'Gateway to Burning Man': Reno braces for its busiest week as 25,000 Burners arrive

Photo of Julie Brown
A sign for Black Rock City greets Burning Man attendees as they arrive at the playa. 

A sign for Black Rock City greets Burning Man attendees as they arrive at the playa. 

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

Hotels sell out. Costumes fly off the shelf. And there’s nary a bicycle nor a coconut water to be found. 

It’s the busiest holiday of the year in Reno — not Christmas or the Fourth of July, but Burning Man

For tens of thousands of travelers, Reno is the last major stop on the road to Black Rock City, the metropolis that exists for one week of the year during Burning Man. That means Reno is the last chance for groceries and camping supplies, for bicycles to ride on the playa and for costume accessories. 

Beyond Reno, the towns get much, much smaller; the last one on the way to the Burning Man playa has a population of just 60 people. Because these tiny towns are overrun with so many travelers, Burners might not be able to find coconut water— or even soda. 

“With Reno and Sparks being the gateway to Burning Man, it’s very common for Burners to stay at a local hotel for a night or two before and after their journey to the Black Rock Desert,” said Ben McDonald, director of communications for Visit Reno Tahoe, in an email. 

Hotels, restaurants and big-box stores all see huge waves of business that clear off the shelves. A cottage industry also springs up in Reno’s Midtown for Burning Man costumes, with local shops like Junkee Clothing Exchange stocking up on furs and corsets and fishnet tights.

“Water, food, clothing and camping supplies are in very high demand before the event,” McDonald said. 

Jeff Difabrizio, left, and Jahliele Paquin of Yellowknife, Canada, load up provisions in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Reno, Nev., on Aug. 25, 2014 before their first trek to the Burning Man festival. 

Jeff Difabrizio, left, and Jahliele Paquin of Yellowknife, Canada, load up provisions in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Reno, Nev., on Aug. 25, 2014 before their first trek to the Burning Man festival. 

Scott Sonner/AP

Some 25,000 people are expected to fly into Reno’s airport this week, said Stacey Sunday, Reno Tahoe Airport spokesperson. That many people will also be flying out next week, adding up to a round-trip total of $11 million for the airport.

Burning Man is the single largest event of the year for the usually quiet and small Reno Tahoe Airport, Sunday said. The airport welcomes all the Burners, she continued, but that kind of spike in visitation has a large impact on the airport’s staff — especially on the return journey, when travelers bring home a thick layer of playa dust. 

Spotting Burners in Reno is as easy as following the trail of dust. Burning Man takes place on an ancient lake bed where alkaline dust is pervasive. It’s everywhere and gets into everything — an unavoidable giveaway marking everyone on the return journey home from Black Rock City. 

After a week on dry lake bed of Black Rock City, Burners often trail playa dust on their return. 

After a week on dry lake bed of Black Rock City, Burners often trail playa dust on their return. 

MediaNews Group/Orange County Re/MediaNews Group via Getty Images

At the airport, playa dust infiltrates the baggage system, Sunday said. It’s left behind on airport seats, which all non-Burning Man passengers subsequently avoid. Beyond the dust, the airport’s facilities are also heavily taxed, especially its restrooms. “People coming through with garbage or using the restrooms, that’s very impactful,” Sunday said. 

Sunday recommends travelers come to the Reno Tahoe airport early — especially those who are not traveling for Burning Man — as they may not anticipate the high volumes of traffic and long lines at security. 

“Make sure you arrive two hours early, so you give yourself plenty of time to get through security,” Sunday said. 

After water, food, camping gear and costumes, bicycles are another high-demand commodity in Reno this week. 

“Bikes are the most common form of transportation on the playa, and many of them are left as donations at the close of the event,” McDonald said. “Local businesses have been created to reuse and recycle bicycles that Burners can’t take with them when they travel home.”

Many people heading home from Burning Man often ditch their bikes at the airport. Now, the Reno Tahoe Airport has a designated space on the curb near the passenger drop-off area for people to leave bicycles, which will be picked up and adopted by local nonprofit the Reno Bike Project. 

The Reno Bike Project sells bicycles to people headed to Burning Man for $100, boasting “every style of bicycle that has been ridden in this area for 30 years.” But for those looking for a bike this last minute, you might be out of luck. The Reno Bike Project already sold out of playa bikes available for reservation, though a limited number will still be available at the Bike Project’s popup store, located at 635 E. 4th St in Reno.

Cars wait in line to get into the Burning Man festival, held 120 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada.

Cars wait in line to get into the Burning Man festival, held 120 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada.

MediaNews Group/Orange County Re/MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Burning Man has been taking place at Black Rock City since 1990, and Reno is as prepared as it can be for such a huge number of people passing through. Its residents know the crowds are going to come and, when they go, the city will return to its normal rhythms.

After the crowds leave and dust washes away, the spirit of Burning Man lives on in Reno. Art pieces and installations that debuted at Black Rock City find new life in Reno as public art that is installed on street corners, parks and plazas. The city has collected a range of Burning Man art from the stunning Space Whale at City Plaza to the Neon Line District on West 4th Street, where art is rotated out for an evolving installation. 

The city itself leaves an impact on the festival. This year, a new art installation on the playa will focus on Reno’s affordable housing crisis.

The Burn may be ephemeral, lasting for merely a week, but its spirit of creativity and larger-than-life art lives on year-round in Reno.

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