Great Basin, the Forgotten National Park

Yet again, this park intrigued us because none of our guide books covered it in much detail, and we ended up loving it. (In fact, in our reading, we glossed over the park without even realizing its existence till we passed a sign near Valley of Fire.) Great Basin is in Nevada, just across the border from central Utah, or the longest, straightest, flattest stretch I’ve driven since… Indiana probably? My brakes needed the rest after the mountains of Colorado.

Thousands of years ago, glaciers covered this part of the West; part of one remains in the park and we tried to hike to it, but more on that later. As the climate warmed, glaciers melted and cold-weather trees, plants and animals migrated up into the mountains to find suitable habitat. And that’s how you get Great Basin, a small mountainous island of snow and evergreens stuck between the Nevada desert and the Great Salt Lake Desert of Utah.

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Great Basin includes the Lehman Caves near the base of the park’s peaks, but they’re only accessible by ranger-led hikes. I also didn’t want to to overwork The Old Gal (my car) by driving her up over 10,000 feet into the mountains twice. We had to descend a bit to our campground, which sat at 9,886 feet and had only opened for the season the day we arrived.

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Lehman Creek, bursting its banks.

No park before Great Basin allowed collection of firewood, so we relished the opportunity to break out the hatchet for the first time.

We had wanted to hike high in the park, around Wheeler Peak (though at 13,159 feet we didn’t feel up to tackling the peak), but snowed-in trails limited our options. I’ve never seen a glacier in person, while Dan flew over several while in Switzerland but still wanted to get closer to one, so despite the ranger’s hesitations we decided to see if we could navigate out to the alpine/rock glacier.

Notice the foreshadowing before? We made it out to the turn towards the Bristlecone Pine Trail, which we’d have to hike before hitting the Glacier Trail, before the path became covered by snow drifts. We picked the wrong set of shoeprints to follow and wasted about an hour and a half clambering up boulders, sliding down muddy hills and picking our way through a rockslide before admitting we’d lost the path and turning back.

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We could see our destination, but not a safe path to get there.
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This is about as followable at the trail got.

We got lucky again here. Just before we hit the trail junction to return back to the trailhead, I saw a group of three walking parallel to us, further up the hill, with snowshoes strapped to their packs. I called out and asked them if they happened to be on the actual trail. They not only were, but the lead hiker worked for the park and had blazed the trail out to the Bristlecone Pine loop, where the Glacier Trail begins. We refused to be defeated by another snowed-in trail, so we carefully stepped from bootprint to bootprint for just under a mile.

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We’d seen some younger Bristlecone Pines at Bryce Canyon, and the older trees at Great Basin impressed us even more. Bristlecones don’t grow particularly tall, but can live in harsh conditions for thousands of years, finding enough nutrients that parts of the trees can survive even after other sections of the same tree die. The pines in the Wheeler Peak region are some of the oldest living beings on earth. The story goes that a graduate student  in the 1960s cut down Prometheus, a nearly 5000-year-old tree, and the furor over his error led to the designation of Great Basin as a National Park some twenty years later.

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This tree split many years ago when the right part of the tree died; the half on the left is still alive and around 3000 years old.

Funnily enough, the only other people we saw on the short loop trail were another couple from Brooklyn, who had gone out of their way to come to the park specifically to see the Bristlecone Pines. They joked about us city slickers being the only ones stubborn enough to brave the mess of a trail.

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We took pictures of each other to prove Brooklynites had navigation skills after all.
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We weren’t stubborn enough to press on towards the glacier, though, and turned back at the snowed-in trailhead.

We made a quick side trip out to beautiful Teresa Lake on the way back, before splashing back on the trail made muddy by snowmelt taking the path – our path – of least resistance.

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I am so glad we saw that road sign in southern Nevada, as Great Basin now ranks up in my favorite parks. What a fascinating range of terrain, and I feel like we barely scratched the surface. I also loved the Wheeler Peak campground, with its meadows, aspens and tall pines, and its proximity to rushing Lehman Creek drowning out any potential noise from neighbors.

Also turkeys. All over the campground!

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