Trip Report - Great Basin National Park

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By Matt Pritchard

Wheeler Peak was kicking my ass. It wasn’t even a good fight. I was on the ropes taking body blows, with three rounds left in the match. I had to stop every few minutes to suck wind and keep my heart from exploding. At least I knew what I was up against. The trail leading to the summit was clear; a long jagged scar climbing up the shoulder of this giant. I was learning in no uncertain terms that the last place you want to fight a chest cold is in the same ring with a 13,000 foot mountain.

Like most of our long weekend trips, this one started with a plan to find the biggest sky with the fewest people. We started eyeing a map a few weeks out and focused in on the usual suspects: North Coast, Eastern Sierra, and Death Valley. The idea of climbing something held appeal, and I remembered reading about Wheeler Peak, way out in the Great Basin. We checked it out on the map and knew we had found the right venue for a four-day trip.

Loneliest Road in America

We left San Francisco around 10 p.m. and pointed the Subaru east. We had eleven hours of driving ahead of us and a cooler full of Red Bull and snacks. Five hours later and just east of Reno, we passed through Fallon, Nevada and kissed civilization goodbye. U.S. 50 through Nevada is known as the “Loneliest Road in America”, and that title is no joke. For the next four hours, all we saw was jet black sky, blurred pavement, and a cadre of mutant jack rabbits darting across the road when we least suspected it. Somewhere east of nowhere, Jody took the helm, and I crashed. I woke a few hours later when we rolled into Ely. After the girl at McDonalds cleared up the correct pronunciation for us (it’s e-lee), we powered through the last hour of driving.

For the next four hours, all we saw was jet black sky, blurred pavement, and a cadre of mutant jack rabbits darting across the road...

Wheeler Peak and the surrounding Snake Range rise from the Basin floor like an island in the sky. Craggy peaks and densely forested slopes belie the flat, arid expanses of the Great Basin; so named because rain that falls here never finds its way to the oceans. It’s the hydrological equivalent of purgatory; an endless cycle of rain storms and evaporation. The Great Basin is littered with these micro-ranges of mountain terrain. One after another, from the Sierra to the Wasatch, they stretch across the Basin in defiance of their surroundings.

We pulled through the gates of Great Basin National Park in the late morning, and made our way to the end of the road: the Wheeler Peak Campground. There were more people than we expected, and we were lucky to grab the last campsite in the place. We set up camp and laid low for the rest of the day. I felt a chest cold coming on, but I thought the dry desert air would do me some good.

Bristlecone Pines and Lehman Caves

It wasn’t until we settled down with the park pamphlet that we realized there were some bona fide attractions in this modest outpost. In the shadow of Wheeler Peak stands a grove of Bristlecone Pines. Found only in the American West, these hardy trees can live for over 5,000 years. A couple of well know groves exist California’s White Mountain range, but we’ve never found the time to visit. Sunday morning we took a short loop hike out to the grove and spent some time photographing their gnarled masses. A small rainstorm persuaded us to return to camp, where we planned a visit to the park’s most celebrated attraction.

Lehman Caves is probably the main reason why Great National Park exists in the first place. Discovered in 1885, and exploited for decades afterward, the caves provided the park service with a known point of interest and developed Visitor’s Center. Nearby Wheeler Peak (the second tallest mountain in Nevada) and the Bristlecone Pines groves created a convergence of natural history worthy of protection. Although the park only sees 80,000 visitors each year, Lehman Caves seem to be the big draw.

With cameras in hand, we arrived in the evening for a “Photographer’s Tour” of the caves. A few weeks prior, cameras had been banned from the tours because, in general, a shmuck with a camera in a sensitive environment is a bad idea. The ranger who led our tour was noticeably impressed with the behavior of our group. Until this point, she had equated the term “photographer” with the point-and-shoot masses who wouldn’t think twice about using a stalagmite as a tripod. The fact that we weren’t thrashing our way through the cavern somehow impressed her.

It was dark when we exited the cave. As we drove back to camp, the hulking profile of Wheeler Peak encouraged us to call it an early night. My cold seemed to be clearing up, but we wanted to get a good night’s sleep before we started a big hike.

Wheeler Peak

Step, step, breeeeathe. Step, step, breeeeathe. People were passing us every time we stopped. I threw on a friendly smile and offered encouraging words, thinking of a way to call it quits and still maintain my dignity. Wheeler certainly isn’t a casual hike, but in the family of mountains we’d summitted recently, it falls somewhere in the middle in terms of intensity. My lungs had declared a full-scale mutiny, and my legs weren’t far behind.

My lungs had declared a full-scale mutiny, and my legs weren’t far behind.

Jody’s patience never waned. Her smile encouraged me along, and step by step we muscled our way to the top. The view stretched out in every direction—undulating ranges spread evenly across the vast basin. We spent some time topside, signing the summit register and talking to one of the hikers who passed us along the way. He turned out to be the Head Ranger at GBNP and was hiking Wheeler Peak on his day off. If this was my office, I probably wouldn’t be in a hurry to get away either.

Clouds were starting to build up around us, and we made our way downhill as fast as our weary legs would take us. We feasted at dinner that night, bemoaning the fact that we were headed home the next day. Our little island in the sky had been a great escape for the long weekend, and we weren’t looking forward to another eleven hour drive the next day.

Centroid?

On the way home, we had daylight to appreciate the beauty and genuine weirdness of central Nevada. Random signs announcing the location of nothing in particular dotted the roadside. We crossed the old Pony Express trail at one point and, as we neared the Naval installation at Fallon, we passed a sign that pointed to the Naval Centroid Facility. The what? We scanned the horizon and saw nothing but sagebrush and a few nondescript buildings in the distance. Somebody thought it was important to point this out; something in the middle of nothing. A little bit like Wheeler Peak and Great Basin National Park.

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