This Place Called Black Rock City… Burning Man

Imagine, if you will, having enough port-a-potties to accommodate 70,000 people. It’s one of many issues Burning Man has to deal with in planning Black Rock City.


I always like to include a post on Black Rock City when I am blogging about Burning Man to give readers a view of how everything fits together. Obviously, you can’t throw up a city for 70,000 people in the desert without some serious planning. Think of it this way: For the one week of its existence, Black Rock City is the third largest city in Nevada— only Las Vegas and Reno are larger.

It all starts with locating where the Man will be placed out in the Black Rock Desert a few miles east of the small, northern Nevada town of Gerlach. A ceremonial spike is driven into the ground to mark the placement.  Everything else including the Temple, Center Camp, the surrounding fence and Black Rock City evolve from there. Official Burning Man structures and major camps are built before the event. Sort of. It is not unusual to arrive on Sunday with work still being done on the Man, the Temple, Center Camp, etc.

Black Rock City is laid out in a semi-circle as shown on the 2016 map below. The circular roads are given names based on the annual theme and are in alphabetical order. For example, the 2016 theme was Da Vinci’s Workshop. The road names were Arno, Botticelli, Cosimo, Donatello, Effigiare (Italian: to portray), Florin, Guild, High Renaissance, Italic, Justice, Knowledge, and Lorenzo. The main road that separates Black Rock City from the Playa is always the Esplanade. Roads that cut across the circular roads are numbered clockwise and lead out to the Man.

The large circle on the bottom is Center Camp, the middle circle the Man, and the upper circle the Temple. Both the Man and the Temple are located on the Playa, which continues out to the fence. Shaded areas are for assigned, organized camps; non-shaded areas for everyone else. Space in the non-shaded areas is on a first come, first serve basis and you can have as much as you need for your camp, assuming you come in early— there seems like a lot of space in the beginning. By the end of the week, everything is packed! The total area encompassed within the fence including Black Rock City and the Playa is approximately seven square miles.

The official Burning Man map of Black Rock City for 2016.

The following photos provide a glimpse into what it is like to live in Black Rock City.

If you come in early on Sunday, you feel like you have a lot of space. We always mark out our site with rope and reflectors.

Things fill up rapidly as the week progresses. Quivera, our van, marks one end of our camp. Our goal is to be somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 on H or I.

By Friday, there is no room left. If you haven’t clearly marked your area, you will have guests!

If things feel too crowded, you can always bike out onto the Playa where the Man, the Temple and many of the major art pieces are located.

If things are still too crowded, you can head out farther…

And farther…

And farther. By now you are out in what is known as the Deep Playa.

This is where you come to the fence that limits further exploration of the desert. Actually, during a dust storm when visibility is close to zero, it is good to have the fence available to keep you from wandering off. There is a vast amount of space to get lost in.

Burning Man is serious about Burners staying inside the fence. Part of this is for safety and part of it is to keep people from sneaking in for free. When I crossed the fence for a photo-op, a BM truck came speeding over to where I was.

A substantial infrastructure is required to operate the event. These lifts are located in the Public Works Department lot.

Safety is always a concern. Burning Man has its own safety officers know as the Black Rock Rangers. Of course there are also numerous local, state, and federal law officers present. There is also an extensive emergency medical operation.

Lamps are lit at night to help Burners find their way. The lamp lighters are volunteers who have their own camp.

Providing ice for Burners to keep their food (and beer) cold is also a major operation run by volunteers. A recruitment poster urges Burners to sign up. Ice is one of the very few things you can purchase in Black Rock City.

The tongue in cheek sign at the top of the post refers to the numerous banks of port-a-potties found throughout Black Rock City and out on the Playa. An army of trucks is constantly servicing the outhouses. (Photo by Don Green.)

I found this in one of the toilets.  I imagine that this sign had some city folks checking. (grin)

Sand spiders are more dangerous.

Heat, wind, and dust storms are a part of life at Burning Man. It can also rain.

This photo was taken a few minutes after the above photo. The storm has arrived!

While it is important to be prepared for the heat and dust storms, there is also great beauty and good weather at Burning Man.

Looking out from our camp at the sunset.

And a rainbow.

If things get too rough out in the desert, you can always stop and have a beer.

Next Blog:  Some really cute seals and the beautiful Pt. Lobos nature reserve near Carmel.

