Pyramid Lake’s unusual tufa rock formations

Physical characteristics have long defined Pyramid Lake.

The native Paiutes, who were the earliest settlers on the lake, originally called it “Cu Yui Pah” or lake of the cui ui fish, after the fish that lived in its waters.

In 1844, explorer John C. Fremont stumbled upon the desert lake’s 125,000 acres of glistening water and named it Pyramid Lake after the unusual 500-foot high pyramid-shaped rock found just off the lake’s southeastern shore.

Located about 33 miles north of Reno, Pyramid Lake has long held a special place for the Paiutes. According to the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada’s official history of the Northern Paiutes, the native people around Pyramid Lake have always taught respect for the lake.

“I used to tell my children, when you go to the Lake, bless the water first. Wash your face with the water, then you can swim in the Lake,” noted one tribe member, Mamie John, in the tribal history.

Of course, part of the reason for the special position the lake has in tribal customs is that it was such an essential source of food and water for these early Nevada inhabitants.

Additionally, the lake’s peculiar cold currents and undertow have claimed a number of victims over the years—many of which never surface—and spawned a host of legends and myths about the mysterious creatures and spirits that inhabit the lake’s depths.

One story about the creation of the lake’s distinctive pyramid rock is that it represents the spearhead of the Great Father (he supposedly thrust it upward to ward off a long drought).

But the pyramid rock remains one of the lake’s most unique and fascinating features. Consisting of a tufa rock, the pyramid is an intriguing geological oddity that is a vivid reminder of the area’s volcanic origins.

Tufa rock is formed when calcium-filled springs gurgle up through salty, carbonate water. The chemical bonding of the two results in the creation of a limestone-like substance.

Formations, such as those found all around Pyramid Lake, are the result of a build-up of this tufa material, while it is underwater. Once the water recedes and exposes the formations, they cease to grow.

As if to put an accent on its fiery, geological roots, boiling water from natural hot springs pour from cracks in the pyramid at an estimated rate of two hundred gallons per minute.

The pyramid isn’t the only unusual formation found on the southeast end of the lake. Nearly adjacent to the triangular rock, on the shore, are an extensive series of tufa creations that give the lake an otherworldly ambience.

For example, there are several tufa “bubbles.” These mushroom-shaped rocks are nearly round, when viewed from below, but are hollow in the center, as if they collapsed when exposed to air.

Additionally, just south of the bubble formations is “Great Stone Mother and Basket,” a remarkable tufa rock formation that resembles a hooded Indian woman seated with an open basket lying next to her.

One legend about the “Stone Mother” is that she was so filled with remorse when some of her children were driven away by other, more evil siblings, that she began to cry and filled the lake with her tears. Her basket remains empty, awaiting their return.

There are also a number of caves and other unusual formations in the area, particularly along the lake’s east shore.

As a result of concerns about environmental degradation and reports of vandalism, the area around the lake’s pyramid formation, including Stone Mother and the tufa bubbles, are closed to the public for the time being.

For more information about Pyramid Lake go to

Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.


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