A Native American road trip through Nevada

Yavapai-Apache tribal member Alejandra Rubio gets behind the wheel to trace her Native American roots along one of Nevada’s iconic road trips…

Team Wanderlust
02 June 2023
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Growing up in Arizona, my cousins and I had always explored our backyard. We would swim in the Verde River and other spots around the Verde Valley in northern Arizona, while some of my favourite memories were visiting the historical sites connected to my Apache culture. Now, in northern Nevada, I am beginning to learn about many different tribes and their cultures. It was at a tribal council meeting in Pyramid Lake where I became inspired to delve a little deeper into my heritage: this time behind the wheel on the Burner Byway, one of Nevada’s many road trips. It cuts right through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation and takes you to the ancient Lake Lahontan, named after French explorer Baron de Lahontan, and ends in Reno.

Pyramid scene

Pyramid Lake is look after by the Paiute Tribe (Alejandra Rubio)

I started the road trip from my home in Carson City, picking up breakfast at my favourite spot, Eve’s Eatery. Now refuelled, I headed to Pyramid Lake and the Pyramid Lake Museum, which are located about 56km northeast of Reno in a remote desert area in Washoe, Lyon, and Storey counties. As I approached the crest of the hill overlooking the lake, I caught a glimpse of its sparkling azure waters. Its stark beauty set against its dusty, craggy surrounds meant I had to pull over at the top to sit and take it all in. Pyramid Lake is the home to the Kooyooe Tukadu (which translate as cui-ui fish eaters, named after the cui-ui fish) band of the Northern Paiute peoples. One of the unique things about the lake is that it’s home to a prehistoric fish that can be found nowhere else, the Lahontan Cutthroat trout. A great way learn about this environment and the land around it is by booking a fishing experience with Autumn Harry, who is a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, owner of Kooyooe Pa’a Guides and is the first female Paiute flyfishing guide. She regales the history of this ancient land while you’re busy trying to catch a prehistoric fish; it’s an extraordinary experience and one that is quite rightly popular so can be booked up way in advance. Before I left the lake, I caught sight of the many American white pelicans who fly to Anaho Island in the middle of the lake from Mexico each April and May. it’s said a colony of up to 20,000 adults lay their eggs here and raise their young. In tribute to this migration, the Paiute peoples have named Anaho Island Pasakattudu, which translates as ‘dry sitting’.


The glittering waters of Pyramid Lake are a bewitching sight (Alejandra Rubio)

It was time to leave the lake and my next stop was the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitors Center, the only tribally-funded American Indian museum in Nevada, and who will be celebrating its 25th anniversary on 26 August, 2023. Walking around the museum, I was able to take a deep dive into the lives of the Pyramid Lake Paiute peoples and how they have lived off the land for many years. It was fascinating to learn how the lake originally got its name; the American explorer John C. Frémont had visited the lake on his trip to the Black Rock Desert in the 1840s and, after spying the pyramid-shaped rock sitting in the lake, decided it reminded him of the Pyramids of Egypt. Carrying on through the museum, I spied mammoth bones, dating between 10,000 and 1.8m years old, unearthed in the Pyramid Lake area, as well as displays of beautiful beadwork and traditional wear worn by tribes during powwows. My highlight was the virtual reality basket tour, where you can interact and ‘pick up’ 3D scans of American Indian baskets crafted by weavers from over 25 indigenous tribes. To see them from every angle was an extraordinary thing.

 Back on the road, I was next bound for Gerlach. As I drove, I passed beguiling treeless mountains painted with vibrant colours and unique rock displays, all of which clearly cough up evidence of ancient water waves from the former shorelines of Lake Lahontan, which once covered this area with water 150m deep around 13,000 years ago. Just before I approached Gerlach I passed through the small town of Empire. Between 1948 and 2011, Empire was a company town that manufactured gypsum and once had a population of more than 750 people, but since the shutdown of the mining company in 2011, the population has decreased to 65 people (2021 census). Passing through I was given a fascinating snapshot but I’ve added the 2020 film Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, to my movie wishlist, as it’s a loose depiction of Empire’s story.

Artistic flair

Pieces on display at Planet X Pottery (Alejandra Rubio)

As I arrived into Gerlach, my eyes caught sight of the Black Rock Desert, a colossal, pancake-flat landscape of cracked playa and lava fields that stretches 35 miles in one direction and 12 miles in the other. It’s the largest of its kind in North America and is a favourite with the locals who love camping and the adrenaline rush of off-road driving. It’s a landscape that has inspired plenty of artists and, appropriately, my first stop in Gerlach was Planet X Pottery. A semi-circle of three buildings that act as one giant gallery, it was laden with intricately designed pottery pieces. As I wandered among them, I became increasingly smitten with these beautiful works of art and I couldn’t leave without buying a cup.


