HOA LogoDestinationsTravel MallTravel LinksGlobal Travel


Article and Photos


Larry Turner

Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is extreme, beautiful and surreal.

“Some people come here as though it was a Sunday picnic in the park,” says Gerlach’s colorful and most recognized citizen Bruno Selmic. “If you don’t respect and prepare for the elements though, the Black Rock will bite you in the butt.”


Selmic—who left his native Lucca, Italy at 17 for America—is the owner of Gerlach’s main businesses, including Bruno’s Club, Bruno’s Texaco and Bruno’s Motel. At 87 years old, everyday he frequents his Club which also includes a restaurant famous for his Mom’s ravioli recipe from the Old Country. Sooner or later all Black Rock visitors will stop at one of Selmic’s businesses.

Bruno Semic


We—Jason and Amy Hartell and myself—stopped for ice and to wet our whistle after a scorching and tragic day traveling the Black Rock’s southeastern corner high road. En route to Gerlach we came across a fatal accident—an SUV traveling too fast, losing control, flipping over several times, killing the driver. The first passerby’s had already reported the accident and an ambulance was en route when we hit Highway 447 south of Gerlach.

We were on the Playa—as the Black Rock is called by the locals and seasoned travelers—to witness a land sailing event.

Brilliant Land Yacht
A Dervish of Billowing Sails
Sunrise on the Playa



The Black Rock is famous as the setting for the world land speed record (a mind boggling 763MPH set by Britain’s Andy Green in October 1997), the largest mammoth ever discovered in North America, numerous televisions commercials, some movies and the Burning Man Event. Lesser known activities include land sailing regattas, a croquet tournament using vehicles as mallets and rocket launching, including the first amateur launch to space (72 miles high). It is a unique landscape for camping, astronomy, rock hounding, sightseeing, photography, exploring the most pristine routes in our Immigrant Trail system and hunting. I first encountered the Black Rock via horseback in 1992 while tracing the route of the Applegate Trail (in conjunction with the California Trail, also know as the Southern Route to Oregon).

“All kinds of people pass through these doors en route to the Playa,” says Selmic. “Normal, abnormal, common, eccentric. During Burning Man, it’s like a scene out of a space movie and Mardi Gra. ‘Good for business though.”

We settled in to watch World Cup play, hydrate our bodies and to feast mightily on Bruno’s famous ravioli. The bar was filled with French nationals watching their soccer team play. After the match we headed onto the Playa and traveled 14 miles to our encampment, arriving in time to witness the last land sailing races of the day.

There is no shade on the flat Playa—the world’s largest flat surface, distinct even from astronauts in space—so one has to bring their own. We used the marginal shade of our camper to view the races, but even in the shade the temps were in the 90s. Plenty of cold drinks kept us hydrated and a breeze—although it felt like a furnace was generating it—placated our overheated bodies. The Playa gives up its heat readily in the evening though, making for good sleeps.


Every year Gerlach resident and owner of Planet X Pottery John Bogard hosts a land sailing event, attended by friends and fellow racers throughout the West. Land sailing is a sport similar to sailing on water.

Race categories vary from single cloth material sails to the elaborate fixed, tubular metal framed sails that are more reminiscent of an airplane wing. The cantilevered masts—upwards to 25 feet—are like oversized shark dorsal fins. The large “boats” consistently go up to 80 MPH with the world record at 116 MPH. The tierra firma boats are also known as land yachts. My first sailing experience had been on Oregon’s Alvord Desert. Land sailing is fascinating to watch because of the speed and colorful craft. It is exhilarating to pilot a craft. Seatbelts are essential as the sailing craft can tip over if one is not paying close enough attention to their maneuvers.

The International Land Sailing Race this year is in September in France.


Our Playa encampment setting was mindful of the early wagon trains that crossed the Black Rock—the first in 1846—as they circled the wagons at night. In our modern day camp, there were motor homes, travel trailers, pickup campers and an array of tents (our choice). Cedarville, California resident and owner of the Floating Island Bookstore Michael Sykes slept under the stars, as did Jason. Because of the desert wind, all land sailing crafts are either secured or tilted over when not used.


Aiplane Camping


Our tent—with its many windows and open sky mesh canopy—was perfect for evening sleeps but far too hot for day resting. Umbrellas—well secured to withstand wind—and open-air canopies are perfect for the bleating mid-day sun. Mosquitoes are practically non-existent on the Playa but be aware of the seasonal little black beetles that bite. Repellant is recommended to deter them. Other Playa essentials would include plenty of water, sunscreen, a wide brimmed hat and a medical kit.

