Sunday, October 14, 2012


I've been trying to read more books about the Great Basin and just finished William L. Fox's Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty. Some of it was fascinating. Some of it I skipped over. Anyway, if you are interested in playas, it's worth a read.

I wanted to share some of the cool things I learned. After all, I feel like at least once in awhile I need to be true to the name of this blog and talk about the desert and what's in it. Plus, the more I learned about playas, the more I kept wanting to learn about playas. I've spent quite a bit of time doing some Internet searches the last few days. They are cool places, even though they are basically barren and hard to comprehend.

What is a playa? It's basically a dry lake bed. The word playa is Spanish for beach, which can be appropriate in some circumstances. G. K. Gilbert first used the word in a scientific context in 1875, while on a survey west of the 100th meridian. The word had already been in use by then, as Gilbert didn't define it. It's true that playas do get water on them. However, the evaporation rate is usually ten times greater than the evaporation rate. One other important component of playas is that they don't have an outlet. That means that the salts and other minerals that are left behind when the water evaporates are distributed evenly, creating a very flat, homogenous feature.
How many playas are out there? Fox reports that more than 50,000 exist around the world. Most are small, like Yelland Dry Lake, pictured below.
The largest playa in North America isn't far from where I live: the Great Salt Lake Desert. The largest playa in the world is Lake Eyre in Australia, with a surface area of about 3,600 square miles. That size is hard to comprehend!

If you don't have a playa near you, don't worry, as playas are growing in number and size. Okay, maybe that's not such a great thing. The reason they're growing is generally due to groundwater pumping.

The biggest example would be Owens Lake in California, which was a huge lake until the water feeding it was rerouted down a pipeline to Los Angeles. The resulting dry lake bed created some of the worst air pollution in the U.S.
Dust storm on east side of Owens Lake playa. Photo credit: Basin and Range Watch.

If you want to find a sliver of a silver lining, it might be that humans have adapted to live with these playas in many ways. The following list is not in order of importance. At least to me. But perhaps it will be to you. Or maybe this list will give you some ideas about what you might want to do the next time you see a playa either in person or a photo.

1) First, playas are good for setting speed records. This is important to a lot of people as evidenced by the thousands that go to the Bonneville Salt Flats west of Salt Lake City every August.

A Streamliner at the 2009 Bonneville Salt Flat Races. (you can see a fun post I did looking at fast cars and going behind the scenes at the Bonneville Time Trials by clicking here.)
2) Playas have also been used for nuclear testing (the Nevada Test Site). Sometime in the future I'd like to do a post about the Nevada Test Site--I've been reading a lot about it lately and it's weirdly fascinating. They offer public tours--but you have to reserve a spot nearly a year in advance!
Most subsidences leave saucer-shaped craters varying in diameter and depth, depending upon the yield, depth of burial, and geology. This is the north end of Yucca Flat. Most tests have been conducted in this valley. Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office.

3) Playas can be great places to party. The Black Rock Desert, the second largest playa in North America, is home to the annual Burning Man Festival, a week-long event creating the fifth-largest city in Nevada. The Burning Man website describes the event as: "Once a year, tens of thousands of participants gather in Nevada's Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance."
From the Google Earth Blog:
 4) Playas were important crossing routes for emigrants.

5) Playas have encouraged art of various types, such as the famous Nazca Lines in a desert in Peru.
6) Playas may have encouraged aliens to visit.
Ibex Hardpan
(All the Groom Lake (Area 51) photos with aliens running around are classified, so I had to use the one above.)

7) Playas have some wonderful geologic mysteries contained in them, like the moving rocks on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park.
Mysterious Roving Rocks of Racetrack Playa
Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/Cynthia Cheung
8) Playas are great places to land airplanes--and for fly ins. Every year the Tule Valley (Ibex) Fly In at the Tule Hardpan/Playa west of Delta, Utah attracts many pilots. Unless, of course, the playa is wet. Then landing on it isn't such a great idea.
Photo credit: Blackrock at
9) Movie companies like to film on playas. I had heard about one being filmed on the above-mentioned Tule Hardpan and this post made me look it up. Here's a movie filmed out there:

What's your favorite activity on a playa? My husband has wanted to build a sail-contraption, but fortunately hasn't gotten past the dreaming stage. Somehow crashing at high speeds on the high desert floor doesn't sound like much fun to me.

I'm going to try and pay a little more attention to playas.

Like sand dunes, they capture some of the essence of the desert: the dry, desolate, and forbidding places where life is harsh, if it exists at all.


The Incredible Woody said...

We made the trek to Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Very, Very cool place!

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Racetrack is well worth the bumpy ride. Your "alien" looks a little familiar. gs

G. Robison said...

There is a playa/dry lake up north a ways in Spring Valley that makes for good arrowhead hunting. Apparently the indians there would catch fish by shooting them. They tend to be smallish arrowheads, but are often in exquisite condition.

John Mosley said...

Your first photo is a beautiful example of an inselberg buried up to it's neck in playa lake basin fill. Mind if I lift that photo as well?


Desert Survivor said...

Hi John, that's fine. This playa is easily accessible from Highway 50 next time you're up this way.

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