One of the many art installations in the Hualapai Flat as part of the Burning Man Project (Alejandra Rubio)

To have a closer glimpse of the nature that surrounded me I headed to Fly Ranch, home to the Burning Man Project which culminates in an 80,000-strong, world-famous festival each August. If, like me, you’re not there in August there’s still plenty to do here and I joined a Burning Man tour to see several of its striking art installations scattered among the stark desert. The ranch is not just home to world-class art pieces but also its namesake geyser, which spurts steaming water high above the flat surrounds. It was here, as I learned more about the history of this land, that my interest piqued. Before I started my road trip, I learned that the surrounding areas of Granite Range and the Solider Meadows hot springs, including several ranches dotted across the playa, are known as Hualapai Flat. I was amazed to learn this because I have family who are from the Hualapai Tribe located in Arizona. Hualapai means ‘people of the tall pines’, and ‘pai’ is the indigenous word for people. Hualapai people’s traditional rangelands are primarily in the southwest and extend through areas of now Arizona and Mexico, so I wondered why this name was being used in a valley in far northern Nevada? This I didn’t (and still don’t) entirely know. This region is the Numu (Northern Paiute) peoples’ ancestral home, not the Hualapai. But the proposed theory is that members of the Hualapai tribe interacted with and possibly visited the lands of the Northern Paiutes after contact with white settlers. Once there, they believed those lands had a connection to the place where members of the Hualapai would pass through after death. So, it’s said the Hualapai Flat was named in their honour. However, until I have the chance to ask members of the Northern Paiute tribe or the Hualapai tribe for its credibility, it will have to remain a bit of a mystery for now.

Eclectic boutiques

The Fly Ranch Geyser (Alejandra Rubio)

As I reached Reno and my road trip was coming to an end, I made time to visit the city’s MidTown district, a neighbourhood well known for its eclectic boutiques, art galleries and local restaurants. I certainly found my favourites, like the clothing and jewellery of vintage hole-in-the-wall shop Bad Apple, funky costumes of Junkies and the house plants and art of Space Cadet. After perusing the shops, I made sure to stop by the Nevada Art Museum, which has an exhibition (running until 7 January 2024) for the works of artist Ben Aleck, an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. His paintings, illustrations and prints give a visual to indigenous stories from the Great Basin lands.

My time in Reno was the perfect end to my road trip and now I know a little more about the land I live on. Living and breathing it along the Burner Byway made it extra special. As my grandmother Elizabeth Rocha told me: it doesn’t matter where you come from, always learn from other cultures because you never know when it will be helpful.

In the know

Items on display at the Pyramid Lake Museum (Alejandra Rubio)

Where to sleep

Reno has many great places to stay, like  Silver Legacy, Circus Circus or the Eldorado. If you want to camp out in Gerlach, there are places out on the Black Rock Desert playa where you can pitch a tent and have a night under stars, with a sky full of stars right above your head.

Refuel on the road

Eve’s Eatery, Carson City

Located in Downtown Carson City, Eve’s Eatery is a whitewashed breakfast spot and one of my favourites. They have the best handmade pasta, but I’d personally recommend the oxtail soup and their chambongs.

Bruno’s Country Club, Gerlach

The oldest bar in this part of Nevada, Bruno’s Country Club is a great lunch spot the really makes you feel like you’re in the Old West. Captivating images from the Burning Man festival adorn the walls, while the bartenders are very friendly and welcoming – just what you need after being on the road. They have a saying here: “This isn’t the Middle of Nowhere, but you can see the Middle of Nowhere from there.” It certainly feels like it and that’s all part of the magic.

Bruno’s Country Club (Alejandra Rubio)

Star Village Coffee

This American Indian family-owned coffee shop will deliver a good Hampshire and serve unique coffee that pays homage to the Great Basin region. The sage mint latte is a must-try.

Other top Reno eats

If you are looking for the best tacos, you must try Cielito Lindo Taqueria. Try Juicy’s, near Downtown Reno, if you want a burger and fries. Another great place to eat is SF Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant with great food and whose hospitality is one to experience.

Top tip

Make sure you have an offroad vehicle for this road trip, as you’ll want to explore the sprawling playa of the Black Rock Desert and the gems that it holds. But make sure the playa is safe to drive beforehand, because you don’t want to be stuck in the mud.

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