Summer Guide: Pyramid Lake—Desert lake with the bovine mystique

The Pike family narrowly escapes death by cow on the Pyramid Highway

The cows! The cows! A trip to Pyramid Lake is a moo-ving experience.

The cows! The cows! A trip to Pyramid Lake is a moo-ving experience.

Photo by Deidre Pike

The drive to Pyramid Lake from Reno is peaceful. Hills, dirt and plants in shades from a dusty beige to sage green call up all I love about Nevada’s outback. The white crosses along the road, built as memorials to accident victims, force me to live in the moment.

I’m here right now with people I love in a beautiful place. About 25 miles out of Sparks, I start to feel a real distance from civilization and a society noted for billboards, slot machines and neon.

It is good.

It would be a peaceful drive on a weekday morning. It’s only a half-hour to the lake, but we’re going beyond that. We’re headed around the lake, through the tiny town of Nixon and down nine miles of dirt road to see what explorer Cap’n John Fremont saw more than 150 years ago: “A very remarkable rock [that] presented a pretty exact outline of the great pyramid of Cheops.”

We’re headed for the Pyramid. And the drive isn’t quiet. Not with three kids arguing over seating arrangements and two slobbering, shedding dogs.

“I’m going to dive for clay,” my son, Jesse, announces. He’s 10.

“We are not diving for clay,” my 14-year-old, Tabitha, tells him. I wince at how much she sounds like me on an intolerant day. “There will be no diving for clay.”

I wonder what Tabitha has against clay diving. But I don’t get time to ask her. A huge Quarter-Pounder-to-be galumphs down a hill, right toward our Plymouth Voyager. I gasp. I cover my face.

We’re about to intersect with a cow. Surely, a fatality will result.

Pyramid Lake always surprises me. We’d lived in Reno two years before we ever thought of driving a half-hour north to see the desert lake. We loved Tahoe, the trees, the pristine icy water. Conversely, I’d unfairly visualized Pyramid Lake as a mini version of the Great Salt Lake. When we lived on the west side of Salt Lake City, the horrid tang of lake decay, carried on an evening breeze, would occasionally permeate the air. I never got used to the thick, dead smell of it. And wading in the murky saline solution was no great joy either. The salt irritated my skin. I had to hold my breath.


I remember the first time I saw Pyramid Lake. My parents had come to town. Their jet’s approach handily took them right over the lake.

“It was right out there in the middle of nothing,” my mom said. “The water was so blue; it was unbelievable.”

My folks, more used to a lush, Eastern green, tend to be awed by the arid Nevada landscape. So we made the trek to the lake, commenting on things like dry ditches and the power of water to change land, which is all the more evident when you don’t have lots of grass, bushes and trees cluttering up the view.

Then, just as we wound our way up the last brown hill, we saw what my parents had glimpsed from on high.

“A sheet of green water—some 20 miles wide—broke upon our eyes like the ocean,” Fremont wrote in 1844. “The waves were curling in the breeze, and their dark-green color showed it to be a body of deep water. … It was set like a gem in the mountains.”

We should have known. We’d seen the open range sign. We’d observed a couple of cows lounging on the side of the road.

We round the last bend of Highway 445 before you see the lake. We’re going about 60 miles per hour. The bovine lopes down a slope briskly. The crossing of our trajectories seems inevitable. My husband, Dave, doesn’t say a word. I can’t look, but I feel him step on the gas. The car flies forward.

That’s it. No impact. I open my eyes.

“What? No dead cow?”

“I couldn’t brake in time. So I sped up. Figured it’d be better to get sideswiped than hit ‘er head on.”

I try to calm down and to appreciate the shimmering lake. We turn right on Highway 446 to drive around the lake and through Nixon. I start up a new conversation with my kids. They’re pretty quiet after the near-cow experience.

Teenage Tabitha finds herself adrift in a life raft on Pyramid Lake after being forced by her mom to skip classes at Dilworth Middle School.

Photo by Deidre Pike

“What do you like about Pyramid Lake?”

“The best thing about Pyramid Lake is I get to get out of school,” Jesse says. He’s playing hooky from Mrs. Hornback’s fifth-grade class at Greenbrae Elementary School.

Confession time. I took my kids out of school to drive to the lake. But what are we going to do when we get there? The older we all get, the harder it is to do anything together at all.

