Great Basin National Park has been on my list for a while. As one of the least-visited national parks in the US, it seemed like a good bet to avoid the Memorial Day crowds.
Dan’s been working and wasn’t up for a long trip, and a friend of mine turned down the trip because she wanted to spend Memorial Day visiting “forests, not a basin.” So I’d be going solo. It seemed fitting to explore this lonely, isolated place in solitude anyway.
Great Basin National Park
I’ll admit, before I visited, I had a similar misconception as my friend. I’d thought of Great Basin National Park as a dusty, dry, barren place.
But even the Great Basin itself doesn’t always fit that definition, and Great Basin National Park straight-up defies it.
Sure, the drive from Salt Lake City along Highway 50 passes through some seemingly endless stretches of desolate, sage-sprawled emptiness. Even on Memorial Day weekend, when it seems like everyone is hitting the road, the stretch of highway through Nevada lived up to its reputation as “The Loneliest Road in America.”
But as the snow-covered summit of Wheeler Peak—the second tallest in Nevada, at 13,064’—attests, the park offers a lot more than desert. Its home to lush alpine forests, groves of some of the oldest trees in the world, and Nevada’s only glacier.
I rolled into Sacramento Pass BLM Campsite, just off of Highway 50, around dusk, cooked up some quick mac & cheese for dinner, and settled in for an early start into the park the next morning.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
After a quick trip to Lehman Caves Visitor Center, I set off up the Wheeler Peak Scenic drive first thing in the morning to get a spot at the trailhead for the park’s most popular hikes.
The narrow two-lane road climbs over 4,000 feet in 12 miles, winding its way from low sagebrush to familiar Pinyon-Juniper forests, and eventually into rich alpine forests of aspens and pines. It’s not a road for the faint-hearted—it seems to precariously cling to the steep hillsides it traverses, at times leaving you less than a foot from the side of the mountain with no guardrails or shoulder as a buffer.
But the open views for miles across the Great Basin are worth it, as are the views on the other side of the incredibly rugged quartzite spires and headwall of Wheeler Peak Cirque.
The road ends at the Wheeler Peak Campsite and a large parking area for trailheads to the Bristlecone Pine Grove, the Wheeler Peak Glacier, and a number of alpine lakes.
Bristlecone Pine Grove
The Bristlecone Pine trail is a popular hike that meanders 3 miles through mellow terrain up to a rare grove of Bristlecone Pines. Eking out a living at over 11,000 feet, these trees’ extremely slow growth, necessitated by the harsh environment, make them some of the longest-lived organisms on the planet. Many of the trees feature only a single living branch and strip of bark on a mostly-dead trunk that’s somehow been standing for thousands of years.
A short interpretive trail take you through the grove, with plaques identifying trees over 3,000 years old, as well as trunks that are estimated to have been standing for thousands of years since the tree’s death.
Wheeler Peak Cirque and Rock Glacier
The Bristlecone pines grow right at the edge of treeline. Past the grove, plant life drops away quickly, and the trail enters the rocky glacial moraine. Human life drops away quickly, too, with most hikers stopping at the viewpoint to catch a distant glimpse of Rock Glacier.
I keep going into Wheeler Peak Cirque. The actual Wheeler Peak Glacier, shrinking as it is, is still hidden under the snow from the final viewpoint on the trail, but the Rock Glacier is a separate structure, a mass of rocks, ice, and mud that is slowly moving its way down the mountain similar an ice glacier.
I’m used to the tell-tale sound of scree, but walking along the trail to the final overlook was a unique experience. The scree had an eerie, echoing, hollow sound to it in some places, as if all that was under me was a loosely stacked pile of rocks.
The trail below the Bristlecone grove is crowded by noon, and the snow patches have turned slushy, making it a bit precarious on the way down. By the time I return to the parking lot, it’s jam-packed, with cars squeezed in anywhere there’s space.
I head out quickly, looking for somewhere quiet to eat lunch. A couple of miles down the main road, I turn off onto a surprisingly lonely dirt road to Mather Overlook. From the jam-packed trailhead at the top of the scenic drive, it’s a stark contrast to find only a couple of cars rolling in and out. For a few moments, as I sit and watch darkening summer storm clouds billow up behind Wheeler Peak, I even have the overlook to myself.
Snake Creek Road
Farther to the south lies a different side of Great Basin National Park. Away from the paved roads, visitors centers, and crowds, you quickly find yourself in wild and remote terrain.
The main road into the park here is Snake Creek Road. All of the park’s information warns it’s a rough dirt road, and a sign at the start advises visitors not to follow their GPS—there is no visitor center or services ahead, and no turnaround or outlet for large vehicles. Just my kind of road: the ones that come with an official warning.
The namesake Snake Creek trickles alongside the road, coursing through Aspen groves that encroach far onto the gravel. I drive nearly to the top, to the start of the mellow-looking Serviceberry Trailhead. But it’s late and I’ve had my share of exploring, and I’m ready to head in for the day.
Dispersed and primitive camping opportunities abound out here. Someday soon I hope to make my way out and explore more of the back roads and secluded spots. For this trip, though, I settled on Sacramento Pass BLM Campsite, a well-known spot with ample room to park and sleep for the night, and a beautiful view of Wheeler Peak in the distance.