12 Interesting Black Rock Desert Facts

Did you know that one of the most fascinating deserts in the United States is located in the state of Nevada?

In this post, you’ll discover the ultimate list of Black Rock Desert facts, a desolate landscape that holds some amazing secrets!

1. It’s located near the “Biggest Little City in the World”

Black Rock Desert is located in the US State of Nevada, just 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the city of Reno, often referred to as the “Biggest Little City in the World” and best known for its casinos and as a tourist destination.

Reno is located just 22 miles (35 kilometers) away from one of the most famous lakes in the United States, Lake Tahoe, which is also the largest alpine lake in the country at an elevation of 6,225 feet (1,897 meters).

The desert is located at an elevation of 3,907 feet (1,191 meters).

Reno Aerial View
Aerial of Reno / D Ramey Logan / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

2. How big is the Black Rock Desert?

The Black Rock Desert covers a relatively large area of about 10,000 square miles (26,000 square kilometers).

It’s part of a protected area referred to as the “Black Rock Desert–High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area,” commonly known as the “Black Rock–High Rock NCA.”

Black Rock Desert trail
The desert / Source

3. It’s part of the Great Basin

The Great Basin is a huge area named after its main geographical feature which is the fact that water can’t escape it. It covers all of Nevada, large parts of Utah, and Oregon, and smaller parts of California, Idaho, and Wyoming.

The landscape of the Great Basin is rugged and mountainous and is surrounded by hundreds of different mountain ranges. The Black Rock Desert covers most of the northern part of the Nevada area of the Great Basin.

Great Basin Aerial view
Great Basin National Park / Neal Vickers / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

4. The desert is bordered by numerous mountain ranges

While the Great Basin itself is surrounded by hundreds of mountain ranges, the Black Rock Desert itself is surrounded by dozens. Some of the most notable are the:

  • Black Rock Range
  • Calico Hills
  • Jackson Mountains
Black Rock Desert Calico Hills
Calico Hills / Raquel Baranow / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

5. There used to be an ancient lake on its location

One of the most fascinating Black Rock Desert facts is that it’s the location of a lake dating back to the Pleistocene, a period lasting from about 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago. This lake is called Lake Lahontan.

The lake has been completely dried up, but during its existence, sediments accumulated at the bottom of it and created the flat lakebed we see today.

Black Rock Desert lake bed
The ancient lakebed / Patrick Nouhailler / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

6. The lakebed covered about 85% of the Black Rock Desert

About 12,700 years ago, Lake Lahontan had a maximum depth of about 500 feet (150 meters) and covered an area of 8,500 square miles (22,000 square kilometers).

This means that the lake covered about 85% of the entire Black Rock Desert!

Black Rock Desert aerial view
Aerial of Lake Tahanon area / Source

7. The area used to be inhabited by a Numic tribe

One of the most intriguing Black Rock Desert facts is that people actually used to live in this area for an extensive period of time. The area was already inhabited over 10,000 years ago by Great Basin Tribes.

More recently, the Northern Paiute people, a Numic Tribe, used to live in the eastern California section of the Black Rock Desert until at least the 14th century. They lived near small lakes which provided them with fish and waterbirds and for the most part lived a nomadic lifestyle.

Black Rock Desert interesting facts
The desolate landscape / Source

8. It’s home to several major mines

Apart from containing numerous volcanic and geothermal features, the area is also rich in various minerals that can be excavated, including gypsum and opal.

A large Gypsum mine which is part of the US Gypsum Corporation is located near the town of Empire in Nevada.

Black Rock Desert Mine
A mine near Empire, Nevada / Ken Lund / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

9. There’s a never-ending geyser located in the desert

On the Fly Ranch, a private property, there’s an amazing geyser called the “Fly Geyser” which has been continuously shooting water in the air since 1916.

The geyser was formed when a geothermal source was accidentally hit while drilling for water.

Black Rock Desert Fly Geyser
The Fly Geyser / Wiki Commons

10. Bones of a massive prehistoric animal have been found in the desert

Apart from a prehistoric lake, there used to be a lot of prehistoric animals roaming around in the area as well. Mammoths lived here until about 20,000 B.C. and proof of this was discovered in 1979.

The fossil of a huge Columbian Mammoth was found at the edge of the Black Rock Desert and these bones are now on display at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.

Black Rock Desert Columbian mammoth
Columbian Mammoth / WolfmanSF / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

11. The area has numerous 19th-century emigrant trails

A man named John Fremont was the first to cross the desert in 1843. His trail would later be used by over 22,000 gold seekers who traveled to California. The desert contains more than 120 miles (200 km) of historic trails which lead people to the promised land in the 19th century.

This means that if you live on the West Coast, it’s likely that your ancestors crossed the Black Rock Desert at one point!

Black Rock Desert trail
Desert Trail / Source

12. It was used as a practice range for the US Air Force during WWII

The United States Air Force needs a lot of open space to effectively train its pilots. Therefore, the Black Rock Desert is one of the best-suited places to do so.

During World War II, the USAAF used 973 square miles (2,520 square kilometers) of the desert as a training range for aerial gunnery. The “Black Rock Desert Gunnery Range” was closed by the year 1964.

Fun Black Rock Desert facts
Desert area / Source

13. It’s a popular location for rocket enthusiasts

Because the airspace over the Black Rock Desert isn’t controlled and it has such a flat surface, it’s very popular among amateur rocket enthusiasts.

Several records have been set in the desert, including shooting a rocket 50 miles (80 kilometers) in the air on November 23, 1996, and the first official space flight of a rocket with an altitude of 72 miles (116 kilometers) on May 17, 2004.

Black Rock Desert rockets
Rockets at the desert / Ikluft / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

14. The world land speed record was broken twice at Block Rock Desert

Apart from serving as the perfect place to launch rockets, the flat surface also means it’s the perfect area to use alternative land vehicles in an attempt to break the world land speed record.

This has happened twice at the Black Rock Desert, once in 1983 when a man named Richard Noble drove his jet-fueled machine at a speed of 634.015 mph (1,020.348 km/h).

The second time happened in 1997 when Andy Green became the first man in history to drive a so-called “supersonic” car, reaching a dazzling speed of 763.035 mph (1,227.986 km/h)!

The supersonic car team in the Black Rock Desert
The supersonic car team in the Black Rock Desert / Source