High Rock Canyon Wilderness – Gerlach, Nevada - Atlas Obscura

High Rock Canyon Wilderness

A geological wonder where visitors can experience the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail as 19th-century pioneers once did.  


First described by explorer John Fremont in 1843, High Rock Canyon soon became an important route in the westward migration to Oregon Territory and the California goldfields.

Crossing the nearby Black Rock Desert was a difficult and dangerous part of the journey. The flat, alkaline dry lake bed offered little water for travelers. Arriving at the canyonlands was a relief, as water and food were more abundant.

However, navigating the canyons was not without difficulties. To enter the canyon, early settlers had to lower their wagons using a rope to the canyon floor. Several wagons were destroyed in the process.

Those early visitors were in awe when they laid eyes on the canyon. Vertical rock walls tower 300 feet over the trail below. Several settlers marked the occasion by carving their names into the rocks. Some wrote their names using axle grease, still visible today.

This mountainous area was formed by ancient lava flows. The canyons were created as a result of tectonic activity and erosion. Several other gorges form the area, such as Yellow Rock and Mahogany Creek Canyons. Mahogany Creek Canyon is so narrow at one point that visitors can touch both sides with arms outstretched.

Due to a high water table, there are several springs in the area. It is common to see flowers in bloom during the late summer. Wildlife is abundant in the area. Prior to the arrival of settlers, this region was an important site for Native Americans.

To protect the cultural, historic, and natural significance of the area, Congress in 2000 designated the surrounding land as a Wilderness Area. This limits motorized travel, but the primary trails are still open to vehicles.

Because the area is so remote, visitors can experience the night sky as brilliantly as the early settlers did. The lack of light pollution led to nearby Massacre Rim being named as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2019.

Know Before You Go

This area is remote. There is no mobile phone service. A high-clearance four wheel drive vehicle is recommended. Plan on camping, as there are several designated sites. Bring plenty of food, water and a first-aid kit.

Although the area is frequently traveled, because there is water, the sagebrush and other plants grow abundantly. Expect to have your vehicle's paint scratched.

If you plan on accessing the area by crossing the Black Rock playa (dry lake bed), be aware that when wet, the surface turns to mud, and you will get stuck. The playa is best avoided from winter through early spring. Even a summer thunderstorm can temporarily halt travel. Soldier Meadows Road is a well maintained, gravel road that skirts the western edge of the playa.

The region can get heavy snow in the winter. High Rock Canyon Road is closed from late January until May 12th to protect wildlife habitats.