Dave, a senior forecaster at the National Weather Service, works rotating shifts. My kids are involved in Scouts, the Sparks Piranhas and church youth groups. They take private music lessons and go to what seems like an endless succession of birthday parties.

And me? For the past several months, I’ve been working at the RN&R and doing graduate work at the University of Nevada, Reno. We haven’t had a lot of family time. So it’s fun just to be in the car together, engaged in a little light conversation.

“There are dead people in the lake.”

“No, there aren’t any dead people anymore. They dig those bodies out.”

“Stephanie, can you do this?” My double-jointed son bends his middle thumb joint back at an impressive 90-degree angle.

“Can you do this?” Stephanie sticks her tongue out at Jesse, then curls it over.

My 14-year-old weighs in with: “I brought towels along to dry off the dogs.”

The dogs.

I didn’t want to take our two dogs to Pyramid Lake. My cocker spaniel, Sugar, is shedding her buff fur all over. And our mutt, a “Labra-terrier” named Mystie, slobbers too much to be a pleasant addition to any adventure. I pictured them getting wet and rolling in the dirt, attacking other beach-goers or being attacked by rattlesnakes.

“It’s a huge commitment to take the dogs anywhere,” I tell Dave.

“It’s a huge commitment to own dogs,” he replies.

I just hope we don’t run into any more cows.

For a $5 day use permit that you can buy at the marina in Sutcliffe or at the bait store on Highway 445, you can use all of the beaches around the lake, which is part of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. And while you can easily make it to a Pyramid Lake beach from Sparks in a half-hour, it takes at least 90 minutes to drive the 60 extra miles to the Pyramid.

Even with gas at almost $2 a gallon, the experience is worth the extra drive. Before we get to Nixon, Highway 446 ends and we turn left on Highway 447. Then, a few miles out of Nixon, there’s a sign on the left that says: “Pyramid, Reo Bay, Anderson.” That’s where we turn to drive the last nine miles down a winding dirt road. As we near the Pyramid, we drive past many more cows grazing along the beach and amongst the odd-shaped tufa formations.

I can’t describe what the Pyramid feels like up close. It’s strong, healthy, ancient. The beach that time forgot is almost empty, and the sand is hot.

The water’s slightly warmer here, too, on the east side of the lake. Weatherdude Dave explains that this has something to do with thermal troughs or upwelling or something. The water gets blown across the lake, cycling the warmer, upper layer of water to the east. The cooler water sinks and comes up on the west shore. I lovingly record my own misinterpretation of his accurate explanation. If I twist his words a bit, that’s OK. Dave loves being misquoted by the media. But he doesn’t want his picture taken.

“You put my picture in the paper, and I’ll sue your derriere,” he says.

When we get to the Pyramid, only one other family is enjoying the beach with their pet, which looks like a German shepherd. We give them lots of distance. I worry that Dave will park in a soft spot and we’ll sink into the sand and get stuck. Last time we were here, Dave spent an hour helping some fellow beach-goers pull their car out of the sand. He confidently parks on a firm spot.

I put sun block on the kids and on my face and shoulders. The dogs politely chase a ball into the water a few times, and then refuse to swim anymore. Tabitha pulls Jesse out a few feet into the cold water on an air mattress, then dumps him overboard. He’s not happy about this. He won’t go back into the water, either, until I blow up our three-man inflatable boat. We paddle around, but not too far out, because I forgot the lifejackets. Next time, we’ll bring them and take the boat all the way to the Pyramid, at least a quarter mile from shore.

We eat sandwiches brought from home. We drink Squeez-Its and bottled water. We wade in the chilly water. Then, to warm up, we explore the rocks. The dogs don’t find any snakes. And the cows keep their distance at the far end of the beach.

Before the late afternoon wind comes up, we deflate the boat and pack up the van. As we drive back along the dusty road, we name the shapes we see in the tufa. Jesse sees a “wild bull” on the side of one hill. Another hill reminds Steph of the time we visited Mount Rushmore, only instead of presidential visages, she sees the gnarled faces of American Indian chiefs.

That’s not what I see. With every turn of my head, I see enormous pies left behind by a clan of giant bovine extraterrestrials that evidently consumed one too many family minivans on their brief sojourn to this planet.