The nice thing about giving ourselves ample time in a relatively small National Park is that by the morning of our third day in the Park we had done quite a lot of the must-do experiences. Now any Park could withstand a visit of a week or more, but staying a couple nights (as we had at Badlands, Wind Cave, Bryce Canyon, etc.) can at least be a rock-solid introduction to the main features of a Park. But we had allotted more time to Great Basin than we had to Yosemite…or Grand Canyon…or Death Valley. We’d allotted it the same amount of time as Denali. The result was that we were able to get a little more off the beaten path.
On Sunday, August 20, that meant getting off the beaten path and on to the destroyed path to Lexington Arch.
We woke groggily around 7am, still wiped out from our big hike the previous day. The tent city across the way was quiet since they’d been up late. Sean’s stomach was better, so we had breakfast burritos and relaxed in camp before setting out on our day’s adventures.
We decided to drive down out of the Park to the south and do the hike to Lexington Arch. Although the arch was in the Park and in Nevada and in the Snake Range, we’d have to drive down Snake Valley and skirt into Utah and cross part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to get there.
On the way down we stopped at the two main viewpoints on Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, Wheeler Peak Overlook and Mather Overlook.
As we descended the mountain, DJ Sean played Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” appropriate for a Park that had been established in the mid-1980s, and Beck’s Morning Phase, appropriate for a beautiful Sunday morning.
Mather Overlook was, of course, named for Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.
From Baker, we headed southeast, crossed the border into Utah, and passed through Garrison, Utah. After Pruess Lake, we took a dirt road west toward the southern reaches of the Snake Range.
The road passed through some private lands before reaching Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
After spending so much time in the Snake Range, it was a bit astounding to see how it just ended so abruptly at its southernmost point.
In 2013, a wildfire tore through this part of the Snake Range, burning 5,000 acres of Pinyon-Juniper woodland.
The road got a little dicey at times, but for the most part it was passable.
Until it wasn’t. Erosion and violent washouts since the fire had all but destroyed the road. We bounced over boulders and bottomed out once going through a gully before we saw another vehicle. A woman and two dogs were in a Subaru station wagon. She said that she had parked and walked up the road from where we were but hadn’t found the trailhead. She said she didn’t want to get lost or stuck out here alone, so she was giving up. She wished us luck, though.
We went a little further until we reached a portion of road we didn’t dare try to navigate in a rented Jeep Patriot. Had we been with my cousin Andrew in his Wrangler, we’d have easily been able to keep going.
We pulled over and I checked my GPS. The trail was indicated on it, and we were about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead. We decided to go for it.
We shouldered our packs and started up the wash/road.
At one point on our hike, we spotted a Gray Fox on the wash up ahead of us.
Eventually, the road vanished altogether, and we were just walking up a violently carved wash. At a fork we chose the righthand side.
After about fifty yards, we realized that this was obviously the wrong fork to have taken. We kept going, though, since the trail proper eventually crossed the wash.
The hiking got a bit better, and then we reached what was obviously the trail.
Lexington Arch was 1.5 miles from and 1,000 feet above the trailhead. The first half of the trail was a series of long switchbacks up a sun-baked slope. The slope hadn’t always been sun-baked. Given the number of dead standing trees, it was probably very pleasantly shady before the fire. But by 2017, it was hot hot hot.
(The hiking guide we were using, Exploring Great Basin National Park by Bruce Grubbs, makes no mention whatsoever of the fire and the destroyed conditions of the trailhead on this hike. This is despite the fact that the book was revised in 2016, three years after the fire. This wasn’t the only major change to the status of a trailhead that was not included in the book’s 2016 update, which makes the update somewhat beside the point.)
The trailhead was at 7,500 feet, significantly lower than our elevation from the previous day, but still it was a tiring hike. I think Sean handled it better than I did, but the complete lack of shade got to both of us.
Eventually, we reached the last switchback, and the trail traversed the slope toward an unburned portion of the woodland. Both level hiking and shade! Huzzah!
Or so we thought. There were still a couple more sunny switchbacks.
Then we really did reach some live pines on a level portion of trail before passing through another totally burned section.
And then suddenly there was Lexington Arch across a steep ravine from the trail. It was here that we left Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and reentered Great Basin National Park.
Almost like a hallucination, there was a new bench situated on the edge of the ravine providing a place for contemplating the arch. So to review, the road and trailhead, which are on Forest Service land, are totally destroyed, but the Park Service has installed a lovely new bench. Got it.
Good job, Gifford Pinchot.
The trail had at one time kept going all the way to the backside of the arch, but even a glance at it from the bench revealed that it would be rough going through the burned area.
So we sat on the bench, had lunch, and gazed at the arch.
There’s a chance that the arch may have formed as a bridge with water running through it. Some geologists also speculate that it may be the final remnant of a now-vanished cave system. Flowstone found near the base is evidence. Either way, it is huge, some six stories high.
There was absolutely no shade. So after we finished our peanut butter and potato chip sandwiches, we started back down.
There were a few attempts to help hikers find their way at the destroyed section near the trailhead. A few planks indicated that the trail crossed part of the wash.
Then we spotted the completely destroyed trailhead sign. Someone had posted a little direction indicator on it.
And a bit of bright fabric indicated the trailhead from lower in the wash.
It was much easier going down the section of the wash we’d not chosen on our way up.
And about 2.5 hours after we’d left it, we were back at our Jeep.
On the way back out into Snake Valley, we passed a home perfect for our cabin-obsessed friend, Juan.