The Natural History and Beauty of Burning Man’s Black Rock Desert


Mountains of the Black rock Desert stand behind the Man at Burning Man.

Surrounded by towering mountain ranges, Burning Man is located on an ancient lakebed in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada.

You can’t ignore the desert when you are at Burning Man— even if you’ve only come for the art, entertainment, partying, or alternative lifestyle. The heat, dust, and massive dust storms forcefully remind you that you are not in San Francisco, or Vilnius, or Tokyo. Even the one-percenters, the folks who live in well-protected, catered camps, are forced to deal with these realities when they are out and about.

Whether you stop long enough to admire the beauty of desert or learn about its geologic and cultural history is another issue. Certainly, many Burners take the time to stop and look around, even if it is only for a brief, “Wow!” or to howl like coyotes, which I have heard them do over a particularly beautiful sunset or sunrise.

Coyote sculpture at Burning Man 2014.

Burners are sometimes known to howl like coyotes at the sight of beautiful sunsets or sunrises. This coyote sculpture was at Burning Man 2013.

Larry Harvey’s initial choice of the Black Rock Desert as the venue for Burning Man was based more on the area’s isolation than anything else. He wanted a place where people could ‘do their own Burner thing’ and not be overly worried about what the neighbors might think, or the law. And he found it in Nevada. Once you get outside of Reno or Las Vegas, the population drops dramatically. When you leave the major highways that cross the state, the odds are that jackrabbits will outnumber the people.

The Black Rock Desert lies some 100 miles north of Reno in what is known as the Great Basin, an arid region characterized by narrow, fault-block mountain ranges and flat valleys trending mainly in a north-south direction. It was once suggested that the best way to picture the Basin and Range province is to think of it as “army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico.” Big caterpillars. As for the Great Basin part of the equation, 12,000 years ago the Black Rock Desert was part of Lake Lahontan, a huge glacier fed lake that covered some 8500 square miles. The flat playa that Burning Man sits on today is a dried up remnant of the lakebed. The dust and dust storms are its legacy.

The Playa at Burning Man is made up of a lakebed that was once buried under Lake Lahotan. Black Rock City stretches across the horizon.

The Playa at Burning Man is made up of a lakebed that was buried under Lake Lahontan 12,000 years ago. Black Rock City stretches across the horizon.

Looking out from Burning Man across the Black Rock Desert playa.

Looking out from Burning Man across the Black Rock Desert playa.

Crossing the Great Basin with horses, oxen and mules, or even on foot, early pioneers gained a much more intimate knowledge of the desert than today’s Burners. Radical self-reliance, one of the ten principles of Burning Man, was all that stood between the pioneers and death. One of the routes the adventurers followed, the Applegate Trail, makes its way through the Black Rock Desert. Living, as I do, in the Applegate Valley, along the Applegate River, on Upper Applegate Road, near the Applegate reservoir, I have a certain familiarity with the Applegate family.

The following sunset and rainbow photos were taken by Don Green, Tom Lovering, Ken Lake, Peggy Mekemson and me, all part of our group.

We were coming into Burning Man when we hit a rainstorm and saw this Rainbow.

We were coming into Burning Man when we hit a rainstorm and were entertained by this multi-hued rainbow.

Rainbow decorates camp at Burning Man.

This double rainbow seemed to end in Black Rock City.

Sunset reflected on a mountain at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert.

Sunset reflected on a mountain at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert.

Mountains in Black Rock Desert reflect late evening sun.

Another mountain reflecting the sun at Burning Man.

Sunset reflected through a dusty haze from our campsite at Black Rock City.

Sunset reflected through a dusty haze. Photo taken  from our campsite at Black Rock City.

Clouds are illuminated by a setting sun on the Black Rock Desert.

Evening clouds illuminated by the sun

The sun sets on Black Rock City and a slight sliver of the moon.

The sun sets on Black Rock City with a slight sliver of the moon.


