Pyramid Lake - A Brief Natural HistoryPyramid Lake is a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan, which covered a large area of northwestern Nevada at the end of the last Ice Age (about 12,000 to 15,000 years ago). At its most expansive, Lake Lahontan had a surface area of over 8,500 square miles, making it one of the largest lakes on the continent. It was 500 feet deep over the Black Rock Desert and 900 feet deep over today's Pyramid Lake (which has a surface area of 188 square miles and is 350 feet deep). A warming climate caused the gradual disappearance of Lake Lahontan. The only lakes left that were once part of the whole are Pyramid Lake and Walker Lake near Hawthorne. Other prominent evidence includes shoreline erosion visible on mountain sides, tufa formations, and dry lake playas dotting the region, prominent among which are the Carson Sink, Humboldt Sink, and Black Rock Desert.
Pyramid Lake is in an endorheic lake, which means it is located in a basin with no drainage. The only way water leaves is through evaporation. It is fed by the Truckee River, which flows from Lake Tahoe. It is remarkable to realize that the water in this desert lake originated in what is literally another world, high in the alpine environment of the Sierra Nevada. The Truckee River is Lake Tahoe's only outlet and Pyramid Lake's only source.
Getting To Pyramid LakeThere are two main ways to reach Pyramid Lake from the Reno / Sparks area...
1. Take I80 east about 32 miles. Take the Wadsworth/Pyramid Lake exit #43 and follow the signs into town. Turn left onto highway 447 and drive about 16 miles to Nixon. From here, you can continue north on 447 to the west shore, or turn left on 446 to access Pyramid Lake's east side.
2. What locals call the Pyramid Highway starts at I80 in Sparks, near Victorian Square. It is also designated highway 445. Depending on exactly where you start, it's about 30 miles to Pyramid Lake and an intersection with highway 446. A left turn will take you to Sutcliffe and a right to Nixon. There is shoreline recreation access either way you go. I personally don't care for this route because it travels through urban and suburban areas for around 20 miles before becoming an open highway.
To get a handle on the lay of the land and the rules involved, see the Pyramid Lake regulations map.
Things To Do at Pyramid LakeMost recreation activities are along Pyramid Lake's west shore. This is where you will find areas designated for camping, fishing, boating, swimming, and sunbathing. For sightseeing, bird watching, and photography, additional spots around on the east side are accessible via unpaved roads. It is here, just off the east shore near Red Bay, where you can get close to the pyramid-shaped rock formation that inspired explorer John C. Frémont to give it the name Pyramid Lake. The much larger island nearby is Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge. A colony of American white pelicans uses the island, as well as other species like California gulls, Caspian terns, great blue herons, and snowy egrets. Boaters are prohibited from landing on Anaho Island and must not approach within 500 feet of the shore. Other sensitive areas are also closed to public access, such as the Wizard Cove area on the northwest shoreline.
Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation - Permits RequiredPyramid Lake is located northeast of Reno and is completely within the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation. This valuable tribal asset is managed and regulated by the tribe for its recreational, economic, and natural values. Everyone is welcome to visit and recreate at Pyramid Lake, but permits are required by those who are not tribal members. Permits can be purchased online, from outlets in Nixon and Sutcliffe, the Sutcliffe Ranger Station, 2500 Lakeview Drive, Sutcliffe, NV 89510, or at a number of vendors around the area. Basic permit prices are shown here, with more detail on the permit pricing web page. Rangers / tribal police are sworn peace officers and patrol the reservation. Those using the area without a valid permit will be cited. For more information, call (775) 574-1000.
Use Permits Required Per Day for Each Vehicle
- Daily Boating - $9.00
- Daily Jet Ski - $19.00
- Day Use - $6.00
- Overnight Camping - $9.00
- 3 Day Overnight Camping - $24.00
- 10 Day Camping - $74.00
- Daily Fishing - $9.00
- 3 Day Fishing - $24.00
- 10 Day Fishing - $49.00
- Youth (12-17) Daily Fishing - $5.00
- Youth 3 Day Fishing - $12.00
- Youth 10 Day Fishing - $29.00
- Fishing - $74.00
- Youth Fishing - $49.00
- Boating - $74.00
- Jet Ski - $149.00
Pyramid Lake HazardsHere some safety tips about recreation at Pyramid Lake. The most important safety device you have is the one between your ears - use caution and common sense when near and in the water and the chances of a mishap are greatly reduced. Pyramid is a relatively remote lake situated in a harsh environment. If you get in trouble, help can be summoned, but won't be immediate.
- There are no lifeguards or safety personnel.
- There are sudden drop offs near the shore. If you can't swim, stay out of the water.
- The weather can change fast. Sudden high winds and thunderstorms can make conditions hazardous in a hurry.
- If it's very windy, keep that boat beached. If you capsize in the middle of the lake, search and rescue might find you later, or not.