Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Four Days in Great Basin National Park, Nevada

The Great Basin sprawls across the southwestern United States, occupying a wedge of western Utah, most of the state of Nevada, and small cut-outs of southern Oregon and Idaho.  It is bounded by the Wasatch Mountains on one side and the Sierras on the other, and a cold desert and expansive flaxen ranchland lay flat between these two ranges.  Sets of rayed mountains rise from the Basin floor, such that the lonely two-lane highways which weave across the region constantly climb and descend, gaining altitude, then plunging again.

The geographical region known as the Great Basin is distinguished by its remoteness, its anomalous high mountain peaks, and by its hydrology:  it is a closed system where water that drains into the Basin stays in the Basin, never flowing out to meet the sea.

Within the Great Basin lies its namesake national park, one of the least visited parks in the lower 48 states and one of the most remote.  Visitors coming from Las Vegas drive four hours north, then veer east to find the desolate entrance located a few miles from the tiny berg of Baker.  Baker started out as a Mormon ranch back in the mid-1800s and has expanded only slightly over the years.  Today, it includes a post office, gas station, T&D’s grocery store with four short aisles of dry goods and a couple of refrigerators proffering a bare selection of dairy products and stringy vegetables, and across the street, the Silverjack Inn & CafĂ©, an artsy diner providing good food with chilly service.

When I first heard of a park named Great Basin, I envisioned sage brush, tumble weed, and cacti.  But, when I took the time to explore the park in the late summer of 2011, I found it to be green with pine trees, cooled by rushing streams and alpine lakes, and populated by mule deer and song birds.  Instead of sweeping desert, I found the Snake Range, a patch of mountains with summits penetrating the Nevada sky at heights of over 10,000’.  Its highest, Wheeler Peak, measures 13,065’, the second highest in the state.
Johnson Lake and the Snake Creek valley from 10,000'

My visit to the park began at the dead end of the twelve-mile overgrown and rutted Snake Creek Road.  At the Shoshone campground, my husband and I parked our rental car, said a few Hail Mary’s for the protection of it and its contents in this deserted place, and headed out on our first hike.  Planning at least one night on the Johnson Lake trail to become acquainted with the range, we signed the aged trailhead register, then set off from the sunny forest opening.  The trail climbed gradually four miles upward, with dry grass keeling in the breeze and white-trunked Quaking Aspen towering overhead.  A smooth surface and gentle grade made footing along this old mining trace easy and the forest canopy provided shade from the hot sun.  As we approached the trail’s terminus, the pine trees abruptly morphed into wind-battered skeletons, then gave way to alpine terrain at 10,000’.

Johnson Lake is one of several Snake Range tarns that attract hikers like us.  Almost perfectly round with green hued water, Johnson Lake’s shoreline was encumbered by scores of drifted water logged tree trunks and ringed with a collar of bright green grass and summer’s last shooting stars and buttercups. We camped at the edge of the scraggly grove, and from our tent, we looked out upon the lake and the bouldery high-walled cirque in which it lay.  I lounged in my sleeping bag in the late afternoon sunshine trying to pick out the route which, tomorrow, we’d follow to reach the saddle between us and Baker Lake.  To the south, Mount Washington beaconed and to the north Pyramid Peak dominated.  Which mountain we’d attempt would depend on tomorrow’s weather conditions.

“This is a place where you plan your route, your entire trip, around water sources.”  I wrote in my journal that night as the first stars and planets began to peek out from behind the veil of day.  “I think of water and get thirsty.  I hear water sloshing in my water bottle and feel parched.  In this dry land it’s easy to doubt that lakes and streams shown on the map will contain water, but we’ve found water in the lake and the creek is flowing.”  The visitor center displays we read the day before told us that this region is a cold desert.  The desert part I already believed, and, at night, in the tent, I came to understand the cold reference.  It was frigid.

The next day, we rose with the sun and climbed the switch back path up the rocky cliffs above Johnson Lake.  The forecast was for afternoon thunderstorms and high winds, so we struck out early.  In less than an hour we gained the ridge.  In another hour, we were well up the flank of Pyramid Peak and gawking at the broad Southwestern vistas.  At the summit, we sought shelter in a manmade stone windbreak and, from there, partook of the views.  We could see almost all the important landmarks in the park including Baker Lake, Baker Peak, Wheeler Peak, and Mount Washington.  We could see the road to Baker Lake winding up the valley and looked far back down Snake Creek to where our car was parked.  The wind was howling and freezing, so we retreated back to the saddle and fought our way along the ridge in 60 mph gusts to acquire different perspectives on the scenery. Following cairns across the saddle for several hundred yards allowed us to clearly see the route to Baker Lake, a trip that would have to wait for another visit.  At last, we pulled back from the ridge and headed to camp.

