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One day in Great Basin National Park (2020)

D and I visited Great Basin National Park as part of our 8-year anniversary road trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. You can read about how we spent 3 days in Zion NP and 2 days in Bryce Canyon NP.

After spending close to a week in Utah, it was time to drive home. Instead of returning the way we came via the I-5 and through Central California, we turned our road trip into a loop by taking Highway 50 from Utah through Nevada and back to the Bay Area via Lake Tahoe. This detour added about 30 mins more overall to the drive back to the Bay Area compared to taking the I-5, and gave me the opportunity to check off a new national park as part of my goal to visit all US National Parks.

Great Basin National Park is near Ely, Nevada and the closest settlement is the small town of Baker, Nevada. The park is pretty much on the Nevada and Utah border. It's one of the most remote national parks since it's not close to any cities or any other well-known points of interest.

Great Basin National Park geology

Great Basin NP is an ecological island due to the the drastic elevation changes from the floor of the Great Basin Desert to the highs of the 13,063-foot summit of Wheeler Peak. There are sage-covered foothills, montane, subalpine, and alpine ecosystems that support over 800 species of plants and trees, and over 300 species of animals. In fact, you can see everything from jackrabbits and squirrels to large mammals like elk, cougars, and pronghorns!

The national park is located within the Great Basin, a dry and mountainous region between the Sierra Nevada in California and the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. You can define the boundaries of the Great Basin using the hydrographic definition (the way water flows), geologic (the way the landscape formed), or biologic (the resident plants and animals), but the hydrographic definition is the most commonly used. Going by this definition, the Great Basin covers 200,000 square miles and includes most of Nevada, half of Utah, and sections of Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and California!

The Great Basin is actually made of many small basins that separate multiple, north-south trending mountain ranges that number in the hundreds -- incredible, right? These ranges make Nevada the most mountainous state in the country!

One of the park's famous scenic features is the Lehman Caves, a giant karst and limestone cave system, similar to what you'd see at the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico or Mammoth Cave NP in Kentucky. The NPS has some cool virtual cave tours available on their site.

Some other famous features are the Lexington Arch (a giant natural arch carved from limestone), the Stella and Teresa alpine lakes, the Wheeler Peak Glacier (one of the southernmost glaciers in the United States), and the longest-living tree species in the world, the ancient bristlecone pines.

With regards to native history, the Great Basin has been occupied by tribes for several hundred to several thousand years: the Western Shoshone, the Goshute, the Ute, the Paiute, and the Washoe. All the Great Basin tribes are Numic speaking, with the exception of the Washoe tribe.

Bristlecone Pine Glacier and Teresa Lake trails

Our time in Great Basin NP was really short due to the long drive we had leaving Panguitch, UT to Baker, Nevada. I really wanted to see the Lehman Caves, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the cave tours hadn't been reinstated yet.

Mountains along the highway
Some pretty, snow-covered mountains along the route

The drive to park was mind-blowing the whole way through. Just reading descriptions of the park doesn't really prepare you for how unique and vast the landscape of the Great Basin is.

You rise and fall with each mountain range like a series of musical turns: a rhythm of flat, empty, and vast desert. Then, suddenly, towering peaks. And then you fall, back to a hum as you come over the mountain pass, and drop down to the desert floor. It was beautiful experience being in the desert, like a pause in the music.

Zig-zagging highway climbing up to a mountain pass
If you look closely, you can see how the highway goes straight into the mountains!
A turn in the highway before the desert
This was at the top of a pass; you can see the dust from a car in the desert below
Highway stretching into the distance
These stretches of desert between the mountain ranges were about 20-50 miles each.
Mountains of the Great Basin Desert
You can see all the sedimentary layers of the mountains here!
Looking across the layers of mountain ranges
Fun fact: Nevada is home to over 300 different subranges of the Great Basin ranges!

We also encountered several golden eagles along the way, and they were absolutely majestic. If you're unfamiliar with golden eagles, they are huge raptors, with wingspans of up to 8ft in length! They have the fifth largest wingspan of living eagle species. We felt so lucky to be able to see not just one, but several of these majestic creatures just hanging out on posts along the highway. A few even got into a bit of a kerfuffle over what I'd guess was a territory dispute. My reflexes were unfortunately not fast enough to get any close-ups of the eagles before they took off, but I did manage some blurry photos of them flying away. It was honestly one of the main highlights of the whole trip.

Golden eagle in flight over the desert
A golden eagle!!
Two golden eagles in the air
These were the two having a little mid-air skirmish

After several hours of driving, we finally reached Great Basin NP's cute and quaint visitor center to pickup another poster to add to our vintage park posters collection. We chatted with a local working the register about the area before driving up the endless switchbacks on Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.

Suddenly, we were among pine and conifer forests, like we'd been driving through the mountains of Colorado all along, and not the arid desert. The twenty-mile road climbs steeply and terminates at Wheeler Peak Campground.

We would've liked to combine the Alpine Lakes loop with the Wheeler Peak Glacier hike to see Stella Lake on the way to the glacier; however, it was about 3PM when we reached the trailhead. Teresa Lake is only about a 0.5-mile detour off the Bristlecone Pine Glacier trail, so it was not as time-consuming of a detour as Stella.

Don't underestimate the altitude here. From the desert at sea level to the start of the trailhead at 9,800-feet elevation, you only have about 45 minutes in the car to adjust to this dramatic change in altitude. The glacial landscape is pretty harsh and barren, which meant that there was little to no vegetation, and therefore very little oxygen. Both of us found ourselves developing a bit of altitude sickness on the hike: feeling constantly dehydrated, mild-to-worsening headaches, and shortness of breath.

