Camping America’s most beautiful desert lake

In the middle of a high altitude desert completely devoid of shade, I somehow find myself setting up a tent on the beach.

At least, I think it’s a beach. There’s sand under my toes, the sound of waves lapping against the shore is no further than 10 yards from my tent flap, and between lukewarm sips from my Tecate beer can I’m able to faintly make out the scent of sea salt wafting on the breeze.

Only, I’m not on the coast. I’m in Nevada, 300 miles from the Pacific Ocean, on the shores of one of the few remaining salt lakes in the entire country. Furthermore, this is the desert, a place that only receives 7 inches of rain a year and is synonymous with exceptional dryness and heat.

Yet here I sit, tailgate facing the water and beach chair firmly planted in the sand, wondering if there is a reason why I’m the only one here.

%Gallery-131840%At 3,800 elevation and over an hour from the nearest urban center (Reno), Pyramid Lake is regarded by many to be the nation’s most beautiful desert lake. Covering a swath of 188 sq. miles of desert, the lake is 1/10 the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, yet due to its greater depth actually contains 25% more water. And yes, it’s salty, with the water containing about 1/6 the salt of regular ocean water.

As the terminus of the Truckee River which flows from higher, cleaner, and far more popular Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake retains an aura of tranquility and calm that’s lost on its famous neighbor. While other notable Nevada lakes such as Tahoe and Lake Mead swell with weekend partygoers and well-heeled recreationalists, it’s still possible to find a sliver of sand on Pyramid Lake where the only semblance of movement is the sun sinking below the distant horizon.

Set entirely within the boundaries of the Paiute Indian Reservation, Pyramid Lake is also a renowned spot for fish-hungry anglers looking to go home with a filet and a photo. In addition to the various species of trout that populate the lake (many of which are caught by fisherman sitting in the shallows of the lake in strangely concocted fishing chairs that look curiously like glorified lifeguard stands), Pyramid Lake is the only place on the planet known to contain the critically endangered cui-ui fish.

At the general store in the town of Sutcliffe, a local, non-Indian woman sporting a “Charter Member of the Piss and Moan Club” t-shirt is criticizing the recent move by the Paiute to close certain sections of the lake to non-tribal members. Due to various instances of graffiti found on sacred sites along the lake’s eastern shore, the tribe has taken the drastic measure of closing these sections to the general public.

These sites include the pyramid shaped rock structure 19th century explorer John Fremont incorporated into the lake’s name when in 1844 he became the first Westerner to lay eyes upon the lake. For the next 16 years, Pyramid Lake would be at the center of the tensions between native Paiute tribes and the hordes of American prospectors looking to strike it rich in silver, lumber, whiskey, and gold. Finally coming to a head in 1860, over 70 early settlers would be killed in a botched attack on the Paiute Tribe in what would infamously be the Pyramid Lake War. A full account of the reservation and the cultural history is available by visiting the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitor Center in the town of Nixon.

Camping permits for the reservation and Pyramid Lake are available for $9/night at either the Nixon General Store or by advance purchase online, so for less money than the minimum bet at the Vegas craps table, you can have the finest piece of beachfront property Nevada has to offer. The sunsets even come free.