Natural History

The Lost Lake by Jeanice Deering

broken tufa
broken tufa


A dry river bed is strewn with skeletons of sacred cottonwoods bleached by the desert sun. It leads to a dry lake.

Tufa formations tower 50 and 60 feet above the dry lake, reminiscent of huge brain corals crusted with orange, yellow and black lichens.

In the top of one of the tallest tufas, owls nest and feed their young fresh rattlesnake meat. The remains of the kill lie across the top of a fallen tufa.

The dry lake, called Winnemucca Lake, after a great Paiute Chief, was once part of the Pacific Flyway. It was a prime feeding area to millions of waterfowl and white pelicans. It is said that when the flocks flew off the lake, the sky was darkened by the massive amounts of birds.

Winnemucca Lake was 70 miles of tulle reed marshes with a long, thin lake in the middle. The world record cutthroat trout was caught in it. The lake was fed by a trench which caught the overflow from Pyramid Lake, which is fed by the Truckee River.

In 1905, the Derby Dam was built to reroute the Truckee River for irrigation of the farms in Fallon, NV. The extra water was collected in a reservoir, Lake Lahontan, which was a recreational lake, though now, it is almost dry too.

Winnemucca Lake was given National Wildlife Refuge status in 1926. It was once 87 feet deep. The exact year it went dry is not accurately recorded. Some sources say 1936, but some sources say as late as the 1950’s. It is certain that in 1962, Winnemucca Lake lost it’s National Wildlife Refuge status.

Now the ancient shorelines are visible on the surrounding desert mountains. The lake bed is rippling sand dunes and alkaline flats covered with greasewood bushes and the ever invasive cheat grass and tumbleweeds. Not even sagebrush will grow.

Horned toads and leopard lizards scurry away as we drive the ATV across the lost lake. Jackrabbits and pikas run for cover and the tracks of coyotes and deer cross the sand dunes. They are looking for the water that is long gone.


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