View of the glacial valley
You can see where the trail leads into the glacial valley
A weathered bristlecone pine
Lots of gnarly bristlecones along the trail
A gnarled and twisted bristlecone
A lot of them start straight and grow gnarled and twisted as they get older
A younger bristlecone with needles
This "younger" bristlecone still has needles on it
A sign for the bristlecone pine interpretive trail
The sign for the bristlecone pine loop -- definitely do this as these trees only live in limited places in California and Nevada!

It took us maybe 90 minutes from the trailhead to reach the glacier sign board that marks the start of the glacial moraine. A glacial moraine is essentially a giant field of rocky debris deposited by a glacier as it retreats: from massive boulders to powdery till. From this point forward, you are navigating using colored poles and cairns to find your way to the foot of the glacier -- it's really easy to get lost here, so make sure you're always looking for the next trail indicator.

A sign for the rock glacier
We finally reached the start of the trail into the glacier
View of the full glacial valley
The last two miles or so of the trail was a total slog over this boulder field

We finally arrived at the foot of the glacier 45 minutes after the glacier sign board, and reached an elevation of 10,900 feet! It was fucking rough climb. The winds were gusting as they came over Wheeler Peak and were piercing cold. My face felt like it was being ripped apart and my ears hurt from the air. The temperature was dropping pretty quickly since the sun had fallen behind the peak and we were completely shaded at the foot of the glacier. My guess for the temperature with wind chill was probably somewhere around 38-42 degrees Fahrenheit (keep in mind that it was in the 70's in the desert and low 60's at the trailhead).

The remaining ice on the glacier
This is all the ice that was left
The glacier in color
There was absolutely no vegetation on the remaining half of this hike
A zoomed out photo fo the mountains surrounding the glacier
Lots of great textures for black and white photos

There wasn't too much ice left on the glacier, but still an incredible sight to see a glacier in the middle of the desert. It is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. If you turn away from the glacier to face the boulder field, look down the moraine and the mountain, you'll have a completely unobstructed view of the whole park. You can literally see the floor of the Great Basin Desert, 10,900ft below. It's wild.

Looking from the glacial valley down to desert floor
That white, sandy-looking stuff at the bottom of the mountains in the distance is the desert floor!

We got our selfies with the glacier and booked it down the moraine because it was way too cold and way too windy. Once we were back in the comfort of the forest, we did the interpretive loop through the Bristlecone Pine forest. I highly, highly recommend making time for this because it is so special. Literally nowhere else in the world will you get to see the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, which are the longest-living, non-clonal organisms on Earth. Bristlecone pines can live for several thousand years!

Our selfie at the bottom of the glacier
A nice hiker took this photo for us! You can see how bundled up we are, including wearing gloves

The oldest known tree in Great Basin NP was named Prometheus and was estimated to be 4,900 years old until it died. Methuselah is currently known as the oldest tree in the world at 4,853 years old, and it lives in a secret location within the White Mountains of California. Many bristlecone pines have never been dated because taking boring samples can sometimes kill the tree, so there's a very high probability that there are bristlecone pines that are over 5,000 years old in the park! To put this in perspective, that's older than the Great Pyramids of Egypt by several hundred years!!

The thick trunk of an old bristlecone pine
Bristlecones get twisted like this due to the high winds up in these mountains
A close up of the textures on the tree trunk
The grove here at Wheeler Peak is unusual in that it grows on quartzite boulders, whereas most groves grow on limestone or dolomite
Looking up to the gnarled tips of the tree
The bristlecones on the Great Basin Bristlecone pine grow in packets of five and the needles may extend back a foot or more along the branch. The scales of the pinecones are each tipped with a claw-like bristle, hence the name "bristlecone".

What allows bristlecone pines to live so long? They grow very, very, very slowly. Some years they don't even add a ring to their trunks! This makes the wood very dense and provides resistance from insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. They are also capable of growing out of limestone rock, which most vegetation cannot. Since the trees are able to survive in harsh conditions where other vegetation can't, this helps limit any impacts of forest fires and disease spreading.

A collection of bristlecone pines growing next to each other
Many of the trees had placards next to them, indicating their ages. We saw some as old as 4,000 years old and as "young" as 1,300 years.

After getting off the trail, it was time to book it down the mountain to get to our last overnight stay of the whole road trip. It was still a drive of over 2 hours from the park!

Wheeler Peak in the dwindling light
We were facing the 13,000ft Wheeler Peak on the way down
Passing some pine forests on the drive back
It became a lot less dark once we got out of the park
Expansive view of the Great Basin Desert
So many mountain ranges to drive through on the way home!
The Great Basin NP sign
Proof that we were here
Sunset haze on Wheeler Peak
The glow on Wheeler Peak from the cloudy haze at sunset was pretty cool
Rocky and forested mountain range
There's actually quite a variety of mountain ecosystems you see on the drive
A big wall of mountain in sunset orange
This wall was huge! Look at how small the trees are in comparison
Windmills in the desert
We passed quite a few windmill farms on the way home
A striking peak devoid of vegetation
This range was kind of crazy since it looks like it's missing the other half of it
A large windmill farm
Windmills at sunset
Diminishing sunlight on the mountains
Desert sunsets are so pretty
The empty highway
This highway was so empty; we were often the only car on the road for 50 miles or more
Silhouette of mountains against sunlight clouds
Looks like a shot of oil and water
D behind the wheel
D behind the wheel

And that's a wrap for this road trip! On to many, many more :).