24 thoughts on “This Place Called Black Rock City… Burning Man

    • And you are 100% right! Either that on a new Walmart special that you can donate at the end of the week. I’ve done both. Fat tires are also critical. Otherwise you sink down into the dust. Not fun. –Curt

  1. How do you keep the sand out of the sleeping bags or for that matter out of your shoes? Especially during a sandstorm. In some of my out-back camping trips the ants were a real problem. They could not climb up the steel frame of the stretcher-beds but if your blanket touched the ground they would soon find a way to bite you wide awake.
    Great photos, Curt.

    • The dust gets in everything, Gerard! Including our van. It requires a major cleaning when we are done, and even then, the dust comes tumbling out months afterward. We all wear goggles and bandanas during the dust storms! Some people even wear gas masks. Bugs really aren’t a problem. There are very few out on the Playa. But I’ve had more than my share of bugs from the tropics to the arctic. 🙂 Thanks. –Curt

  2. Wow! I love this behind-the-scenes logistical look at Burning Man! I really liked the progression of the grounds filling up with visitors, too. Fascinating! Now I feel like I really need to experience this for myself. I’ve got the particulars. I need to put it on my Bucket List — which really means, make plans to do this soon!

  3. I’m with Sue and Alison – very interested in the mechanics of the temporary city. Bathrooms are a key part of it. I just heard a bit on NPR interviewing people in Madras, OR (I think?) getting ready for an influx of people for the total solar eclipse ( And the lady interviewed was a bit astonished at how much time discussing porta potties was required. ha ha!

    Of course you would take your chances at getting in trouble, just for a shot of you behind the perimeter fence. What a trouble maker you are.

    Do the winds there get fierce? I thought of that when I saw the collection of cranes, and worried about their stability. From what I recall of living in Nevada, the dust storms are not necessarily kicked up by huge winds. Sometimes we would get enveloped in almost still silence as the dust cloud moved in.

    • My bother is going to meet a friend up in Madras for the equinox. Burning Man has the porta potty thing down pretty well. It’s an item where you want to be sure and have enough! 🙂

      As for getting in trouble: Who, me???

      The winds can get fierce. Awnings and tents beware!

      I’ll be shipping Bone off to you soon, Crystal! 🙂 –Curt

      • I’m not a very good mailbox checker, but for the past week I’ve been diligent just in case Bone arrived. It would be the height of poor hospitality to let him sit in a mailbox for a night, don’t you think?

  4. Curt, Thanks for posting a bird’s eye view of the Burning Man experience, complete with a map of the playa. I’ll be attending for the first time in August, and as a life-long city girl (seriously, snakes?!?) I’m trying not to get too overwhelmed by this new camping experience. Toilets will be tricky but I figure if I can survive 2 weeks of Turkish toilets in Vietnam Black Rock City should be a cinch, right? Curious about your thoughts on the top 5 must-have survival items, any and all advice is welcome. Cheers, Andrea

    • Hi Andrea, and welcome to the world of Burning Man. I can pretty much promise you an experience unlike anything you have ever had. I’m sure you will master porta-potty 101 just fine. They can get a little full after a long night, especially toward the end of the week when all 70,000 people are present, but generally, Burning Man does a good job of keeping them clean. No snakes (grin). As for survival… a good set of goggles and something to cover your nose and mouth in dust storms. I use a bandana. Some use medical or even painters masks. You will even see gas masks, which may be a bit of overkill. Water: Be sure to drink lots and often. Carry a water bottle. Dehydration is a major problem. Bring at least a gallon of water per day for yourself. Sunblock. A bad sunburn can really detract from the event! A well lit-up bike. (You can walk but distances are considerable.) Bring an inexpensive or old bike with large tires. Skinny tires sink in the dust! Even larger tires can at times. You want to be seen at night when thousands of people are riding through Black Rock City and out on the Playa. So make sure your bike is well lit. Likewise you want light for yourself. There are lots of lighting options out there now, but glow sticks can do the job. Peggy and I use around 20-25 per night each.
      As a matter of convenience: Ear plugs or a sound maker to block noise at night are helpful if you want to sleep, especially if you go to bed before the wee hours. 🙂 Unless you are in a camp with some type of shower, and even if you are, baby wipes (lots and lots of them) are a way to keep sort of clean. It’s amazing how much dust can cling to you. (People used to take off their clothes and run along behind the water trucks as they wet down the streets, but Burning Man has discouraged that.)
      If you are part of a camp, it will reinforce much of this and tell you what you need to bring.
      Please feel free to ask any more questions you may have. And the very best luck to you. –Curt
      Oh, yeah… you will need a playa name. 🙂

  5. The camp itself is something to behold. We have Bonnaroo with similar problems — not enough space, people encroaching on the space you thought you had reserved, and too few potties. But somehow we masses trudge on — with or without sandstorms — to see the show!

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