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Complete Nevada Traveler

Guide to
Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake is not like Lake Tahoe. In addition to its primitive, challenging beauty, it projects a profound sense of antiquity. Gazing out across its surface is an experience almost four-dimensional.

Pyramid Lake, Nevada
Calendar of Annual Events

Fishing Contest & Pyramid Lake Triathalon574-0140

Pyramid Lake Rodeo, Nixon574-0140

Federation of Fly Fishers, Derby574-0140

A brief History & Description of
Pyramid Lake, Nevada


David W. Toll

The drive to Pyramid Lake from Reno carries you through a succession of shallow depressions between low, brush-stubbled hills. It is a pleasant drive, but long enough to create an awareness of the desert's monotony. To those whose tolerance of the desert is low, the half-hour drive may be enough to permit that monotony to become oppressive. But when the last rise is topped, the eyesearing expanse of Pyramid Lake stretched out before you is a stunning, staggering sight: a sheet of electric blue cupped between pastel mountains of chalky pinks and greys.

John C. Fremont was the first American to gaze down at Pyramid Lake, and his journal entry of 10 January 1844 records his impressions of the lake: ". . . we continued our way up the hollow, intending to see what lay beyond the mountain. The hollow was several miles long, forming a good pass; the snow deepening to about a foot as we neared the summit. Beyond, a defile between the mountains descended rapidly about two thousand feet; and, filling up all the lower space, was a sheet of green water, some twenty miles broad. It broke upon our eyes like the ocean."

Despite the enormous changes which have overtaken the world since Fremont's visit in 1844, Pyramid Lake (which he named for a tufa rock formation on the eastern shore) remains as strikingly beautiful and as enchanting as it was before he came.

Pyramid Lake is not like Tahoe. It is shallower, warmer, and substantially more alkaline than Tahoe, lower in elevation, and not so easily accessible. But these differences are not the decisive ones. Tahoe is charmingly beautiful. Pyramid is a shock; in addition to its primitive, challenging beauty, it projects a profound sense of antiquity. Gazing out across its surface is an experience almost four-dimensional. To enter the enchanted realm completely, proceed around the west side of the lake to the distinctive sawtooth formation at the northwestern corner of the lake: the needles. There is a hot spring here. Get naked and get in. This is major magic, and an absolute must for the Complete Nevada Traveler.

Pyramid is a favorite hunting ground for the fishermen who wade out deep and cast for trout even in wintry weather. In ancient times this fishery was a magnificent survival resource, and now it's a sport. For a while, when the first wave of white settlers came, it was big business. Commercial fishermen harvested 100 tons of trout between winter 1888 and spring 1889, for shipment all over the U.S. By 1912 a local entrepreneur was hiring as many as 50 Paiute fishermen to catch and ship from ten to fifteen tons of trout a week for sale in the southern Nevada mining camps.

In 1925 a Paiute named Johnny Skimmerhorn caught the world's record cutthroat here; a 41-pounder. Photographs taken in the twenties and thirties show celebrities like Clark Gable struggling manfully to show off a pair of enormous cutthroat, or a group of Nevadans peeking out from behind a curtain of silvery fish that stretches eight feet long: a day's catch. But in the 1940s the cutthroats were gone. Restocking began in the early 1950s, and today five to ten pounders are not uncommon at Pyramid.

Tours are given at the fish hatcheries operated by the Pyramid Lake Indians at Sutcliffe. Your guide will probably be a member of the tribe. A marina is operating, and a visitor center with a well-stocked store and an impressive photographic exhibit devoted to the lake is also open.

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David W. Toll

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