Great Basin National Park
Since we were over-saturated with the desert, and looking for reprieve from the 100 degree heat, we took off to the most obvious destination, the great desert basin in eastern Nevada.
On the way to Great Basin National Park we took a side detour to Fish lake National Forest thanks to a recommendation from Kristin. It was so refreshing to drive out of the heat and into dense, green, diverse forest land. This forest was beautiful. Peeking out from beneath the carpet of dewy grass was sandstone smashed together with limestone, forming jagged lacolithic mountains, surrounded by various pine, summer aspen, and spits of fir trees. This was exactly the change of scenery we needed. Also it was 70 degrees and overcast 🙂
We had the intention of hiking Delano Peek, but the road to the trail head was closed due to snow (!), so we explored the rest of this tucked away recreation area instead. Thanks again to our trailer, we spent a lovely night in a roadside pullout next to the rushing creek, and had off and on rain showers throughout the evening.
Already feeling reinvigorated, the next morning we woke up and drove across one of the most desolate landscapes we have seen in the United States so far. The Great Basin Desert is a bit of a geological oddity. Great Basin's uplift from sea level has forged a dramatic landscape across a huge swath of land covering most of Nevada, Western Utah, NW Arizona, and SE Oregon. This region is seriously big. Unlike the Colorado Platue's uniform uplift, the Great Basin Region has taken on an almost corrugated cardboard topology characterized by row after row of mountain chains separated by narrow high desert valleys. Elevation, limited water, and the aforementioned rugged terrain also caused this area to be very sparsely populated. If you ever want to pretend you are the last human on earth, there are countless scraps of western Nevada to chose from. The 3 hour drive to Great Basin National Park from Fish lake reinforced how truly huge the US is. There is a good reason this trip is taking more than two years to see all the things.
While the Great Basin Desert covers 190,000 square miles, the National Park is a small selection of highlights this region offers at 120 square miles. Included in it's borders are the oldest living trees on Earth, snow caped mountains, dry scrub basins, and limestone caves. It is wet and green as well as arid and dusty. This park was a neat blend of desert and forest and a perfect transition to the northern landscapes coming our way.
Our campsite in the Upper Lehman Creek was top notch too. Tucked away from the road and other sites, we had space for hammocks, the trailer, and the bug net all looking out into the forest. We also had our favorite feature close by, water! There was a lovely creek rushing right behind the site which provided a delightful soundscape to our fort for the next few days. A camp day was a must and we enjoyed it thoroughly after our big hike to Wheeler Peek.
Both of us were in the mood for a long, challenging hike, and Wheeler Peek sure delivered. At 13,065ft, the summit was about 3,000ft of elevation gain away from the trail head. The distance was supposedly only 8 miles round trip, so we started around 8am thinking this wouldn't take all day. But it did.
The trail was still covered in many places by snow, and where there weren't vast snow fields to traverse, there was scree. Lots and lots of scree and talus. My favorite. In the first 40 minutes of the hike, we came across our first section where we lost the trail. This is where we met Josh, a Park Ranger from Las Vegas, out here on a long weekend attempting to summit this peak as well. All three of us continued to climb and guess where the trail might be, eventually rejoining it just in time to be led up miles of loose rock and boulders. It was enjoyable to have a third member to our hiking party, as much as I love talking with Eric 100% of the time, a new person to talk with was nice for both of us, especially a fellow Park Ranger (@rangerjosh on instagram.) We probably added an additional 2 miles to the trip just in the detours trying to find the trail underneath the snow. It also took about 1 hour per mile because of the snow fields as well, but we all eventually summited Mt. Wheeler. Altitude also started to affect Eric and Josh around 12,500 feet, which can be grueling, but quickly went away upon the decent.
The view from the top was fantastic, ranging from the snow peaks of where we stood down to the sprawling low lands of the Great Basin Desert. Summit hike are always rewarding, but standing up on the peak, we knew it was only half way done. Now we had to get back over those same snow fields and boulders. Luckily, on the way down we could glissade. Wet behinds were a small price to pay for 'sledding' down rather than traversing, and we had a lot more fun. We thought we had stayed to the trail a bit better on the way down, but ended up going off trail again, and boot sliding down a steep side of the hill to get to the lakes that clearly showed us the last bit of trail to the car. Our feet were wet and tired but we briskly finished the last easy mile, enjoying the forest of aspen that gave way to slight glimpses of the mountain peak we were just on a few hours previous.
All safe at the trailhead, but a bit limpy, we said goodbye to our hiking companion, Josh, and exchanged info for if we were ever to cross paths again we could join up for another adventure. Thanks for hanging out with us for the day!
Luckily, back at camp we had an ice cold creek to soak our feet in, took a very cold sponge bath, and sacked out.
Over the next few days we visited the other two main attractions for this park. Again we ventured out onto the snow covered trails to view the oldest living organisms on Earth. These grizzled trees were so worth the trek. Ancient, colorful, snaggled, and strong, the bristle cone pine forest had trees as young as 75 years to as old as 5,000 years! It was spectacular to walk among them, and we were able to take our time oggling at their various shapes, sizes, colors, and grandeur.
On the morning of July 4th, we took a cave tour through the Lehman caves. Our tour guide was knowledgeable, but serious, about these formations, and I enjoyed participating as the Ranger helper with the extremely important job of holding the flashlight in the back of the group (“And there's Natalie, perfect.”)
These caverns made primarily of limestone had beautiful examples of stalagmites, stalactites, shields, fans, and sadly, evidence of what happens to cave environments when humans use it purely for entertainment rather than treated with respect. These caves were estimated to be explored (Native Americans already discovered the existence of the cave) in 1885 by the Lehman family. Soon after, the family began giving tours to locals and travelers alike, encouraging everyone to take a souvenir from their experience. Therefore, in some areas, cave features were broken and smashed, and millions of years in the making were destroyed in less than a minute. The forest service came in around 1922 and helped to protect the cave (though not perfectly), but the damage done will take millenia to replace. Thanks to the National Forest Service and the National Park Service, the caves are mostly preserved but are still able to be enjoyed responsibly by many future generations. These kind of 'preserved' cave tours always brings to mind the ethical question of what is the right balance of public access and biological preservation? Pouring a concrete path through a cave is far from preserving a natural state, but it allows access for more people from lots of different backgrounds, which creates a personal connection to these natural wonders, and eventually allows for public support for protection of undisturbed caves. I think about this a lot. Eric and I constantly refer to Yosemite Valley for the same conclusion. If that beautiful valley was not easily accessible for millions to love, the thousands of acres of inaccessible forestland would never be funded for protection. Anyway, back to Nevada.
The different attractions this park offered seemed to bring very different crowds. A ten minute drive to the hiking trail heads ended with groups of people looking to explore the outdoors for a day, hikers, back country skiers, and backpackers that seemed disinterested in the calm ease of the cave tours. Yet at the visitor center, that is all we saw were large families who could have cared less about the other natural features of the park, let alone hiking. There were many hanging out in the parking lot, reminiscent of tailgating, waiting for their tour in the caves where afterwords they promptly left, not giving the park another thought. Luckily we had a morning tour that included none of the screaming children we had encountered the day before. Screaming kids in a cave does not make for an enjoyable experience for anyone.
So to continue our very normal Forth of July celebration, we exited the caves of Nevada and drove through ranch lands of Utah to arrive in Salt Lake City. Like true Americans, we had a burger and fries from In-N-Out before Eric flew to Florida and I watched fireworks over a fence while standing on an electrical box in the RV park I will call home for the next few days.
10/10 would escape to the cool woods of the Nevada deserts again.
Song: Keep your heart young – Brandi Carlile