“In amounts of rain and snow falling on its rugged surface, Nevada is the driest—and has the largest percentage of its area classified as desert—of all states in the Union…To some who hurry along Nevada highways, the country through which they pass seems almost barren of life. But to those who know it, the desert is the home of a myriad of living things—animals and plants capable of solving their problems of survival in intensely interesting ways.”
-Sessions S. Wheeler, The Nevada Desert (1971)
The Great Basin is brimful with desolate, high-desert country—arid Nevada sits right in the middle of it—but all this idiomatic rough is not without its diamonds. The Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA) is one of those gems, hidden in plain sight.
A big name for a big place: 1.2 million acres of mostly undeveloped basin-and-range topography in northwestern Nevada, encompassing 900 miles of primitive roads and the largest intact segments of the historic California trails left in the country. Emigrant carvings and prehistoric petroglyphs adorn its canyon walls, human screeds written over an age-old geologic palimpsest. Fossils of mastodons, sequoia trees and gigantic marine reptiles speak to cooler, wetter epochs. Though the tune’s changed, the thrum of life plays on. From the peaks of windswept ranges to the baking basin floors, the ragged mountain clefts to the verdant springs, desert species carve out their niches and endure, even thrive.
Most of these photographs were taken in and around the NCA. (The few Sierra Nevada species were found at Lake Tahoe.) It’s all too easy and almost cliché to dismiss the Great Basin as an empty place, a monochromatic landscape of barren hills and sparse, squalid shrubbery. But taking the small effort to look closer—pulling off Interstate 80, heading into the desert and actually stepping out of one’s vehicle to hike around—yields glimpses of a surprisingly rich, highly adapted biota. As the writer Charles Finn has noted, “The desert is full—full of time and space and distance and silence.” And, I would add, a riotous diversity of life.