Has anyone ever heard of Great Basin National Park? Imagine 3000-plus-year-old bristlecone pines gnarled and clinging to life 11,000 feet up on a mountain rising out of a vast desert landscape. Great Basin National Park is located in Nevada barely across the line from Utah and within the Great Basin itself which, by definition, is a vast arid bowl with no outlets to the sea. Long distances between mountain “islands” led to unique plant and animal communities in these isolated areas. Vast expanses of high desert predominate. Doesn’t sound particularly inviting, does it? However, Great Basin National Park turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.
Great Basin is the only national park we’ve visited where we were asked if we were “local” – local meaning from the Great Basin area which encompasses 75 million acres and roughly measures 200,000 square miles. Great Basin is also one of the few national parks in which we encountered very few foreign visitors. It’s not particularly easy to get to or beckoning with amenities and involves a certain amount of commitment on a traveler’s part. As a result, Great Basin is one of the least visited of the national parks with only 91,451 visitors in 2011 but “locals” find it a pleasant retreat from the heat and aridity of the surrounding area.
13,063 ft. Wheeler Peak is the centerpiece of the park. One of the southernmost glaciers in the United States, which is also the only remaining glacier in Nevada, resides in the Wheeler Peak cirque. There is great biodiversity in Great Basin National Park and, as you drive up Wheeler Peak road, the changes are particularly observable. In the valley, sagebrush dominates. As you climb higher the sagebrush gives way to pinyon-juniper woodland which continues into mountain mahogany woodland and, ever higher, mixed conifer forest.
We found very well-maintained trails. We hiked the Bristlecone Pine Loop (2.8 miles round trip) and were impressed with the scenery, the trail and the grotesquely-shaped pines. The trail was easy to follow and involved only about 600 feet of vertical change which translates to “easy to moderate” hiking. At the Bristlecone grove we found informative signs and a ranger talk scheduled for noon. From the grove you can continue another .8 miles to the glacier, however since it involved another 600 feet of vertical, we opted out. Instead we branched off on the Alpine Loops Trail (2.7 miles round trip), visited Teresa and Stella lakes and had a pleasant return through aspen and fir groves to the trailhead. Even though we were at Great Basin in June, the temperature was pleasant on our hikes as the trailheads were at 9200 feet. There are trails suited for different abilities, varying from .3 miles roundtrip and virtually level to 13.1 miles roundtrip with nearly 3300 feet of elevation gain.
Great Basin bristlecone pines are the oldest living trees on earth and may live 5000 years or more. They are sculpted into weird and beautiful creations by wind and ice. They cling to slopes and ridges at altitudes between 9,000 and 11,500 feet and are so slow-growing and the wood is so dense that dead bristlecones remain intact for hundreds of years. When we asked how bristlecones reproduced, the ranger explained that a bird called Clark’s Nutcracker collects the seeds and stores them in caches an inch or so underground. If a cache is forgotten or somehow abandoned, those seeds sprout and new bristlecones begin. As a result, bristlecones often sprout in clumps.
Lehman Caves (which is really only one cave) is one of the attractions at Great Basin and is well worth a visit. Unusual shield formations as well as cave popcorn, draperies, cave bacon, helictites, stalactites and stalagmites create a unique and otherworldly atmosphere underground. The ranger tales of the Lodge Room being used as a speakeasy during Prohibition and as a party room in later years are entertaining. Lehman Caves serves as a prime example of how attitudes about preservation of natural wonders have changed. When tours were first led into the cave, the motto was “If you can break it, you can take it.” Definitely not so today!
There is no lodging within the park and limited lodging nearby but there are five developed campgrounds offering 96 individual campsites within the park. The Wheeler Peak campground located at 9.886 feet elevation is exceptionally nice. Each site has a concrete pad with a picnic table, a level tent area and nice space between sites. There are also numerous sites for RVs and trailers. Water and bathroom facilities are strategically placed throughout the campground.
Many national parks have night programs with the premise of “Half the park is after dark.” Park Ranger by day becomes Dark Ranger by night. The Great Basin is one of the darkest places in the country and thus ideal for night programs. The ranger did a really entertaining and informative program about the night sky and then telescopes were available for viewing. We happily got to observe Venus and Saturn, which was complete with very visible rings. It was an extremely nice way to end a day in the park.
Lehman Caves National Monument was designated on January 24, 1922.
Great Basin National Park was designated on October 27, 1986.
Great Basin National Park encompasses 77,180 acres.
Great Basin National Park http://www.nps.gov/grba/index.htm
Nearest airports: Ely, Nevada (70 miles); Cedar City, Utah (142 miles)
Major airports: Salt Lake City, Utah (234 miles); Las Vegas, Nevada (286 miles)
Nearby Lodging & Restaurants:
Baker, Nevada (5 miles from park)
Silver Jack Inn, Lectrolux Café, Bar & Deli (775-234-7272)
T&D’s Store, Restaurant & Lounge (775-234-7264)
Whispering Elms Motel, Campground & RV Park (775-234-9900)
Utah-Nevada State Line (13 miles from park)
The Border Inn (775-234-7300)
Hidden Canyon Guest Ranch (14 miles from Baker)(775-234-7172)