WHAT TO EXPECT
Pyramid Lake, a 125,000-acre desert lake, lies at the terminus of the Truckee River approximately 30 miles northeast of Reno. The lake, a remnant of Pleistocene Lake Lahontan, contains a number of tufa formations and Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge, site of one of the largest nesting colonies of the American White Pelican in the United States. The island and surrounding waters are closed to the public. A spotting scope is recommended. Pyramid Lake is situated within a Paiute Indian Reservation, and visitors must purchase a day use permit, available at various locations along the routes described below. For up-to-date information on permit locations and pricing, call the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nixon (775-574-1000) or access the web site (www.plpt.nsn.us/rangers/index.html). Pyramid Lake is a Nevada Important Bird Area.
Best time of year: Waterfowl present throughout the year. Pelicans nest in spring and summer. In riparian areas spring and fall are productive.
Notable species: The lake surface is good for American White Pelican in breeding season, Common Loon in winter and spring, and inland stray coastal migrants such as Pacific Loon. The lake has a good diversity of waterfowl in winter, with six species of grebes possible. Burrowing Owl, Sage Thrasher, and Black-throated Sparrow are to be found in the surrounding sagebrush habitat. A variety of other land birds may be sought in locations along the birding routes. This area has produced a number of rarities; check the Nevada Birds List Server (see Introduction).
Precautions: Off-road driving around the entire lake region is extremely risky; also, the Paiute Reservation Council prefers that you stay on established routes.
HOW TO GET THERE Pyramid Lake can be reached in two ways:
Via Pyramid Way: From the I-80 & US 395 interchange, drive east on I-80 approximately 2 miles to Exit 18 Pyramid Way. Turn left (north) on Pyramid Way/SR 445. Drive about 9 miles through residential areas with multiple stoplights and frequently heavy traffic. Continue another 18.5 miles through open country to the boundary of the Paiute Indian Reservation (about 27.5 miles north of I-80). Day use permits are available at a store on the left about 1.1 miles after entering the reservation.
Continue another 1.8 miles from the store to the junction of SR 445 & SR 446. Just before the junction a pullout on the right offers a panoramic view of the lake, Anaho Island, and the smaller namesake, The Pyramid. Continue approximately 3 miles on SR 445 to Sutcliffe. "Permits" signs indicate additional locations for purchasing day use permits: a ranger station (intermittent hours) or a gas station and store in the marina area at the northern end of Sutcliffe.
Via Wadsworth: Take I-80 east about 30 miles from the Vista Exit at the east end of Reno to Exit 43 Wadsworth. Go left (north). Shortly after the exit is a store and gas station on the right which sells day use permits (restrooms). Continue north to Wadsworth and turn left onto SR 447 (about 1.4 miles from I-80). Obey the speed limits closely. Continue north 16 miles to the junction of SR 447 & SR 446 and the Nixon Store (permits, gas). Turn left and continue to the areas described below.
Note: All descriptions of birding routes are based upon Sutcliffe as the starting point (about 16 miles northwest of the Nixon Store).
POPULAR BIRDING ROUTE The Sutcliffe Marina area provides a good vantage point for scoping the lake. Then return to SR 445 and turn right (north). SR 445 becomes a gravel road in 8.3 miles. Drive an additional 2.3 miles until reaching a privately owned ranch on the left and a parking pullout under cottonwood trees on the right. This area is called Big Canyon. Park and explore for migrants and occasional vagrants. Do not trespass on private property on the west side of the road.
The large grove of mature black willows near the lake, called The Willows, can be very productive for migrating songbirds. Northern Goshawk is possible in winter. To access The Willows by vehicle (high clearance recommended), backtrack about 0.3 mile to a dirt road on the left that leads down to the lake shore (about another 0.4 mile). Park and bird the area, which can be a popular camping area on weekends.
Backtrack to Sutcliffe. (Side Trips A and B) Continue on SR 445 to the intersection with SR 446. Bear left on SR 446 toward Nixon, watching for the Popcorn Rock sign at 7.9 miles south of the intersection. About 1 mile farther south, approaching the delta of the Truckee River, a single cottonwood tree marks the location of a left turn onto a gravel road leading down to the lake shore identified by a Trail Access: Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway sign. Scope the lake for grebes, pelicans, cormorants, waterfowl, gulls, and terns.
Return to SR 446 and continue south 4.1 miles to the SR 446 & SR 447 intersection and the Nixon Store (permits, gas). The Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitor Center (775-547-1088) on the left side of SR 446 is well worth a visit (permits, restrooms). (Side Trip C north on SR 447) Take SR 447 right (south) for 7 miles (Side Trip D); continue an additional 7.8 miles to Wadsworth, where SR 447 ends. Turn right and continue 1.4 miles to the I-80 & Wadsworth interchange. A store just before the freeway entrance has gas, food, and restrooms. Return to Reno (approximately 30 miles) via I-80 west. There is also a highway rest stop 1.5 miles after entering I-80.
OPTIONAL SIDE TRIPS Side Trip A Pyramid Lake Fisheries (PLF) Hatchery: Near the southern edge of Sutcliffe turn left (east) on Sutcliffe Drive and go 0.1 mile to a fork where Sutcliffe Drive curves left and a gravel road splits off to the right. Take the gravel road 0.4 mile toward the lake and enter the gate to the PLF Lake Operations and Resources area. Bird the Russian olive windbreaks. The two main ponds and the beach area can be productive for unusual gulls. Backtrack to SR 445.
Side Trip B Dunn Hatchery ponds: From Sutcliffe Drive go south 0.2 mile on SR 445 to the right (west) turnoff at the sign for the Dunn (Cui-ui) Hatchery. At 0.4 mile, just before the hatchery, turn right and immediately right again onto a dirt road. Drive down the hill about 0.1 mile toward the fenced-in ponds. From outside the fence, check the ponds for waterfowl and the surrounding trees for migrants, including warblers. Return to SR 445.
Side Trip C Pyramid Lake east shore: This is a designated scenic area. From late spring to late summer, Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge teems with nesting American White Pelicans. At the SR 446 & SR 447 intersection, turn left (north) onto SR 447 and pass through Nixon. Obey the speed limit closely. At 8.9 miles look for a Wildlife Viewing Area sign on the right and turn left (west) at the next sign, labeled Pyramid/Red Bay/Anderson/Stone Mother. Follow the good, graded road west toward the lake and then north along the lake for 7.3 miles. Watch for Rock and Canyon Wrens and Chukar. Stop to scope Anaho Island. The Pyramid is another 1.6 miles north. Backtrack to Nixon and follow SR 447 to the I-80 & Wadsworth interchange, as described in the birding route.
Side Trip D Numana Wetlands: This trip is well worth a visit on the way back to Reno. At the Nixon Store (SR 446/447) take SR 447 right (south) for 7 miles to the Numana Fish Hatchery road on the left. Follow the paved road 0.7 mile down the hill to the hatchery entrance, where the pavement ends. Continue straight on the gravel road another 0.2 mile down to a dirt road along the river, following the Wetland Trail signs. Turn right, go 0.1 mile, and park in the grass parking lot at the entrance to the Numana Wetlands Trail/Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway, an access point for riparian birding along the Truckee River. Return to SR 447, turn left (south), and follow SR 447 to the I-80 & Wadsworth interchange, as described in the birding route.