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Confession: I’m not a huge festival person. I’ve never been to Coachella or Burning Man. They intrigue me, but the stars have never aligned or the timings never worked out. And if we’re being honest, I’m not sure I can commit to two weeks in the dusty desert. But it’s not for lack of desire. The photos every year give me serious Insta “NV” (pun intended) and having just experienced the Burning Man exhibit in the Renwick Gallery (D.C.), let me tell you the FOMO is real.
If you know anything about Burning Man, you know they have 10 guiding principles that define the culture. These ethos encourage radical self-expression, self-reliance, and a gift economy, amongst other things, which create a tight-knit community of participants who subscribe to their unique philosophy. One of their principles is “Leaving no trace,” which I thought meant that once the festival is over it’s gone until next year, making those two-weeks that much more special. I have recently come to learn that simply means respect the environment and leave each place better than they found it.
Nevada actually has lots of Burning Man touches scattered around the state so you can get a taste of the philosophy, dip your toes in their world, and tide over those looking to adopt the principles year-round (serious Burners believe their reality is what’s real, and the outside world is just a distraction).
If you want to get a taste for Burner life, here’s how to follow the Burner Byway around Nevada.
Reno is a Hub for Most Burners
Called the Gateway to Burning Man, Reno is where most festival-goers fly into, gear up, and begin their pilgrimage to the Black Rock Desert. The Reno Bike Collective is where many rent their transportation for the week, decorating their whips festively to make a statement before picking up costumes at Junkee, a 15,000 sq.ft. warehouse of recycled treasures. There are Burning Man art installations all over town, with The Playa Art Park a major hub for the smaller sculptures. They house some of the grant recipients’ best pieces and swap them out annually each year after the festival. The park is just one of the stops on the Art Spot Reno tour, which gives you a history of the many murals and installations (seriously, the most I’ve seen anywhere) complete with interactive maps to snag those coveted Insta photos.
Beyond Burning Man, there’s plenty of traditional fun to be had in America’s “Biggest Little City.” Midtown is popping with hip bars and restaurants, and a pedal pub is a fun way to work up an appetite. Head to Bistro Napa in the Atlantis for the best happy hour in town including a martini made of cotton candy before popping over to Liberty Food & Wine Exchange for a true multi-course feast. If you’re looking to pamper yourself, the Atlantis also has the only 4-star spa in town.
Make Your Home Base the Morris Burner Hostel
In its first iteration, the Steampunk Saloon served as a Burner Clubhouse of sorts. Members were asked to pay a monthly $5 fee in exchange for a place to hang out. But with only 30 or so members and needing about 5,000 to cover the bills, the team behind the Morris Burner Hostel quickly realized that business model wasn’t sustainable. After a battle with the city over fire codes, they ended up revamping the space into the membership-based hostel / fraternal organization they are today.
What used to be the standalone bar is now part of the lobby and adjacent ballroom/entertainment space full of costumes, instruments, juggling pins, and hula hoops to inspire creativity. It’s not uncommon to see wooden horse races through the hall, onesie parties, and tutu Tuesdays. They encourage art, music, and self-expression and regularly host art meetups. If you really want to leave your mark on the space, you can even apply to decorate the next iteration of rooms. The backyard is a living graveyard of former Burner installations including the owner, Jungle Jim’s beloved school bus he drives to the Playa every year.
By operating as a private club, they are able to open their doors to the public and succeed in their mission of breaking even(ish) each month. While the fee to stay is a measly $10-20 dollars for a temporary membership, you can also get 50% off if you recite the 10 principles of Burning Man. Each room has a fun theme that ranges from PG to R rated like the Booby Bar, the Temple Suite, the Cuban Coffee Parlor, the Kitty Cat Playground, the Fetish Room, Monsters and Mermaids, and my personal favorite, the bubblegum pink Sparkle Pony Room.
If you’d prefer a more traditional hotel in Reno that still exudes millennial cool, the Renaissance is basically a giant photo opp with murals, sculptures, and an indoor bocce bar. It’s also super pet-friendly so Fido will feel right at home along with mom and dad.
See Where the Art Was Made
With a mission to make good artists great, decent artists good, and to connect others through creativity, a wall mural says it most succinctly, “Shut up and make art.” The Generator is a massive 3,500 sq.ft. not-for-profit space where people construct major Burning Man installations like the Temple.
