August 19 was our Saturday at Great Basin National Park. While we had not mapped out any day-by-day approach to exploring the Park, we suspected that if the weather were nice, we’d likely climb up something. From the campground at 10,000 feet, Wheeler Peak at 13,063 feet looked intimidating. Being unused to elevation was clearly an issue for us at this point in the trip. I suggested that we do the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail from the campground and also hike up to the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Bald Mountain. From there we’d have a view of Spring Valley on the other side of the range. Then if we felt like it, we could hike up Bald Mountain to its 11,562-foot summit.
I woke fairly early and fleshed out my notes from the trip so far while drinking hot campsite coffee. I had an intermittent signal up in the campground, which would have been neither here nor there except that other friends were off to public lands for the coming solar eclipse. Adam was at Badlands National Park, and Patrick was heading down to Shawnee National Forest. It was fun to be texting and sharing photos from different public lands across the nation.
We had hash for breakfast and planned out the day (described above). It was at this point that we closed the door on an overnight backpacking trip in the Park. The elevation was kicking my ass, and Sean was content with our campsite.
We shouldered our daypacks and walked out of our campsite at just about 9:30am.
As the Bristlecone/Glacier Trail had the day before, the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail began with crossing the footbridge over Lehman Creek and entering the mixed conifer forest surrounding Wheeler Peak Campground.
From here, the Wheeler Peak saddle was two miles away and 900 feet above us.
It was a beautiful morning for a hike: cool in the shade and warm in the sun. Almost immediately, we spotted a young Mule Deer buck with new antlers.
We crossed Lehman Creek again as the trail rose gently through the forest.
We passed through a few small meadows, an indication of what was to come and a subtle reminder of how close we actually were to the timber line.
We emerged into an alpine meadow with views of Jeff Davis and Wheeler Peaks.
We stopped and watched a Yellow-Bellied Marmot digging a deep hibernation burrow.
At 0.8 miles, we reached the junction of the loop trail and the Wheeler Peak Trail. We were feeling great, so we turned right and set out toward Wheeler Saddle, 1.2 trail miles away.
Now we were on the lower slopes of Bald Mountain. Instead of switchbacking up the saddle, the trail took a gradual incline in one long switchback that comprised the entire 1.2 miles. First it headed north, traversing the slope though open forest.
Far below to the east, we could see Snake Valley and the town of Baker. We also noticed that some of the clouds floating from south to north were dropping precipitation that evaporated long before it reached the valley floor.
The trail crossed a large, sloping meadow. Above us was the bulge of the summit of Bald Mountain, possibly our ultimate destination.
Turning and looking behind us to the south was the dramatic complex of Wheeler Peak, Jeff Davis Peak, Wheeler Peak Cirque, and the slopes of Bristlecone Pine groves. It was like looking at the beating heart of the Park.
There were few other hikers on the trail. Everything felt fresh, clean, bright, and wide-open.
We reached the turning point of the long switchback and headed south toward Wheeler Peak.
The slope the trail traversed steepened considerably as we climbed the saddle. But the trail itself was not too difficult.
The section of Wheeler Peak Trail between the loop and the saddle is really a splendid piece of trailblazing. Almost before we realized it we were approaching the saddle. We could see Stella Lake far below and we realized that we had actually gained a considerable bit of elevation, some 700 feet, without really feeling it.
We reached the saddle at 11am, just about an hour and a half after walking out of our campsite.
The saddle was not quite at timber line, although looking up the slopes of both Bald Mountain and Wheeler Peak made it clear that we were practically there.
Out over Spring Valley, an imposing cloud system hovered and dropped precipitation that also did not seem to reach the valley floor.
Down below to the northwest, we could see the wind turbine array near US-50.
1.8 miles to the south, Wheeler Peak loomed some 2,100 feet higher than we were. We could see some hikers toiling their way up the steep slope. Even had we been inclined to climb Wheeler, we wouldn’t have with the clouds dropping precipitation on either side of the Snake Range. The previous afternoon’s sudden thunderstorm had proven to us the reality of risking sudden exposure on the lightning-strike-prone slopes of Wheeler.
If we continued up Bald Mountain, we’d be similarly exposed. But all the clouds we could see seemed to be moving up the valleys and not over the range. We’d keep an eye cocked at them, but we seemed clear for an ascent of Bald Mountain.
Before setting out, we sat near some Limber Pines off the trail and had a snack of trail bars and fruit.
Then we set out. There is no marked trail up Bald Mountain. It was just a matter of hiking up the jumbled scree slope toward the summit one mile away and 662 feet higher than we were.
Occasionally, a cairn indicated a route suggestion, but largely the summit was obvious.
In the meadow below, we could see the long switchback trail to the saddle.
The elevation gain and distance were similar to what we’d just hiked from the loop to the saddle. But now we were on scree, which made going much slower and rougher, and that much higher, which made our flat-landers’ lungs ache.
We emerged above timber line into a rounded slope of rough scree and matted tundra plants. It was a tough hike, particularly because of the loose scree.
Eventually, the weather station at the summit resolved into view. We plodded on.
And we reached the summit at 12:30pm, just about an hour after departing the saddle and some three hours after leaving camp.
Out to the north, Mount Moriah marked the high point in the North Snake Range.
We dropped our packs at the base of the summit marker and had another snack.
