It is out there. In the middle of nowhere. In the middle of, well, the great basin. The whole northern half of Nevada is consumed by the great basin geology, a huge desert that runs from the Utah border to the California border.
The park is an anomaly at the far west edge of the basin. It truly is a geological phenomenon, which means you feel like you are driving on the moon. There is nothing out here. Flat and dry, dry and flat, more flat, more dry.
You can see the park rising out of the landscape, off in the distance as you motor down US 50. Time seems suspended on this road. Will we ever get there? The settlers who took this trip across the basin must have asked themselves that question many times.
An image off to the left as we are driving catches my eye. There are some major storm clouds out there, dropping rain. And I sense there is a reflection of some kind. And something like a rainbow trying to form. Must be a mirage, my mind tells me. Finally, I ask Jan if she is seeing the same thing. She thought it was a mirage, too. So it had to be real – two people seeing the same thing is not a mirage, we tell ourselves.
Out comes the camera. We later learn this is a dry lake that is temporarily flooded with water, and that is indeed a reflection; a very rare one. So is the prism effect we see. What a delight to see such things, and no one around to marvel at it with us. But the camera captured it pretty accurately. Thank you, Olympus…
Eventually, Great Basin National Park shows up, looming large where the ribbon of road ends. We finally leave the straight flatness of US 50 behind as we climb up into the mountains to the visitors center. It’s not open yet, so we head to Lehman Caves, a bit further up the road. There are some great folks there that really know and love the park.
The change in terrain is stark after that desert drive. Trees, snow-capped peak (Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet offering what we’ve been told are spectacular views), and solitude among the forests.
And the caves.
If you are into caves, Lehman has some wonderful showcases that will delight, for sure. Fascinating formations and a range of intense colors – from golds and oranges to rust colored stalagmites, stalactites, and other more cutely-named formations.
Like most other NPs in this part of the country, there is physical evidence of the hardiness of the people who worked at settling this area. The challenge is always economic viability – how to make a living, how to overcome the deprivations of being in the wilderness.
In Great Basin, they discovered gold, a sure-fire ticket to prosperity. Except this gold had to be mined hydraulically – that is, with high pressure water. Problem: the gold find is 18 miles away from a water supply.
Typical of how people approached such problems back then, the settlers built an 18 mile long aqueduct to bring water from one side of the mountain to the other. We walked that trail – the wood they used is scattered like pick-up sticks, mixed with chunks and slabs of marble (another building material). The walk gives a sense of the commitment and imagination of the folks who did this.
About half way along, it opens up into what looks like a wagon trail – two ruts running along the mountainside. No doubt this was where horses hauled lumber to build the rest of the aqueduct. We can follow this to where a creek is still running, but we opted to turn back after a couple of miles. It was a long enough trek to be impressed with these courageous souls breaking their backs to have a better life.
The other hike we took is a secret. It is so secret, we could not find the trailhead. After 90 minutes and some challenging turnarounds, we hoofed it back to the Lehman Caves Center. There, Ranger Roberta drew us an excellent detailed map to the trailhead. Problem solved!
Sure enough, there was the trailhead, waiting for us, tucked away behind trees and campgrounds. Just like Ranger Roberta promised.
Surprise! The trail runs along a brook, still running from snowmelt. We hike among pines, aspen, and some deciduous trees – an interesting variety and unexpected in this remote place. We find the wildlife skittish because few people come up here. So we hear their noises, and see the birds, but they move so fast we can’t get them in a photograph.
Along the way there was a beautiful dead tree, broken off about 10 feet from the ground. We could hear the woodpecker pounding away, the hollow tree serving as a drum. I tried to edge around to the back of the tree to see if I could spot the guy.
But as I slinked through the grass, a huge bird with red and gray feathers flew out of a round hole about 2 feet down from the top. The woodpecker had been working inside the tree! It could easily have been the size of an adult raven, and we were caught completely by surprise. Startled is the word that comes to mind.
We tried to sneak up on it again on the way back down, but this time as soon as he heard our footsteps on the path he flew the coop, again from inside the tree. The entry hole he had formed was perfectly round, with thousands of beak marks at the circular border.
The trail is Pole Canyon; ask for a handwritten map from Roberta Ranger should you head up that way.
Because we were there in May, the road to Wheeler Peak and superb campsites was closed. All we could do is take some scenic shots and ponder what could have been. We’d read a lot about Wheeler Peak and were looking forward to some high alpine hiking. It was not meant to be.
Nor were the paths open to groves of bristlecone pines.
They are a sight to behold – but we get lucky and at roads end, we find a small cluster that gives a taste of the bigger stands. We’ve seen many pinion trees in different parts of the country, but never something that looks like bristlecone pines do. Shades of “Lord of the Rings” in their shapes and shadows.
We return to our RV campsite, about as bare a piece of land as a tabletop. But the views looking back towards Great Basin are rewarding, and so is the spectacular sunset show. This place is beautiful, and you should go if you’re ever in Nevada.
Join Rob and Jan on the 2010 Sprinter Tour as they tour 50 of America’s National Parks here.