Great Basin Nation Park, the least visited national park in the system. This stunning park is less than a day's drive from my home! And yet I have only visited it a couple of times over the years. The first time, that I recall, was a 5th grade outing with my daughter; the trip seemed to take forever, by school bus, to visit the incredible Lehman Caves. The second was today.
Pictures of Wheeler peak are breathtaking at 13,063. Wheeler will be my highest peak to date since I started tracking peaks, location, dates and trip reports. I've been to higher peaks but always by car or tram. The area has had it's share of rainfall over the past couple of years which always seemed to coincide with my chance to go, but today, the weather forecast is clear, my camping gear is packed and I'm on my way.
The directions to Great Basin are pretty straight forward. Get on any freeway, drive to the smallest town, head to the middle of nowhere and ask anyone "where the heck am I?". It's not quite that bad, it just feels like it. The national park is located in western Nevada but 286 miles from Las Vegas. It is just over the border from Utah but is 234 miles from Salt Lake City. Be prepared for a long, but beautiful drive.
I left Cedar City, UT and traveled north to Milford, UT. In the middle of town turn left onto Utah State Highway 21 and drive. This is one of those iconic drives where upon reaching a ridge of mountains, you can see the road in a straight line dropping down into the valley and rising up the other side to the next set of mountains. The only difference between Highway 21 and "The loneliest road" (Highway 50) is on Highway 21 you won't see anyone.
Be prepared. It is that lonely. Garrison, UT is on the border and soon I cross into Nevada (becoming State Highway 487). I have been watching the next set of mountains rise in the distance and they are truly inspiring. Go to any website for peakbagging or any site that contains a list of summits and you will find a few peaks listed here and there across the mountain ranges. Great Basin has 7 peaks listed on the "Las Vegas Mountaineers Classics" list alone. These peaks are impressive.
I pulled into Baker, NV with just enough time to stop and eat before looking for a campsite. On the right hand side of the road is a wonderful store, restaurant, and bar. The food was very good and the help friendly. It wasn't busy, but I didn't expect it to be at 6:00 on a Thursday night. Too early for the bar crowd and probably too late for any dinner crowd. But the food was good and reasonable. I picked up a couple more bottles of water before turning left and traveling the 5 miles to the park.
A string of campgrounds exist as I drive into the park. But I am about to learn the disappointing lesson of having a less than active park management. At the park entrance, no entry fee is required, and like all park entrances a board is listing the campgrounds. All show vacancy, this didn't surprise me as, again, it was a Thursday night. I decided to drive to the highest campsite, very near the trailhead. As I wind up the mountain side. Sign's appear "7,000 feet elevation; 8,000 feet; 8,500" and so on. The campground is stunning at around 11,000 feet. It would be cold, but I had expected this and brought my heavy sleeping bag. The campground is full! So I decided to check again and made another loop. Full. Disappointed I drove back down the mountain; 9,000 feet; 8,000 feet and so on. I cross the main road and drive through the middle campground. FULL! I drive closer to Lehman's cave entrance FULL! It's starting to get dark and I'm getting a little frustrated. I had just finished a loop when a camper trailer pulled into the area. We visited and he informed me that they had stopped at the first campground as you come into the park; 3 miles down the dirt road and they knew for sure campsites available there. I drove on. It is getting dark and I've spend over an hour looking for a place to camp. It is time to pitch the tent and get some sleep.
The Great Basin National Park boasts one of the darkest skies of all national parks, I was excited to pitch my tent and sit on the picnic table waiting for the stars to come out. One by one they started to appear, then the hillside opposite my campsite started to light up like day. I had forgotten the full moon tonight, it was slowly making its way over the mountain top. Moon rise! I guess no star viewing this trip (I would later find out they do full moon Ranger lead hikes, which sounds awesome).
I woke up early, ate a couple protein bars on my drive to the trailhead. Up the mountain again, excited to be first onto the trail. There is just something about early morning hiking, at altitude, that in wonderful beyond compare. I passan abundance of wildlife as I make my way along the high alpine trail.
The trail is pleasant, but I am acutely aware of two things. First the altitude. Second, the trail wasn't going to be moving horizontal much longer. But I relished the changing images of Wheeler Peak on the way.
Soon the trail merges with the campground trail and starts a wide winding switchback approach to the saddle. This saddle is the connecting ridge line between Wheeler Peak and Bald Mountain. I had come to climb 3 peaks. Wheeler Peak, then drop off and move east to Jeff Davis Peak (above picture Jeff Davis Peak is picture left and Wheeler Peak picture right). Then make my way up the gentle slope of Bald Mountain.
Starting from the saddle the elevation is 10,700 feet. Above treeline the ridge line trail becomes a impression in the rocks. A few trails spider here and there leading to view points, but by-in-large the trail is steep but easy to follow.
Passing the 12,000 mark, Wheeler Peak simply turns into a pile of rocks. Switchbacks make the trail easier, but the ridge is steep and the air is thin. Pausing during a break for water and snack a mother and daughter pass me by. I wasn't even looking behind me. I knew they were there and making good time, but now as I look back down the long ridge line I see a constant ridge line of people. I guess the camp is awake.
Reaching the summit, I am rewarded with the stunning view that only a high mountain climb can provide. I visit briefly with the mother and daughter and sign the massive summit log. This peak see a lot of visitors over the year. One by one the hikers boil over the summit. It is a hiking club out of Las Vegas. They are excited and visiting. Calling family and generally excited to be on top. As someone who climbs mountains for the solitude of the summit I move to the far end of the summit area for some peace and quiet.
The view is absolutely stunning. At the far end of the summit ridge I look at the trail (or lack there of) to move off the summit ridge and across to Jeff Davis.
I decide to call it a day. These peaks are approachable from many different directions and I might take a "road less traveled" the next time I come to Great Basin. As I work my way off the peak I am once again side stepping the 17 person hiking group. They are friendly and we pass each other on the way down the mountain. I stop for a picture, they pass; they stop, I pass, etc. But I couldn't blame them, the changing light and clouds settling in and around the peaks made for a beautiful sight.