Official Burning Man Survival Guide 2000
Black Rock Desert
Black Rock City
Rangers' Safety Guide

Ranger Tip:
Know your limits!
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Black Rock Desert

A desert is defined as an area with low precipitation (less than 10 inches/year) and high evaporation (due to high irradiation, wind and temperature). The Great Basin in North America is considered a cold desert because more than half of the annual precipitation falls as snow and the average annual temperature is relatively low.

Located in Nevada, the Black Rock Desert is a 400 square mile, thoroughly flat, prehistoric lake bed, completely devoid of any vegetation or animal habitat. Its name comes from a large, prominent dark rock formation located at the north end of the desert. During the summer, the lake bed is primarily a hardpan alkaline playa. During the winter, it becomes a temporary lake which flattens the surface sediment and erases all footprints. This unique geological feature is the reason Burning Man is held in the Black Rock Desert, in Black Rock City.

For more information about the Black Rock Desert and its environs, see the Bureau of Land Management home page at and the Winnemucca district of BLM home page at

Black Rock Country

Geologically, the Great Basin in North America is a fault block formation: the crust of the earth between the Sierra and Rocky mountain ranges is stretching from east to west, and is broken into blocks. The faults dive into the earth at roughly 60 angles and the blocks tilt forming the mountain ranges and low basins. Many valleys here are at least 4,000 feet above sea level and all have internal drainage... in other words, water does not flow out to the oceans. Black Rock Country is a small portion of the Great Basin and encompasses the Black Rock Desert, Hualapai Flat, Fly Hot Springs and surrounding mountain ranges with names such as Granite, Calico, Black Rock and Selenite.

The Black Rock Desert is a silt alkaline playa, 3,848 feet above sea level, filled with silt as deep as 10,000 feet. Most of the mountains have a north-south orientation with many peaks higher than 10,000 feet above sea level. The Sierra range is now high enough to cut off incoming Pacific rainfall, creating a desert from what was once a wet, warm and lush landscape Crustal spreading has resulted in the Earth's hot mantle being near enough to the surface to heat ground water, creating the many hot springs.

70 million years ago, the Black Rock Desert was a valley that filled with water during the Pleistocene ice age, becoming a segment of the immense Lake Lahontan. At its greatest expanse, 13,800 years ago, Lake Lahontan covered 8,665 square miles and r eached a depth of 885 feet at the site of today's Pyramid Lake. Imagine this ancient sprawling lake with narrow arms, separating range after range in western Nevada into long peninsulas and islands. Giant mammoth, camel, horse and saber-toothed tiger roamed the marshy land. The largest mammoth ever found in North America was discovered in a channel of the Quinn River in Black Rock Desert. This Imperial Mammoth was 50 years old about 17,000 years ago, weighed about 13,000 pounds and was 13 high at the shoulders.

Despite its initial appearance, Black Rock Country is far from being a wasteland. The dominant flora of the region are salt tolerant sagebrushes, salt bushes, greasewood, shadesccale, rabbit brush, bitterbrush and grasses. Just a few examples of the diverse fauna consist of deer, bighorn and pronghorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, bats and numerous lizards, snakes (including the rattler), spiders, scorpions, butterflies and many birds.

Plants and animals adapt to the harsh desert environment in unique ways. Some plants reduce the size or number of leaves during the dry season and others have waxy or gray colored leaves. Animals harvest water by drinking dew and eating plants with high water content. Some come out only at dawn, dusk or at night, burrowing in a deep hole during the day. Hair and feathers create insulation to help keep heat out and water in; light coloration reflects solar radiation. Valuable lessons can be learned from the plants and animals of the desert for our own survival in the hot, dry environment.

Humans are believed to have reached the Great Basin about 11,500 years ago, arriving via the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia. These Asian Americans were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. Excavated Pyramid Lake caves indicate that at least three different prehistoric human cultures migrated through the basin between 9500 B.C. and 1400 A.D. When the first European American explorers visited, the inhabitants were the Kuyuidokado, or Northern Paiute, numbering 6,000-7,000. Relationships between the Northern Paiutes and early white settlers were until the late 1850's. Conflict between the two groups came to a head in 1860 at the Battles of Pyramid Lake. Most of the Paiute descendants are now on a reservation surrounding Pyramid Lake.

Black Rock Country remains sparsely populated today. Agricultural activities produce garlic seed,onions, potatoes, pinto beans and forage crops such as hay and alfalfa. Mining of gold, silver, oil, opal and sulfur has been undertaken on a small scale. Gypsum mining is a major industry; cattle and sheep ranching is a primary livelihood. In the 1940s and 50s, the Black Rock Desert was used as a bombing range by the military and live ammunition can still be found. Today the desert basin is used for low altitude training runs. In 1997, a British racing team set the world land speed record on the Black Rock playa with a four-ton, jet-powered car named Thrust 2. The principal recreational users of the desert today include rock hounds, land sailors, history buffs, 4WD enthusiasts, amateur rocketeers, and the community of Burning Man.

The location and nature of Burning Man creates within its participants, a keen awareness of an individual's survival within the community and within the natural environment. The lack of commercially-driven consumption at this event provides everyone with an awareness of resources and waste which is seldom found in contemporary society. Since its first appearance on the Black Rock Desert in 1990, Burning Man has had a remarkable record of cleanup. The Bureau of Land Management has stated that it has been unable to identify the location of the previous year's site.

Because of Burning Man, the Black Rock Desert is actually a much cleaner place than it was before 1990. Over the years, our cleanup crews have removed several tons of other people's discarded materials, including car bodies, tires, sheet metal, bed frames, stoves and refrigerators. Many truck loads of these items have been taken to an approved landfill site outside of the Black Rock Basin. Burning Man has also removed a sizable quantity of spent shell casings and cartridges, which were deposited when the military used the area for a gunnery range during WWII.

The community of Burning Man has a large base of active volunteers involved with protecting the environment through out the year. Many participants are also members of the National Wildlife Association and the Sierra Club.

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