Thinking back on my seven years living in Reno, it’s easy to spin up a mental list of dozens of unique outdoor experiences that have grabbed my imagination and sparked a bit of intellectual curiosity. For instance, at Crystal Peak in Dog Valley you can gaze out over a breathtaking landscape while standing on a literal mountain of quartz. I once poked around in an old diatomite pit mine near Fallon and after my eyes recovered from the mesmerizingly pure white wall, I was able to find several plant and fish fossils in the ancient rock (and collected some of the dust for insect killing purposes in my garden). I’ve hiked the well-worn trails at both Davis and Galena creeks so many times that I swear the individual plants feel like old friends. But if I had to choose one place, just one place out of them all that was the most culturally and naturally astonishing, it would have to be Lagomarsino Canyon.
Seriously, this place is amazing. Located just nine miles from Reno as the crow flies, the site is close to home, but make no mistake, you’ll need a real deal 4x4 to drive anywhere near it. Of course, with a gallon or two of water, a lunch, a nice hat, and some sunscreen, a round trip walk of about 13 miles can make for a good day hike through the high desert, but I’d caution against it in the summer (you may die of exposure and dehydration--for real).
Once you enter the canyon, though, you’ll know why I chose this place to highlight. The 2,229 petroglyph panels found in this steep-cliffed gorge are just about unsurpassed in North America. It really is a treasure hidden right in our backyard. What makes the area so fascinating is that some of the rock carvings are believed to be over 12,000 years old, and that creates a kind of wonder when walking among them with which very few places on earth can compete. Just think about it; some of the oldest carvings here are more than twice as old as the oldest Egyptian pyramids!
I know in some circles criticizing modern abstract art is akin to sacrilege, but I just can’t get into most of it. I find the colorful geometric shapes hanging in sterile galleries mostly unapproachable, meaningless, and boring. Juxtapose the museum environment and modern art form with this natural gorge and prehistoric art and I bet you’d agree that the ancients were way more interesting. The geometric designs and sometimes creepy figures pecked into the rock are absolutely transfixing. The beauty and mystery of each panel forces anyone, even a hack like me, to take a moment to interpret the art and try to figure out its meaning. If nothing else, the experience will settle you in your place and compel the contemplation of your small place in the arc of human history.
As you wander among the many panels, look across the creek to see several long rock walls passing out of sight over the hillside. Researchers say these walls were designed by the ancients to push critters in one direction and funnel the prey to a kill zone for easier hunting. If you can just let your imagination run a bit, it’s easy to cross time and be there with the hunters hungry for some tasty roasted rabbit. It’s also not too hard to imagine yourself as the terror-stricken rabbit bounding across the rocks, realizing you have a serious problem...
One of my favorite outdoor activities does happen to be bouldering. I love running and jumping from one huge rock to the next not giving my mind time to think about anything except where and how my feet must land. It’s a kind of meditation, I suppose. In Lagomarsino Canyon, tens of thousands of years of erosion have created the perfect boulder field of grippy basalt, so the enticement to quiet your mind and run free is undeniable. But in this venerated place, you have to slow down and respect the invaluable stone carvings that festoon the hillsides.
As with any special natural or cultural site, I do hesitate to draw too much attention to it. The reality is, vandals have marred some of the panels and I’d hate to be the catalyst for more destruction. The thing is, I’m a firm believer in the power of education and the concept that having amazing experiences is the single most enriching part of life, so at the risk of being tiresome, here is my obligatory two cents on protecting this special place.
Don’t carve on the rocks. Please. Seriously. They should be treated with reverence and protected. One particular piece of graffiti I noticed was carved in 1971 by a person named Daniels. Now to be clear, as far as I know this was no ilk of mine as I am a Daniel, not a Daniels. In fact, I wasn’t even a glimmer in my mother’s eye back then. But it is a striking piece defacement indelibly etched into the desert varnish and I can’t help shake the feeling of some responsibility for it. Thanks for nothing, Mr. Daniels. Alright, I’m putting away the soap box now.
Beyond the cultural value of this remote canyon, there are plenty of interesting natural sights to behold. In the few short hours I’ve spent there, I’ve come across more rattlesnakes lurking in the basalt than anyplace I’ve ever been before. Quite honestly, nothing makes you feel more alive than hearing multiple snakes rattling around you at the same time. Especially when you are deep in the desert and cell phone reception is spotty at best. It’s fun! When you’ve finished exploring the canyon and it’s time to head back to the din of civilization, there is a really lovely stream and a bit of a meadow you’ll cross. Clearly people have been using this beautiful oasis since time immemorial, but I recommend staying out of the water because I think it’s a place feral horses go to die. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to who has visited the site has seen a dead horse or two rotting away in the creek. And I suppose it makes sense. If I were sick in this neck of the desert, this is where I’d want to take my rest (preferably upstream and upwind). It makes you wonder what else could be buried in this sacred ground.
In some ways, Lagomarsino Canyon is a microcosm of life; it is beautiful and dangerous, stark yet welcoming, deeply satisfying and sad. Mostly, though, it is a place to connect with the cultural history of northern Nevada and really explore the rugged beauty of the high desert, so pack your water and go check it out!
Writer and Photographer: Nate Daniel