Landscape Photography: Late Snow and Last Light on the Black Rock Playa, Nevada

I spent the day, having started well before sunrise, on an overland obsidian recce focused on the geomorphology and distribution of the Majuba and Seven Troughs toolstone sources. A series of dramatic snow squalls cut that effort short just as I reached the ‘High Road’ from Sulphur to Gerlach. However, as I broke out of the western margin of the storm, I could see a blanket of new snow across the dark space of the playa of the Black Rock Desert.

The playa is typically a dry, dusty basin — most experience this place in the summer and fall, with the denizens of Burning Man transforming the space annually (though the playa got a break in 2020). Snow is not typically in the playa experience. But as I dropped past Cholona, a white blanket spread before me and a long horizontal crack at the sky-horizon promised a show. I ditched the truck and climbed into the hills below Pahsupp Peak. I would wait and be ready.

Calico snow. The playa in its atypical blanket of white below the breaking storm.

Traversing a series of alluvial gullies cut into lacustrine sediment of pluvial Lake Lahontan, I worked my way to a set of rocky outcrops highlighted by orange lichen dampened by the recent snow. From these rocks I could play with a variety of compositions in all directions.

I kept telling myself to go slow, pick a composition and work with the light that was building as the sun began to peak from the horizon on its way to evening. However, the receding squalls behind me — to the east — continued a shadow-play of cloud shapes and snow-fall curtains. While I concentrated on the light show in the west, I did turn for the occasional image in the darkening clouds — sometimes the two interacted and rewarded me with fantastic opportunities. This perspective called for a wide-view. Other times, I just watched in the moment. It was a special evening.

Black Rock Playa at Trego. As the storm receded it allowed the sunset to spread into the Black Rock Playa. (Please click for full view).
Passing snow. Dramatic mammatus clouds as the storm moves out of the Calico Mountains. (Please click for full view).
Two track to Trego. Traces in the snow hint at the old roads above the playa margin, it also makes a subtle pattern through the image.
Shadows of Trego. An experiment in black and white; I am happy with the compressed view of the sunset and the break in the Granite Range. The steam of hot springs rise in the mid-ground.
Last Light at Trego. The requisite near-far rock-to-sky scene. Not at all subtle, but this was the feeling at the close of a wonderful day.

A long drive home remained, but everything about the day contributed to a perfect overland excursion. From obsidian maps to playa snow to the requisite afterglow, I count this among the special ones.

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