Great Basin

Great Basin National Park is the exact opposite of what its name suggests. I imagined a park in a low-lying basin. Instead, it celebrates the environs of the high country. The park is on the Nevada-Utah border, surrounded by a sea of sagebrush in the valleys below.

The Continental Divide, which spans the Rocky Mountains, is the dividing line between water that ends up in the Atlantic Ocean and water that makes its way to the Pacific. But, the water that flows into areas surrounded by mountains are trapped and cannot escape to an ocean. These are called basins and the Great Basin is the largest, covering most of Nevada, much of Utah, bits of Oregon and California, and slivers of Wyoming and Idaho.

Great Basin National Park is a cool mountain island surrounded by desert. Most of the park lies above 7,000 feet and includes the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak. Just 15,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville's shoreline was only 10 miles from the park. After the climate warmed 5,000 years later, the glaciers melted and the lake dried up (the only remnant left of Bonneville is the Great Salt Lake). Desert plants invaded the valleys and most of the animals were forced to head for the cooler hills. These mountaintop ecosystems are now cut off from one another by the harsh desert below and the plants and animals that live here evolve within these island oases.

Breakfast in camp

Breakfast in camp

I was pleasantly surprised by Great Basin park. It's got caves, glaciers (southern-most in North America), creeks, craggy mountains, and jackrabbits. We chose to camp at Baker Creek because it is more secluded than the other campgrounds. At 7,500 feet above the sea and accessible only by gravel road, the campground is remote enough to keep the throngs of RVs and family campers away. Our site was near the creek, which kept us company at night with its steady burble.

After spending the day traveling the loneliest road, we set up our camp and drove back into "town" (I use quotes because only 52 people live here). The town, Baker, Nevada, is situated in the desert valley below. We cruised the town for food, which took about one and one-half minutes, and decided to eat at the Electrolux Cafe, by far the nicest looking place. This guy, who turned out to be the owner, started talking to us outside and invited us in for some food. I asked him how many people live in Baker. "Fifty-two, including myself," he replied.

For such a tiny town, Baker has the highest public art per capita of any town I know. Small items made out of unwanted parts are used to create eclectic sculpture that litters the town and its outskirts. An effective and aesthetically-pleasing trash recycling plan.

The next morning, we were up at seven and Mel was making his coffee. We were both excited to hike up to the glacier today. First, we must drive up the 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, twisting and turning our way up to an elevation of 10,000 feet.

The trail to the glacier is not long, only 4.6 miles round trip. Even the elevation gain is not too bad at 1,100 feet, taking us up to the glacier at 10,800 feet. We began with the Bristlecone Pine Trail, which emerges above the tree line and onto the Glacier Trail, then proceeds up to the glacier beneath Wheeler Peak at 10,800 feet.

The bristlecone pine is the oldest living organism on Earth. The oldest tree in this park is 4,950 years old. Its wood looks dead, but in fact that's one of its survival mechanisms and makes the tree resistant to bugs, fungi, and weather over its short growing season.

Bristlecone pine tree

Bristlecone pine tree

Mel beside an old tree

Mel beside an old tree

At the edge of the treeline, bristlecones mix with limber pines and the trees become very small. Soon we're above the tree line, where the weather or soil are too harsh for trees to grow.

Climbing above the tree line, we get our first taste of glacier. In the bottom of the frame, a large patch of snow covers the trail. While you might think hiking shoes would perform well on snow, they don't. I suppose this is not just snow, but a densely-packed mix of ice with snow on top.

After passing warnings about falling rocks and unstable ground, we finally reach the top of the trail. We've been walking up steep glacial moraines; huge piles of rocks that crunch together under our steps. Few plants and animals can survive up here.

Mount Wheeler

Mount Wheeler

Rock Glacier at Mt. Wheeler

Rock Glacier at Mt. Wheeler

Hiker's chair

Hiker's chair

At the trail's end, we find ourselves in a glacier-carved cirque, a natural amphitheater surrounded by steep walls.

Mt. Wheeler panorama

Mt. Wheeler panorama

After our hike, we drove back to town and picked up some food to cook for dinner. Stopped in the general store, where the banter of those working inside matched the store's charm.

Cooking dinner in camp

Cooking dinner in camp

We picked up a couple steaks, vegetables, and a bottle of wine, and went back to the camp to cook an early dinner. It was only 4 o'clock but we were tired and hungry. Storm clouds were beginning to form and we heard thunder in the distance. With the mountain to our west, we would not have much warning before the storm.

When the rain did come, we had eaten and gotten almost everything back in the car or tent. Finished the wine in the tent and enjoyed an evening in the rain. We enjoyed the rain from inside the tent, while we talked and finished up the wine.

The following day we drove to Bryce Canyon, Utah. The road between Great Basin and Interstate 15 is desolate but for a few towns and some antelope. The road crossed one shallow valley after another. After days in this remote country, I welcomed seeing more people again. Bryce will no doubt deliver.

Straight road

Straight road

Arid view

Arid view