When you first see Pyramid Lake, it is a startling sight. You have driven through a dry desert landscape and are suddenly presented with a large, deep blue lake filling a basin surrounded by barren brown mountains. So what's the deal with this body of water seemingly so out of place? How did it get here and how does it survive?
Things To Do at Pyramid Lake
Most 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.
*Note: Check with Pyramid Lake rangers about access to east side areas. Some sites are closed to the public due to vandalism problems.
Be sure to visit the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitor Center in the main town of Nixon. This excellent museum is full of information about the human and natural history of Pyramid Lake and the Paiute people.
Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation - Permits Required
Pyramid 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 (sunrise to sunset) - $6.00
- Overnight Camping (per vehicle per night) - $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
There is a "Pack In Pack Out" policy for visitors to Pyramid Lake. If you take it out there, bring it back with you. Visitors must bring what they need and be reasonably self-sufficient - services near Pyramid Lake are few and far between. There are a number of other rules and regulations you should know when visiting Pyramid Lake, contained in the tribal Regulations Brochure.
Pyramid Lake Hazards
Here 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 it 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.
Getting To Pyramid Lake
There 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.
Pyramid Lake - A Brief Natural History
Pyramid 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 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 high in the alpine environment of the Sierra Nevada. The Truckee River is Lake Tahoe's only outlet and Pyramid Lake's only source.