Dennis Cassinelli: The tufa formations of Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake in the sunny afternoon, blue sky is reflected in the still waters of the mysterious lake of sacred Indian lands. Interesting rock formations against the bare Nevada landscape.

Pyramid Lake in the sunny afternoon, blue sky is reflected in the still waters of the mysterious lake of sacred Indian lands. Interesting rock formations against the bare Nevada landscape.

When the John C. Fremont expedition of 1843-44 traveled south from Oregon, he became the first white person to see Pyramid Lake. In fact, he gave the lake its name because the tall tufa formation along the shore reminded him of the Egyptian pyramids. The lake is now the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation.
While at the lake, Fremont met the Paiute Indians and learned of their reliance on the fish and game available there that had sustained them for centuries. In my book, Legends of Spirit Cave, I tell about another encounter with the Indians at the lake thousands of years earlier by the people of the Spirit Cave clan.
My father, Raymond and I built a wood and fiberglass boat in our garage when I was a teenager. After the boat was finished, Dad lost interest in the project, so he gave the boat to me. I soon hooked my 1956 Chevy to the trailer and began taking the boat to Tahoe and Pyramid Lake on a regular basis on weekends.
My wife, Mary and I launched the boat at the landing at Sutcliff and explored Pyramid Lake from one end to the other. We sometimes fished for cutthroat trout and when the Cui-ui fish were running we went to the place where water from the Truckee River entered the lake to catch them. These large sucker-type fish are found nowhere else but Pyramid Lake. Fishing licenses are available but I believe only tribal members can fish for the cu-ui.
In June 1962, my high school friend Pepper and my wife Mary, crossed the lake to the famous pyramid. As Mary waited on the beach by the boat, Pepper and I decided we would attempt to climb the massive tufa pyramid. It looked easy from the shore but as we started climbing the steep slope toward the top, it became more difficult to climb through the loose pieces of tufa and rock.
The pyramid was about 200 feet high, depending on the level of the surface of the lake. When we finally reached the top and took photos from the pinnacle, we noticed warm steam rising from the surface, indicating a hot spring was the likely the reason the pyramid was formed. We later learned other climbers had not survived the climb to the top. It was truly a foolish thing we did on that day. Today, no one is allowed access to parts of the reservation to prevent vandalism.
There are several interesting tufa formations around the lake. These include Needles Rocks, Blanc Tetons, Indian Head Rock, Popcorn Rocks, Doghead Rock, and Anaho Island. Close to the Pyramid is a formation of tufa that resembles a squaw with a basket.
Tufa is a rock composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) that forms at the mouth of a spring, from lake water, or from a mixture of spring and lake water. Tufas in the Pyramid Lake subbasin were first mentioned in the literature by Fremont in 1845. The Paiute name for the lake is Cui-ui Panunadu, meaning fish in standing water.
Visitors to Pyramid Lake can learn more about the fascinating history and the native inhabitants and the Paiute Indian Tribe at the Pyramid Lake museum and visitors center. They have a fascinating gift shop and information about other attractions about Pyramid Lake. It is located at 709 Highway 446 in Nixon Nevada.
I once wrote a series of articles about the Pyramid Lake Indian wars of 1860 that can be found online at my website.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at


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