A hub of people, tools, and ideation, 60 resident artists use the space to store and construct large-scale projects, everything from fiber art to ceramics. The building is open 24/7 with a monthly membership, which saves artists a bundle of money on production and shipping costs. While teams of the best international architects, fabricators, and contractors congregate there, they also abide by the Burning Man principle of inclusiveness, which means there could be people finger painting next to people whose art is in the Smithsonian. In fact, you never know exactly what’s being worked on at any given time (and really what’s art and what’s not) so pop by and see for yourself – they don’t turn anyone away.
Road Trip to the Black Rock Desert
80% of the land in Nevada is public land (the most in lower 48), which means it’s sprawling and vast with plenty of nature porn to go around. Their state slogan, “Don’t fence me in” is as much a mindset as a song and the two-hour scenic drive to the Black Rock Desert is no exception. Route 447 hugs the shores of Pyramid Lake and has been called one of the most underrated drives in the state.
With only one way in and one way out of town, the route is a congested party caravan during Burning Man, but the rest of the year, it’s a gorgeous nature excursion, the fine white dust carving salt flats and peaks into the craggy landscape. Gerlach is the last town before you arrive so stop at the trading post run by Friends of Black Rock High Rock to debrief and to pick up any last minute supplies.
The playa itself is a dry lakebed and one of the largest, flattest surfaces on Earth. You can camp there (it’s BLM land) or simply walk out on it and take it all in. With blindingly white sand and dust clouds surrounding you, it’s easy to lose your bearings and trippy to imagine it might look like with 50,000+ of your new best friends. While you’ll have the harsh ecosystem mostly to yourself in the offseason, it’s fun to dream about an entire city popping up virtually overnight.
Experience Fly Geyser at Fly Ranch
Fly Geyser is the result of a happy accident when man and nature collide. It’s a common misconception that the geyser is manmade, but the only thing manmade was a drill hole left open accidentally or improperly capped. Formerly on private land, Burning Man purchased Fly Ranch in 2016 and just recently began offering device-free guided nature walks so the public can experience the unique ecosystem and get a taste for the Burning Man ethos year-round.
The 3-hour, 1.5-mile hike takes you around the property from the wetlands to “the pier,” an art installation fashioned over a dry lakebed and ultimately to the hot springs and geysers. Whether you’re a photo lover or a nature enthusiast, it’s simply a must-see. More on how to do that here.
Attend a Small Regional Burn
Beyond the big playa fiesta in late August, Burning Man also operates a global network of small, regional chapters to tide participants over and get them amped up. If you can’t get tickets to the main event or can’t make the trek to Nevada, the regional network is a good way to dip your toes into the Burner world. Fun fact: there’s even one called Burning Girl. But be warned, everything is just kinda a giant tease until you experience the real thing.
While You’re in the Area…
High Tail it to Lake Tahoe
Reno is the start of two of the 10 classic Nevada road trips, the Burner Byway and the Reno-Tahoe Loop. The lake is stunning year-round and more than worth the trip. Skiing in winter is hard to beat, but summer is really the secret season in my opinion. Zephyr Cove is a hub of adventure with cruises, SUPs, and even horseback riding, but you can also head to Cave Rock for clear-bottomed kayak tours.
Get Spooked in Virginia City
Nevada also has more ghost towns than populated cities. As the setting for Bonanza and the former home of Mark Twain, Virginia City is a fun one to explore. In its heyday, it was one of the richest boomtowns in the world. Today, it’s a National Historic District comprised and 10 blocks of Old West charm. Even Disneyland has modeled sections of the park after it. Pop by the Bucket of Blood Saloon (an ode to the old bar fights), pan for gold, catch a Western show, or visit the Washoe Club for a ghost tour. You can even spend the night in a haunted house if you’re brave.
Get a History Lesson in Carson City
The state capital is home to five museums showcasing everything from the local art to the westward migration. I personally found the Nevada Railroad Museum to be one of the most interesting, as it’s the only museum in the country with two functional, wood burning trains from the early 1900s. You can climb aboard the swanky McKeen Motor Car, a naturally protected landmark. Carson City is also the start of “the loneliest road” drive along U.S. 50, which features hot springs, petroglyphs, sand dunes, and Great Basin National Park.
Experience More Bizarre Festivals
Burning Man is just one of the offbeat festivals that take place in Nevada (it’s home to Vegas, are you really surprised?). You can watch camel, zebra and ostrich racing in Virginia City in September, or bathtub races in Ely in June. We even saw Vanilla Ice at a random street festival, so you never really know who will pop-up to make a guest appearance. If you’re just into weird and wacky attractions, Nevada has plenty that are accessible year-round.
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