Great Basin Mash
1 packet dried instant mashed potatoes
¼ c dehydrated mixed veggies
Spoonful of sun dried tomatoes
Sunflower seeds to taste
Prepare the potatoes according to package directions.  Add veggies to water while it is boiling.  Once potatoes have reached the desired consistency, mix in tomatoes and seeds.  Serve immediately.

“Rarely is nature pleasant”, I wrote to myself while I lay bundled in my sleeping bag on the hard ground of Wheeler Peak Campground.  “It’s most often severe.  Like here tonight: red flag winds blasting 65 miles per hour.  Someone several spaces down the loop from us is brave (or careless) enough to be stoking a campfire.”
Wheeler Peak from the trail

Wheeler Peak is Great Basin National Park’s nucleus.  Visible from almost every location within the park boundaries, its block-headed eastern buttress stands above the shimmering Theresa and Stella Lakes, an ancient rock glacier pouring down its prominent gully.  Even in late August, decrepit snow still held tight to boulders in the upper bowls.  The Park Service has developed a consolidated set of high-elevation facilities that feature Wheeler, all of which are reached by traveling the 13-mile hairpin-cornered scenic drive.  From the turnoff near the low country’s Lehman Creek campground, the road gains 3,000’, passing a number of increasingly panoramic view points.  At the end, Wheeler Peak campground awaits, with 37 sites tucked privately into the Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen forest, where huge softwoods, cracked open by lightening, lay prone in the grass. 

We left for Wheeler Peak early in the morning, trying once again to avoid forecasted afternoon thunderstorms.  The clear morning was chilly.  The first two miles of the 4.3 mile-long trail to the summit rose languidly along rolling open forests.  The canopy thinned as we approached 11,000’ and gentle grass-covered slopes narrowed into a bone-dry gravel bench with occasional wind-tormented Engelmann Spruce.  Gales cutting across the saddle nearly knocked me over, but we hiked on toward Wheeler’s edifice, able to see the remainder of our route.

The trail abruptly steepened and square boulders cupping bouquets of showy Mountain Primrose took over the terrain.  Park Service trail crews had arduously carved an easy-to-follow switch-backing footpath through the jumble all the way the summit. As we climbed the last 1,000’, we passed fellow hikers descending and gained on a family closing in on the goal.  At last, we set foot on the table-top peak where hikers had built a trio of wind shelters from native stone.  Strangely, the wind died at the top and we, along with seven other individuals, leisurely enjoyed the grand scenery.  The Great Basin spread below us, sandy and hazy.  We looked over the edge to the Osceola Ditch, an historical mining district, gazed south to our route from the previous day, and squinted far to the east to see the Wasatch’s Notch Peak.  The view from 12,063’ was fantastic.

Wheeler Peak Camp Rice
Uncle Ben’s 5-minute seasoned rice
¼ c dehydrated mixed veggies
2.5 oz. vacuum-packed Albacore tuna
2 ½ c water
Prepare rice according to package instructions.  Add veggies as soon as water boils.  Add tuna and serve immediately.

Elegant formations of the intimate Lehman Caverns
The last of our adventures in Great Basin took us into the Earth’s belly.  Lehman Caverns is a 2-mile series of winding tubes and tunnels, quiet, damp, and cool.  A Park Service guide led us into the dark, brightening the way with a flashlight and chamber bulbs.  The tour took us through passageways so narrow we had to turn sideways and under overhangs so low we had to duck.  We saw bizarre cave paddles, discs, and weeping columns.  We looked into the dimness and saw reef-like formations, rock drapery, calcium carbonate soda straws clinging to smooth ceilings.  Water dripped into pools of water and warty residue flowered on walls.

“Don’t touch the formations,” warned our guide.  She pointed out damage done by tourists in the past:  broken-off soda straws, black smudges of smoke left by campfires in the Lodge room.  Though unnecessary, all of us whispered to each other as if we shouldn’t be there.  “Eighty species of insects inhabit the caverns”, the guide reported, “but no aquatic species live here.”  She pointed out a disc-shaped alter where weddings had been held, but are no longer allowed.

An hour later, we emerged from the caverns and were forced to shade our eyes from the brilliant light of day.  As we wondered back to our packed car, we encountered a pair of friendly khaki-clad volunteers monitoring scopes and they invited us to take a look at the sun, arguably the single most important feature of this place.  I peered through the eye-piece and saw the great orb, golden and glowing, throwing off sun spots and solar flares.

For More Information:
Great Basin National Park website

1 comment:

  1. Now I want to go! Great post. I love the poetic writing style.