worth the bike pushing. Or what we like to call, “looking for rocks.”

Mark looking to the west over the canyonlands of Black Rock Country
Jackets on for long descents in the cool temperatures, descending to Donnelly Flat
Mark has the option to continue north to High Rock Canyon Lake and Fly and High Rock Canyons

We crested the range with a whole new viewscape. We were on a saddle with peaks around us, but to the west the landscape opened into canyons that are only a introduction to High Rock Canyon. The lion’s share of climbing was behind us. Now it was mostly down hill, out of the Calico Mountains and connecting Donnelly Flat to Hualapai Flat.

The Calico Hills captured on film with a Holga 120 toy camera
Max and Mark still smiling after the last climb. It was both their first trip to the Black Rock Desert.
A lasting first impression.
Photo Marc Pfister
“Only seen in the movies” dust storms like these are common on the Black Rock
Photo Max Iakouchev

The last bit of navigation took us around a farm and over the little extension of the Calico Hills to the south. Now we were on the road we used in our ride during the Black Rock Rendezvous. Once were were packed-up, made our obligatory rounds at Bruno’s we were treated to a massive dust storm off the very south end of the Black Rock Desert near Empire.

Horny Toad Lizard, so perfectly adapted to Black Rock Country. Are you?
Photo Corby Cobb
This group of Friends is perfectly at home in Black Rock Country
Photo Mark Yakushev

The third Rides with Friends, Around the Calico Mountains Wilderness, was a success. The timing was good, and although the weather was unsettled the conditions were moderate. We beat the heat! Although the route is strenuous there are plenty of water and camping resources. The views, wildflowers, and solitude exemplify the area. From Donnelly Flat there is the potential to head north to High Rock Canyon Lake. This gives options for continuing through Fly Canyon, High Rock Canyon, or splitting the High Rock Canyon Wilderness and the Little High Rock Canyon Wilderness.

“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced” – David Attenborough
Photo Mark Yakushev

What is next? August 13-14, I will be leading a short ride on the Black Rock Desert playa to the Friends of Black Rock High Rock Perseids Campout. Like with Black Rock Rendezvous the bikepacking is one small part of a much bigger event. September 24-25, I am leading a trip from Middlegate to Berlin-Ichthyasaur State Park for Adventure Cycling’s Bike Your Park Day. October 1-2, I am leading a trip around Little High Rock Canyon Wilderness. October 29-30, I am leading a trip through Fly Canyon. November and December will be sure to have rides as well.

4 thoughts on “Around the Calico Mountains Wilderness Overnight, Rides with Friends #3

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