Fly Geyser is now open to the public—kind of
Burning Man bought Fly Ranch and is weighing the options
My brothers-in-law Pat Snyder and Jim Snyder have a good story about sneaking into Fly Geyser. They’re both photography buffs, and they’ve gotten some great shots at popular destinations like Death Valley, Zion National Park and Bodie, California, but they favor more remote, lesser-known spots in the Eastern Sierras and Nevada.
One fall day in 2014, they ventured to Fly Geyser, an otherworldly clump of bulbous nozzles of calcium carbonate that spew hot water into the sky like a fountain. The geyser, about 20 miles north of Gerlach, began to form in 1964 after an attempt to drill a well, and today the formation is about 15 feet high, painted in streaks of brick red and emerald green by algae and surrounded by shallow, terraced pools.
“Jim had known about it forever,” said Pat. The geyser is on Fly Ranch, a 3,800-acre property that was privately owned and gated.
“Jim knew somebody who called somebody to see if they could let us in,” Pat said. But Jim never heard back from his contact. So, the brothers headed to Gerlach, lunched at Bruno’s, and asked around about how to access the property.
“Just walk in,” someone told them.
“So, we drive out there, and the gate’s there, and there’s a sign that says you may not enter,” Pat recalled. The sign also advised that the property was monitored by video, but a camera on top of an old trailer was covered with dust and looked disconnected.
Pat and Jim climbed through a barbed wire fence and walked about a half mile to the geyser.
“We spent, oh, maybe an hour, just kinda climbing around it, every which angle,” Pat said. He noticed some well-maintained portable toilets there, which led him to conclude that perhaps the place was frequently visited.
His hunch was correct. Access was sometimes granted to various groups. In 1994, Fly Ranch was the site of the first Burning Man event held in Nevada. And the likes of scientists, scout groups and occasional television crews sometimes visited.
“There’s no safety rails or anything,” Pat said. “We had waterproof boots on, and we could wade almost clear around and take pictures from every single angle. We had a great time and started to pack up our gear. Then, Jim got the idea that we should go kill a few hours and come back at night.”
While still on the property, they saw an SUV with a sheriff’s logo. The sheriff slowed down, rolled down his window and said, “How you guys doing?” Pat remembers the rest of that conversation like this:
“Did you get some good pictures?”
“Yeah, we think so.”
“Good! Have a great day.”
The brothers killed a few hours in Gerlach, then returned to the site, carefully stepped into one of the terraced pools—about 100 degrees and four inches deep—and set up a tripod in the water. After a few experiments, they concluded that a 30-second exposure would pick up the details of the night sky, and that using a flash twice during each shot would highlight the colors and freeze the water in action. They ended up with a handful of slick, calendar-worthy images.
Plans under construction
Plenty of people have similar stories about sneaking into Fly Geyser. I myself never have—but I consider that more of a ding in my explorer cred than a feather in my legal-compliance cap.
Intrepid trespassers are now advised to take this spot off their to-do lists, however. Circumnavigating the geyser and planting a tripod in the water are things of the past. In 2016, Burning Man bought the property for $6.5 million. “The 3,800-acre parcel in northern Nevada is home to dozens of hot and cold pools, three geysers, wetlands, a playa, an old farmhouse, dozens of animal species, and more than 100 identified types of plants,” according to the “Fly Ranch—Burning Man Project” web page.
Burning Man hasn’t decided exactly what it will do with this treasure-rich property. Efforts undertaken so far include hosting a research fellow to catalog plants and wildlife, erecting a boardwalk and viewing platform, and posting signs that urge people to stay on trails.
A list of 12-month goals includes this one: “Establish security plan and protocols for the property to dissuade trespassing.” And the list of potential long-term goals being kicked around rings with the general sense of experimentation and optimism that underlie much of Burner culture’s ethos.
“Fly Ranch … can serve as an incubator for the Burning Man community to take ideas from our temporary city and give them a real-world testing ground,” reads a 2018 roadmap document. (flyranch.burningman.org/planning-decision-making/) “It can become a place to experiment with shelter, energy, water, environmentalism, new models of living, working and governance.”
The plans being considered include a maker space, research center, communal living space or organic farm. Later this month, a sculpture is slated to be installed, a 300-foot-long pier originally constructed for Burning Man by Matt Schultz and team. (Full disclosure: I’m involved with this group.)
