Day trips: See wild horses, Paiute crafts and fish hatchery; camp or swim at Pyramid Lake
In many ways, a trip to Pyramid Lake is like time travel.
This striking blue and green body of water, though huge, is only a remnant of Lake Lahontan that once covered most of the Great Basin around 60,000 years ago.
Pyramid Lake is inside the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reservation and remains largely undeveloped, save for some houses, a marina, some fish hatcheries and roads to get to the best fishing spots.
John C. Fremont, who first saw the lake Jan. 10, 1844, gave the lake its present name after pyramid-shaped tufa island there. Nearby, another tufa – calcium carbonate deposits formed by precipitation over hot springs – the Stone Mother, has been an important landmark to Tribe members, whose ancestors preceded Fremont by thousands of years.
Pyramid Lake is the terminus of the Truckee River, which originates from Lake Tahoe. It is 26 miles long, 11 miles wide and 300 feet deep. The lake area offers sightseeing, plenty of Paiute and Nevada history, fishing, boating, swimming, bird watching and more.
It takes less than two hours from the Carson Valley, but to avoid backtracking, make it a loop trip. Take Highway 395 to Reno, I-80 to Sparks and the Pyramid Highway exit (state route 445). From there, it’s about 40 minutes to the lake.
Between Sparks and Pyramid Lake, stop at the Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Placement Center, on your right before you get to the lake.
Talk to the wranglers and maybe, if they’re not too busy tendin’ horses, they’ll show you the ropes about the center. Right now, there are around 500 horses – 140 of them mares with foals that were born there. Rod Coleman, assistant manager, said that many evenings just before sundown, the colts and young burros will begin to cavort, leaving their mothers for a brief time to gallop and kick.
“All the babies start to run together,” he said. “Some people like to come and just watch that.”
The Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Placement Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, but you can see plenty from the road on the weekends. The adoption rate is only $125 for most horses.
When you leave the horses, follow signs to the Marina at Sutcliff just west of Pyramid Lake to get your permits (needed for day use, fishing, boating and/or open beach camping), and to tour the visitor’s center. There, you can see pictures of some of the whopper Lahontan Cutthroat Trout that have been caught in the lake – the record is 40 pounds!
The fish hatchery is worth a visit (back up the road you came in on), although action there is starting to wind down.
To get to Nixon, Tribe headquarters, head back south and watch for the sign telling you to turn left (still state route 446). In Nixon, you can see the new high school under construction, which wouldn’t merit mention except for the cool pyramid sculpture on top. Next is the Pyramid Lake Scenic Byways Visitors Center, a circular stone building/museum, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday – Saturday.
Continue on to Nixon, turning north at state route 447, and visit the Marble Bluff Fish Facility. This is a fascinating locks facility for the endangered cui ui sucker fish. It also attracts White Pelicans and Double Crested Cormorants by the hundreds.
Pyramid Lake is one of the top breeding spots in North America for the White Pelican. Right now, on the back side of Anaho Island, you can see thousands of them on their isolated island rookery, as well as nesting cormorants, terns, herons and gulls. Be forewarned that boats are restricted to 500 feet from the island.
At this point, you could turn left 447 and hit the Black Rock Desert (still dried up Lake Lahontan) at Gerlach in under an hour. Or, you could turn right and head for home via Wadsworth and Fernley, then to Alternate 95 through Silver Springs, Dayton and Carson City.
Reverse the whole loop if you like. Either way, Pyramid Lake is a place you won’t soon forget.
Pyramid Lake Ranger Station (775) 476-1155
Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe (775) 574-1000 or 1002
Pyramid Lake Marina (775) 476-1156
Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Placement Center (775) 475-2222.