34 thoughts on “The Natural History and Beauty of Burning Man’s Black Rock Desert

  1. Thanks for this introduction to Burning Man. I’m embarrassed to say I know very little about the event or the area. I worked in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, traveling outward just a bit to see the landscape. But this is quite barren, hot, and void of anything but the jackrabbits, I guess. Your photos are phenomenal. I feel as if I’m right there. A really interesting place and event.

    • And after Burning Man, I might add, Timi. As soon as Burning Man is over, the area is returned to its natural state.

      As for Applegates, there are even family connections if I journey back into the 1830s. –Curt

  2. Well, I just spent a half-hour trying to track down which Black Rock Canyon I was in during my wonderful drive across Utah, Nevada, etc. I just don’t have a clue. I found it once, but the memory is gone, and I wasn’t doing travel notes at the time. It was near enough to the town I was staying in that I could drive out there — I remember a box canyon, the rim, the moon, and coyotes. I’m not sure I’d ever heard them before.

    But … wherever it was, it had some of the same qualities of these wonderful photos. I smiled at the dust. “American Harmattan.” How would that be as a title for a book about Burning Man? Smoke and dust as controlling metaphors, etc. Influence of Burning Man wafting through society, etc. It’s yours!

    • Thanks Linda. 🙂 But that may be a little too literary. (Laughing)

      Interesting, I am capable of forgetting lots of things, believe me. But I usually remember places I’ve been. Then again, what is important is the memory of the rim, the moon and the coyotes, I assume howling. And they may very well have been howling at the moon.


  3. Lovely photos and story. Is that the Applegate in Oregon? From you description it must be. If so we are neighbors as I live in Ruch (well that’s the closest town anyway). Maybe I will see you around town or Blackrock City if I am lucky enough to get tickets this year 😉

    • Hi Jon… Right you are. Peggy and I live on Upper Applegate Road near Applegate Lake. Peggy works as a volunteer at the A-frame next to the library in Ruch and I did a story on the Ruch School a couple of weeks ago that will appear in the next Applegater. So where do you live? –Curt

  4. Pingback: The Natural History and Beauty of Burning Man’s Black Rock Desert | I was at Burning Man

  5. Omigosh, Curt, I just looked up Applegate Reservoir and Road, and you guys live out in the boonies! I was at first thinking perhaps you were on 199 and I could easily visit, since I travel that highway all the time (Tara’s dad lives in Eureka). But – as remote as Cave Junction already is – you and Pegge have done better. What gorgeous country that must be. I’m totally jealous. Tough economy though.

    And…I’m not even commenting on your post, ha ha! Your Burning Man posts are so good because of the combination of excellent photos and your detailed descriptions. I am familiar with the loneliness of Nevada, having lived in Winnemucca for three years and spending much of my free time just driving those empty highways. As another commenter said, I will now always think of those parallel mountain ranges as caterpillars crawling. When one lives in the desert, it’s never possible to escape knowing you are in the middle of it. Even, as you said, the one-percenters must negotiate the freezing and fiery temperatures, and the dust storms and ice storms, the absent humidity. The remarkable environment is it’s own character in the story.

    • First, come and visit Crystal, by all means. (Assuming of course we are home.) We just had friends over who were driving over 199 back to Bellingham after their son checked out Humboldt. It’s a detour admittedly (45 minutes I suspect) but spend the night. Two, Peggy and I are coming up to Portland to attend the WordPress conference at the end of March. Maybe we could grab lunch.

      Right you are about Burning Man’s desert weather being a central part of the story. When it is hot in the afternoon and a major dust storm hits the Playa, watch out! Dust gets into everything. 🙂 –Curt

      • WordPress conference?! I didn’t even know that existed. Well, I’d love to see you both if we can. I’m planning a road trip up the coast to Canada the 23rd-27th, so we may not get a chance in Portland, but now that I know where you live, it will happen one of these days. As long as you aren’t on your own road trip, ha ha.

  6. Our pioneers were a brave bunch. I think they were one of our “greatest generations”. While Brokaw made the term of greatest generation a mindset, I think excluding other generations from that mindset may need some looking into… 🙂 Was your pinky successful, btw?

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