Looking south we had a glorious view of Wheeler Peak. I’d posit that this view of Wheeler is by far the most dramatic in the Park and well worth the hike up Bald Mountain.
Spring Valley and the Great Basin ranges beyond were blue through the moist upper air and dry lower air. The vertical relief of Bald Mountain above Spring Valley is a not-unimpressive 7,500 feet.
The northern slopes of Bald Mountain, descending toward Sacramento Pass, were much steeper than the approach we’d taken.
Sean wandered off to the east to get a better view of Snake Valley.
Some of the clouds coming up Snake Valley were a touch alarming.
The tree-lined slopes below the Wheeler Peak Cirque included the Bristlecone Pine grove we’d hiked to the previous afternoon.
Out to the east, we could wee the mountains of Utah, although it wasn’t a clear enough day to see the Wasatch Front of the Rocky Mountains.
The weather monitoring station apparently ran on solar power.
After about forty minutes on the summit, we began our descent.
Stella Lake, far below, beckoned as the next destination on our hike.
Soon we were back among the bold tree outliers. While the tree above is taller than most we’d reached at this point in our descent, the warping effects of harsh winter weather are obvious, The thick, shrubby limbs at the bottom are robust because they are protected under snow during bitter winter cold. It’s obvious too that the prevailing winter wind is from the west since there are so few limbs on the right (west-facing) side of the tree. Still, it appears robust and healthy.
We scuttled down the slope a bit right at the top of the saddle and reached the trail. Then it was quick, easy hiking back down to Alpine Lakes Loop Trail in the meadow below.
In an hour and ten minutes, we were sitting on the shore of glacier-formed Stella Lake, a picture-postcard beautiful alpine lake.
After about twenty minutes of soaking in the beauty, we continued on the loop toward Teresa Lake.
We were now solidly back in the Engelmann Spruce forest.
The trail skirted our old babbling friend, Lehman Creek.
Then we arrived at Teresa Lake, smaller and less picturesquely situated than Stella Lake, but lovely nonetheless.
Shortly after Teresa Lake, the trail rejoined Bristlecone/Glacier Trail near where we’d been rained on the previous afternoon.
Soon we were recrossing the little footbridge over Lehman Creek at the trailhead.
We arrived back in camp at ten minutes to four. All told, our hike lasted six and a quarter hours. We hiked 8.7 miles and had a total elevation gain/loss of over 3,000 feet. And a whole lot of beauty.
Not too shabby, but we were pretty sore and pretty tired.
Arriving back in camp, we were a bit dismayed to see an RV tent city production going up in our old site in the middle of the loop. At one point, various cars and trucks and an RV blocked the road as folks were trying to set up their very robust campsite. Our loop had been quite quiet, so we weren’t thrilled about this development. But that’s part of car camping…
The thirty-ish guy who was trying to orchestrate everything and everyone in the multi-generational compound was “Uncle Dan” according to two little girls. After he noticed us, he came over and introduced himself and apologized that they were currently blocking everything while they set up. Apparently the lesbians had already complained. Uncle Dan’s group had gathered from Arizona and Reno for a family camping trip, and he invited us over if we wanted later on for a drink. We thanked him, but didn’t commit.
After resting our legs, we drove back down the mountain to Baker. We needed some aluminum foil and a few other supplies. I figured we could gas up the Jeep while we were at it. And we could get some more firewood.
Down in Baker, we stopped by the Visitor Center to ask about that evening’s astronomy program. Ranger Austin was at the desk, and he recognized us from the trail the previous day. He asked if we’d gotten rained on, and we replied that we definitely had.
We gassed up in Baker and tried a little market for what we needed, without luck. At the honor system firewood pile, we must have looked a little lived in because two dudes asked if I was the firewood guy. Nope. But I can tell you how it works.
Then we drove the 7.5 miles over to the Border Inn, a gas station, store, casino, and motel half in Utah and half in Nevada. The border runs right down the middle of the bar. There we were able to get batteries and aluminum foil. I did a large donut in the parking lot to officially put us in Utah for a moment. Then we headed back to Baker.
Where Cut Off Road dead-ended at NV-487, there was a huge, homemade “Whoa” sign, which amused us.
Back in camp, while we prepared our dinner of chicken and dumplings, we received a visitation of a flock of Wild Turkeys. We had heard from Ranger Annie on our first night the story of Great Basin National Park’s Wild Turkeys. They are not native to the Snake Range. They had been introduced in the valley by a hunting group. But the group had acquired the wrong subspecies of turkey. They had intended for a lowland-loving turkey, but the turkeys they’d introduced preferred mountainous woodlands so they immediately left the valley and settled in the Snake Range where they became federally protected as soon as they crossed the boundary into the Park.
We were also visited by a Mule Deer doe.
Across the way, Uncle Dan’s tent city added an omnipresent undertone of jibber-jabbering to the atmosphere of the campground. It wasn’t that they were loud, they just never stopped talking at a robust speaking level.
We were both wiped out from our hike, and in fact Sean was feeling a bit under the weather, so we decided to pass on the astronomy program and on campfire conversation with Uncle Dan.
We went to bed early, and when I woke just before midnight to pee, I startled an ungulate (most likely a Mule Deer) quite near our tent.
In all, like the previous day, it was another classic day in a National Park.