Ticketed nature walks
For now, Burning Man has teamed up with the conservation group Friends of Black Rock-High Rock to co-manage Fly Ranch, and they’re offering access to the property in the form of ticketed nature walks.
On a recent Sunday at 8:45 a.m., my family and I checked into the office of Friends of Black Rock-High Rock office in Gerlach. I signed three pieces of paperwork, then three orange-vested AmeriCorps volunteers greeted the group of 19 ticket-holders and reminded us to wear sunscreen. One guide discussed some of Burning Man’s 10 guiding principles, among them, “immediacy,” which, in this case, would mean no cameras and no cell phones allowed until the last half hour of the tour.
The group carpooled about 20 miles up route 447, along the west edge of the playa, where, to the right, we saw a group of RV campers flying huge kites, and to the left, four pronghorn antelope.
Generally, I’m not a big guided-tour traveler. I’m more of a check-the-GPS-coordinates-and-drive-up-a-wash-to-hunt-for-volcanic-glass kind of girl. I’ve been on a few tours, and I’ve appreciated the local wisdom they’ve offered. In South Carolina, say, I was glad to be told exactly how far to stay away from alligators. But—being instructed on how to cross a barbed wire fence by a guide who mispronounced “Nevada,” right here in my home county, was a little hard to swallow. And a second talk on the concept of “immediacy” went down with a taste of irony when it came without any mention of the $40 ticket price vis a vis the other Burning Man principles of “radical inclusion” and “decommodification.”
I admit, though, that as a long-time Burner, I have many times, in many ways, benefited from these 10 principles and this experimental community. And I’m clear on the futility—both practical and philosophical—of trying to hold every person associated with the event or its splinter projects accountable to literal applications of every single principle, every time. So, I did my best to reserve judgment as we were herded along an old earthen dam, past a reservoir, through grassy wetland and past several hot springs on a beautiful, sunny spring morning.
I’d spoken with Michael Myers, the director of Friends of Black Rock-High Rock, two days beforehand.
He said that so far, of the estimated 280 people who’ve taken the guided walk so far this spring, most have come from Reno or the Bay Area, and also a few from as far away as Germany, Poland and Hong Kong.
“A lot of people are coming out and either haven’t spent much time in the Black Rock Desert or have only come for Burning Man,” he said.
He likes the idea of a lot of people visiting the area. “But at the same time, you don’t want it to be loved to death,” he said.
Traversing Fly Ranch’s old wetlands and new boardwalks, I could see his point. Smaller calcium carbonate and algae formations were all around the geyser. They were otherworldly and gorgeous—and they looked so fragile that I was glad for the stay-on-trail signs I’d initially rolled my eyes at a little. The nature walk—“We’re trying not to use the word ’tour,’” said Myers—culminated in a long stop at the geyser itself, which was thrilling to see, and which I had no problem viewing from a platform. And I was, by then, fairly well sold on the property’s new restrictions. Maybe I missed my opportunity to sneak in years ago, but thousands of people will be able to enjoy this place without hurting it too much. And while I wished for more details about the site’s history, geology and wildlife ecology—“We’re still learning,” was the answer to most questions—the guides were generous with information about how to sign up to volunteer as a land steward here, which would afford a person something of a VIP level of access. (Start by checking out the “Volunteer” tab at blackrockdesert.org.)
Myers pointed out that people travel to the Black Rock to camp, hunt, launch rockets, drive ATVs, and for many other purposes. There have been incidents of littering and vandalism, but overall, he said, people tend to treat the land responsibly.
“We’re working on crafting our messaging to reach all of these people where they are on the scale of outdoor ethics,” Myers said. And he thinks the messaging is working.
Soldier Meadows, where there’s a hot spring, a creek and a rustic cabin “used to just get hammered with use and irresponsible recreation,” he said. “I was just up there yesterday. The cabin is clean. It’s nice. People are taking care of it. … There really has been that ownership of the place.”
While Soldier Meadows is on public land, and Fly Geyser is private, the two groups taking care of these desert sites seem to see eye to eye on finding a balance of preservation and access.
“There are a lot of quirky, cool, unique Nevada things to do out here,” Myers said. “And we want people to do them. … We don’t want to be the fun police. But we want people to do it responsibly.”