How do you know you are saving the best for last? When Rides with Friends started in October of 2020 we picked a showcase ride, High Rock Canyon. Then in 2021 I lead a few more trips around Black Rock Country which culminated in the Hot Springs Loop in October. Now with our first official season of Rides with Friends I had to pick our season finale, Fly Canyon seemed like a logical choice. Fly Canyon is a short portion of the Applegate Emigrant Trail that really packs a punch. It contains the wagon slide and pot holes features in addition to being a beautiful rugged canyon between Soldier Meadows and High Rock Lake. Yet it is less than 10% of the ride. How did the rest of the route fare?
Rides with Friends #6 was scheduled for the last weekend in October to closeout the season of guided rides for Friends of Black Rock High Rock. Fall was in full swing. We wouldn’t see much change in the desert landscape, most notably the rabbitbrush had bloomed and the flowers had turned brown. Overall the desert was looking dry. I met Carlo Luri, Bruce Rogers, and Sasha Magee. I have ridden with Carlo, had just met Bruce at GearLab in South Lake Tahoe, and was meeting Sasha for the first time. Carlo has ridden out at the Black Rock before, Sasha has been out for Burning Man, and this was Bruce’s first visit. Everyone had diverse and extensive outdoor resumes so this was shaping up to be a great group!
We started where the dirt road begins, specifically the start of Soldier Meadows Rd, just 13 miles north of Gerlach on Co Rd 34. It is a great place to start, easy access, views of Black Rock Desert, Hualapai Flat, and no risk of vehicle flats from the sharp rocks in the dirt road beds. Riding north I pointed out popular campsites, such as the first overlook and Cassidy Mine. I the pointed out the 12 mile loop we use for the Black Rock Rendezvous, and the intersections of the Loop Around the Calico Mountains Wilderness. Across the playa I pointed out Black Rock point and the Hot Springs Loop. Old Razorback Peak is such a recognizable feature, and it marks the Lava Beds Loop. The map of rides and routes is quickly filling in.
A new detour for me was the loop to Box Canyon. I could see a quick overnight to this spot, even SAG supported, and use this natural rock amphitheater as a spot to continue on foot into Box Canyon. I have looked at this option on every ride on Soldier Meadows Road and finally took it. Similarly there is a detour to Wheeler Spring. I have yet to take it, it looks soft and slow in comparison to Soldier Meadows Rd. But springs are always an eye-opener. Next time!
Our next stop was Mud Meadow Reservoir. This was our opportunity to filter water. The temperatures were mild and at touring-pace we hadn’t gone through much water. We were carrying 3-5 L of water each. Code of the desert: Do not pass up the opportunity for water. Mud Meadow Reservoir is extremely turbid. The thought that it could instantly clog our Katadyn BeFree filters did cross our minds. The filtered water was still turbid. Well lets hope the large protozoans and tiny bacteria were filtered out. The most impressive filter I have seen is the MSR Guardian Purifier. It took the milky water of the Quinn River and the output was crystal clear. Reportedly, 10% of the stroke volume washes the filter, no need to backflow the filter. When I got home I cleaned my BeFree, it was remarkably dirty.
Turning off Soldier Meadows Road, the sun was getting low. Rather than picking the days milage goal, I said once the sun dipped to the horizon we would find a place to camp. We were traveling through the Soldier Meadows Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The ACEC is most concerned with endemic Desert Dace (pup fish), Soldier Meadows Springtails (arthropod) and Basalt Cinquefoil (plant). The area has also seen several waves of surface archeology documenting First Peoples, Fremont’s early mapping, the Applegate Emigrant Trail, stagecoach routes, and history of ranching in this cold desert. We were sure to camp outside the ACEC and practice Leave No Trace.
Camp was set. Dinners were cooked. It is always interesting to see everyone’s set ups. Bikes can range from ride what you got to specific built bikepacking rigs. Some bikes are packed ultra-light and minimalist for an overnight, some look like they are going out for a week or month! From all the tents that are brought on these trips, Big Agnes is the most popular. Both Sasha and Bruce had the BA Fly Creek. Interestingly Carlo and I had twin tents from different companies, mine the North Face Storm Chaser, Carlo’s the Marmot Tungsten. The Marmot is slightly larger in every dimension than the North Face. Carlo likes the ability to sit up with room but isn’t confident how it would fare in a wind storm.
We were up early the next day. Sasha hit the trail early as he had to make the drive back to San Francisco. Bruce and Carlo and I weren’t far behind. Fly Canyon’s first impression was a real split in the earth. Almost like a crooked zipper the earth just opens up with an abrupt cliff on either side. While not as tall, deep, or wide as some of the other canyon’s in the area, it was as impressive. We were looking for the Pot Holes. The indication on the USGS topographic map does not correspond to the location we checked out. Hiking the canyon seems like a worthwhile proposition. I would say the same for the other wilderness canyons, Box and Little High Rock.
The Pot Holes were the crowd pleaser! At first we were trying to figure out, where did all the water come from to shape these bowls? What was the geology that created hard and soft rock that resulted in the differential erosion? It is so hard to imagine the past conditions, over what period of time, that lead to these results. The pioneers talked about the forces of the wind shaping the canyon, that was their experience. I showed pictures to Doug Hartzel, and while he did not have specific knowledge of the area, he thought the rock colors indicated the remains of a caldera. Clearly water moved through this area, High Rock Lake had an outflow through Box Canyon until it was blocked. At some point High Rock Lake found a new outlet through Fly Canyon. All of this is hard to imagine given the vernal existence of High Rock Lake.
Beyond the Pot Holes we passed High Rock Canyon and Little High Rock Canyon. Both are worth taking the time to at least enter. A hike that is on my list is Box Canyon, just across Smoky Valley. The climb through Smoky Valley is gorgeous. I had just done it a week before with a dusting of snow on the peaks of the Calico Mountains. Now all that was gone. Exiting onto County Rd 34 was in anticipation of the long descent into Hualapai Flats. Then it was a flat haul back to the cars. An alternative route would be Barley Road to Soldier Meadows Rd. or exit onto Co Rd 34.
By the numbers the route (here on Ride with GPS) is 95 miles with 2,900′ of climbing evenly split between two days. The route is on designated routes, durable road surfaces that see minimal to moderate maintenance. Mud can be an issue, so planning a dry period for travel is best. The first storms of fall/winter dry quickly. This route goes adjacent to the Calico Mountains, High Rock Lake, East Fork of High Rock Canyon, High Rock Canyon, and Little High Rock Canyon Wilderness Areas. Water is available to filter/treat at Mud Meadow Reservoir, High Rock Canyon, and Little High Rock Canyon. The route is a part of the historical Fremont and Emigrant Applegate Trails. These public lands’ original stewards were Northern Paiute and still remain their sacred land.
Rides with Friends #6, Soldier Meadows-Fly Canyon Loop concludes this year’s six part series of guided bike tours in Black Rock Country. Dates and locations for 2023 are being planned now. I am trying to plan around the New Moon, all new routes, shorter trips, and better weather (just kidding on the weather, I don’t have that kind of pull.) Hope to see you out there!