edition 04.21.04

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Created by students at the Reynolds School of Journalism University of Nevada, Reno

Reno's best kept secret
Pyramid Lake is a desert oasis hidden just north of Reno.
Michael D. Mueller
Zephyr Staff

View of the Pyramid at from Sutcliffe, Nev.

Photo by Michael D. Mueller












Now that spring is in the air, many people are beginning to think of watersports and cooling off. Maybe it's time to think of some new alternatives to the same old swimming hole.

Most people in and around the Truckee Meadows are familiar with Lake Tahoe. Some U.S. presidents have even visited there from time to time. But many residents of the Reno-Sparks area aren’t familiar with the other end of the Truckee River watershed: Pyramid Lake.

Pyramid Lake, and Walker Lake in central Nevada are all that is left of an inland sea called Lake Lahontan that covered much of the Great Basin some 12,000 years ago.

Pyramid Lake is located about 45 miles North of Reno on the Pyramid highway north of Spanish Springs. Besides being of the same distance as Lake Tahoe is from Reno and sharing a common tributary, the Truckee River, Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe share many qualities and have some differences.

Pyramid Lake is quite large as desert lakes go, some 28 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest. Pyramid is owned by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Northern Nevada, and special permits and fees are required for boating and camping.

There are two towns on the lake: Nixon, which is the tribal seat, lies at the south end of the lake at the delta of the Truckee River, and Sutcliffe, which lies about halfway up the western shore of the lake. Sutcliffe offers jet ski and boat rentals, a grocery store and a bar.  

"I go out there all the time," said Julie Rice, and Education Major and senior at UNR. "My son and I go to Pyramid Lake all summer."

For Rice, it's too difficult to find space at Lake Tahoe.

"By the time we get ready and make it to Sand Harbor at Tahoe all the parking spaces are gone and the beach is closed," she said. "That never happens at Pyramid and the water's warm enough to swim in all summer."

Because of its alkali basin, Pyramid Lake is one of the few lakes that is mosquito-free.

 Being an Indian Reservation also enables Pyramid Lake to be one of the only places left where owners of the two-stroke engine personal watercraft can still operate in this area.

Author with a 9-pound Cutthroat trout caught at Pyramid Lake in 1989.

Photo by Michael T. O'Hair



The world record Lahontan Cutthroat Trout was caught at Pyramid Lake, some 41 pounds and almost 3 ½ feet in length. This fish is also listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Threatened species List.

Fishing season typically lasts from Oct. 1 to July 1 but varies with drought conditions. Charters are available upon request.

Pyramid Lake is also home to a prehistoric fish, the Cui-ui, a leftover from millions of years ago and on the endangered species list.

Another fascinating species, the Horn Billed Pelican, can also be found in and around the lake. The lake's only real island, Anahoe, is a refuge to these majestic birds and located at the East side of the lake.

"I found the pelicans really fascinating," said James Drennan, a senior English Literature major at UNR. "I went to Pyramid Lake for the first time about three weeks ago. We saw a huge flock of pelicans at the Sutcliffe marina. Their wingspans must be at least seven feet, and watching them take off is a sight to remember."

Pyramid Lake got its name from the 685-foot three–sided pyramid that sits on the shore of the Eastern side of the lake, right across from Sutcliffe. This huge monolith can be seen from anywhere on the huge lake and is made up of a rock called Tufa, a sharp and intricate crystalline growth that results from reaction with the alkali and the sunshine with algae.

Hot Spring with some of the Needles in the background. Only tribal members are allowed in the area.

Photo by Michael D. Mueller


Another of Pyramid Lake’s treasures is the Hot Spring located at the Needles, an exotic landscape of towering Tufa pinnacles located on the North shore of the Lake. The water from the spring runs through a series of hot to cold pools on its way to the lakeshore and has been touted for its medicinal and healing properties. Because of vandalism the Needles are off-limits to all but Tribal members. Visiting these springs is only possible by boat and shore access is also prohibited.

Pyramid Lake is one of the best-kept secrets of the Reno/Sparks area. Although it is a desert lake and you must supply your own shade, this lake is so vast that the typical overcrowding that plagues so many lakes in the summer is never a problem there.

Three quarters of its shoreline are sand beaches and camping is allowed anywhere as long as you purchase a permit. Campfires are also allowed, something you won’t find in many mountain campsites.

The large volume of the lake, with depths of approximately 750 feet, enables it to stay relatively cool and refreshing during the hot summer months. So if you enjoy swimming, water skiing, wake boarding, boating, fishing, or just seeing one of the natural wonders that this beautiful state has to offer, Pyramid Lake worth a visit.

"Everyone should visit Pyramid Lake at least once, it's an incredible experience,"Drennan said.




Related links

Click here to view Dr. John Brabyn's article The Lahontan Expedition to learn more about the history of the area.

Click here to view photos of Pyramid Lake.

Click here to view the Endandered species list.

Click here to view a map of Pyramid lake

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