Burning Man just celebrated its 30th year — here’s how it evolved from beach bonfire to international mega-event

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Burning Man celebrated its 30th festival in 2016 in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

In late June, 1986, Larry Harvey and Jerry James joined a handful of friends on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in search of radical self-expression. They didn’t come empty-handed.

Earlier that day, Harvey and James had collected scrap wood and built an eight-foot statue of a man. Later that night, the two hoisted it up and set it on fire. A crowd of 20 formed to watch it burn. Little did they know that a 30-year tradition had just been born.

Today, Burning Man draws more than 60,000 people to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Over the course of a dusty, freewheeling week in late August, the festival celebrates notions of self-expression, civic responsibility, and art.

This year’s Burning Man was held from August 28 to September 5. Here’s a look back at how one of the world’s most surreal, iconic festivals came to be.


For the first three years of Burning Man, the festival was held on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. By 1989, however, Golden Gate Park Police had learned of the event and prohibited any actual burning. The event was a fire hazard, they said.

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Bernadette/Flickr

In 1990, Harvey and James decided to relocate to the second-largest and flattest piece of land in the US: Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. At first, people didn’t really know what to do once they got there. Some found hot springs. Others played music. But by the end, the 40-foot statue still burned.

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Wikimedia Commons

By 1997, the secret of Burning Man was out. Wired called it the “New American Holiday” and CNN dubbed it “the world’s most dangerous art festival.”

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jon collier/Flickr

After the 10-year mark, the festival began to take on its now-familiar aesthetic. Attendance swelled to more than 10,000 and onlookers began referring to Burning Man as a cross between Woodstock and “Mad Max.”

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Reuters

As the 1990s came to a close, organizers created their now-iconic “Wheel of Time” camp layout. It was divided into streets and eight sections based on the planets. It was artistic, but also allowed emergency vehicles to locate “addresses” in case of emergency.

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Wikimedia Commons

Only pre-approved “art cars,” handled by the so-called Department of Mutant Vehicles, were allowed on the grounds. As a result, bikes took over.

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Aly Weisman/Business Insider

The 54-foot-tall Burning Man sculpture had reached roughly half the height it’d be at the 2014 festival. With 23,000 visitors, attendance figures were still a third of what they’d become.


Political ideals continued to infuse the festival’s visitors in the new millennium. For instance, burners erected an exhibit featuring President Bush with the word “LIAR” tacked on his chest.

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Reuters

The early 2000s also welcomed an influx of new attendees. From 2000 to 2005, an additional 10,000 new people from all over the world flocked to Black Rock City.

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Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

It got big.

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Like, really big.

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

As part of the festival’s goal to “leave no trace,” however, the burners are mindful to clean up any messes they make. The grounds are nearly invisible by the last day.

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Daily Overview

Within the last five years, Burning Man has become a combination rave, art show, and campground. Here, attendees at the “Distrikt” sound and music camp stay cool in the heat.

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Jim Bourg/Reuters

The structures have gotten downright huge. Take the Temple of Transition from 2011, which celebrates the impermanence of life.

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

People gathered inside to chant and share in the experience of being at the festival, whatever that meant to them.

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Jim Bourg/Reuters

Like the man himself, the Temple of Transition came down in flames by the festival’s end. Firefighters were on hand to monitor the spectacle.

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The festival has also added more physical events. In 2012, organizers held bare-knuckle fights in an arena called the Thunder Dome.

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

For many attendees, though, Burning Man signifies a retreat to simplicity and escape to freedom. They can express themselves in ways modern society usually stigmatizes.

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Aly Weisman/Business Insider

Alexandra Aguilera, who goes by the playa name “Crazy Rouge,” came to Burning Man for the first time in 2013. She left her home in Hong Kong to see what magic Black Rock City held.

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Jim Bourg/Reuters

The virtues of community and cooperation live on. At the most recent Burning Man, which saw nearly 68,000 people in attendance, members of the camp More Carrot provide burners with fruits and vegetables.

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

With time, Burning Man has also become more kid-friendly. Entire families sometimes visit the festival.

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Aly Weisman/Business Insider

But even big kids need to express themselves.

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Jim Bourg/Reuters

The festival is still as dusty as ever. Any burner will testify that walls of white sand get swept through the desert. Now that the man stands 80 feet and higher, it’s at least partially visible through the clouds.

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The latest festival included the hollow pyramid known as the Catacomb of Veils, which any of the nearly 70,000 visitors could climb or tuck into.

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

As with past years, this year’s Burning Man made room in the dry lake bed for a makeshift airport. People could fly directly into the festival if they were pressed for time (or just had a lot of money to burn).

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Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The festival’s charm has been infectious: People fly to satellite Burning Man events all over the US and foreign countries, including France, Sweden, and Israel. It’s truly an international phenomenon.

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Amir Cohen/Reuters

And it all started with an eight-foot statue made from scrap wood.

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Jim Bourg/Reuters