The Playa is famous for eccentrics and for those who like to e an occasional eccentric. Case in point: to kick off the regatta, the first evening Sykes and Bogard mixed margaritas with a cement mixer. “We bought it several years ago specifically to make margaritas with,” laughed Sykes. “Not one batch of cement has passed through it.” We chased the heavenly margaritas with large veined shrimp on a bed of ice along with an assortment of side dishes. During the festivities, some people would break off to take bike rides, sail or drive golf balls. Live music came later. Playa evenings are perfect for strolling (carry a flashlight) under a canopy of stars and celestial musings. This is where the surreal comes in.


The ultimate Black Rock eccentric show is the Burning Man Event held every Labor Day week. On the Burning Man website (burningman.com), they state,” Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind. Burning Man is a counter culture community of radical self-expression and art known as Black Rock City.” The event offers art installations and activities based on a theme each year. This years is: “Hope and Fear: The Future.” The Burning Man event—which began in 1990—culminates each year with the burning of a giant neon figure.

Twenty thousand plus attend the event. According to the BLM the Burning Man cleanup record has been superb. Their philosophy of leave no trace behind should be adhered to by all people who visit the Black Rock. Especially important is to build no fire on the Playa (bring a self contained fire box) surface. Porta potties are required for all large group encampments on the Playa. The Black Rock is still largely pristine, just as it was when the first settlers crossed this unique and foreboding landscape.


Cement Mixer Margaritas
Improvisional Golf



The Black Rock is known as a cold desert because over half of its precipitation comes from snow. It is geologically in the Great Basin fault block formation grid. At 3848 feet elevation the Playa’s ancient silt extends 10000 feet into the earth. The Black Rock—at 400 square miles-- is basically a prehistoric lakebed from the ancient and vast Lake Lahontan. That said, in the winter months, the Playa—with no water outlet—could become a lake. In the summer it is a hardpan alkaline playa.

Driving on the Playa should be under the umbrella of caution. Though the land speed record was set here, one need not push their luck as we had witnessed personally. Though it is largely flat, there are “playa serpents.” It is a term used for small dunes and ruts. If driving too fast, a person can get caught off guard. It happened to me years ago when racing an antelope at night across the Playa. My old suburban hit a “serpent” that catapulted all of my gear to the ceiling.

In the heat of the day, the Playa is one vast optical illusion of mirages. Objects more than one-half mile away slip below the horizon as the image bends one’s field of view away from the ground. Vehicles will appear as low flying aircraft because you can see some refracted sky below them.

Depending on the time of the year, the Playa can be wet and easy to get stuck in. There is quick sand in places and marshy areas, too. Guidebooks and common sense will help one avoid these pitfalls.

Another Playa concern is the occasional finding of bombing range ammo remnants from the military using the Playa in the 1940s and 50s as a bombing range. Report any findings to the BLM that administers the Playa.

Cell phones do not work on the Playa. The only phone coverage is by satellite phones by Globalstar or Iridium. Ham radios work well. Hand held radios and CB radios would work for a few miles. A GPS would be handy to have.


The Black Rock is a combination of heaven and hell. Hell if a traveler is ill prepared for this harsh, yet beautiful landscape. Heaven if you’re well prepared, exercise caution and properly learn the ends and outs of the Playa.

There are an abundance of hot springs that ring the Playa. Some, like Double Hot, will scald you to your death (it has happened to pioneers and modern day travelers) and others—like Soldier Meadow and Wheeler—are pure pleasure.

In this land where camel and saber-toothed tigers once roamed, on the edge and the mountains that rise from the Playa, you may encounter deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, coyote, fox, antelope, snakes, lizards, bats, kangaroo rats and butterflies. More than anything though, it is the Black Rock landscape that allures with the surreal light, the intoxicating night skies, magnificent sunrises and sunsets and seasonal storms that define awe and wonder. Israel Shipman Pelton Lord wrote of the Playa in 1849 at 3am,” I write by candle light and think by star light.”

The Black Rock, night or day, is a landscape of adventure.



Location: NW Nevada. Accessed by Nevada Highways 447, California Highways 139, 299 and 447, Oregon Highways 139 to California 299.

General Information: Friends of the Black Rock 775-356-8820 or info@brd.com.

Supplies: Gerlach; Empire, NV; Cedarville, A

Reading Material: Chuck Dodd’s Guide to Getting Around in the Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon. ISBN #987-0-9653876-4-4(available at floatingisland.com)

Prints may be purchased by contacting Larry at Skiturn789@yahoo.com.

HOA LogoDestinationsTravel MallTravel LinksGlobal Travel