We saw quite a range of species during our trip to Great Basin National Park, which is unsurprising given the huge elevation differences in the Park. This list also includes species we saw in Snake Valley, outside the technical boundary of the National Park.
After the morning’s solar eclipse, Sean and I decided to spend the afternoon of August 21, our final full day at Great Basin National Park, exploring one of the only remaining major sections of the Park that we hadn’t yet visited: the Snake Creek Canyon area. Like most of the other reasonably accessible portions of the Park, it is reached from the Snake Valley side of the Snake Range.
As our visit to Great Basin National Park moved into its final third, the only thing defining our remaining time was the solar eclipse that would occur on the morning of August 21.
After our midday hike on Sunday, August 20 to Lexington Arch, Sean and I returned to Baker and drove over to Baker Archeological Site on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land just north of town. The site was the location of a Fremont people village, which had been excavated in the early 1990s. The Fremonts, named after a river in Utah where their sites were first discovered, lived in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Colorado from roughly 1 to 1300 CE.
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.
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.
On the afternoon of August 18, after our lunch and a rest in camp, we decided to go on an afternoon hike to the Bristlecone Pine Grove beneath the Wheeler Peak Cirque. The Bristlecones are accessible three miles and six-hundred feet up a winding forest trail that begins at the entrance to Wheeler Peak Campground. The trail continues another mile to the remnant of a glacier. On the question of whether we’d go all the way to the glacier, we decided to see how we felt once we’d seen the Bristlecones, which were our main objective.
The morning of August 18 was devoted to our tour of Lehman Caves, the highly decorated limestone cave that the south Snake Range had first become famous (and federally protected) for. When our friend Patrick had visited Great Basin National Park on a lark during a road trip from the Bay Area to Chicago, he hadn’t been able to tour the cave because the tours were sold out. We had booked ours weeks in advance so that wouldn’t happen to us. My thinking had been that we would do the cave tour straight off on the morning of our first day in the Park, then we’d have the rest of our time to do whatever we wanted whenever we wanted.
Sean and I departed Chicago for Great Basin National Park on Wednesday, August 16, 2017. The night before we had celebrated our second wedding anniversary with a lovely evening of tapas and paella. After a strategic planning call on Wednesday afternoon, I shouldered my large pack, which I’d brought with me to my office in the Loop, and headed for the Blue Line El to O’Hare Airport. Unfortunately, there was a severe delay, so Sean and I changed plans. We met at the corner of Dearborn and Randolph and were driven to O’Hare by a Lyft driver named Juan. Juan’s youngest son was studying business at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. After school, Juan’s son planned to learn the legal marijuana business in Colorado before returning home once it was legalized in Illinois. I guess it sounded like the kid had a good head on his shoulders.
Stretching from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California all the way to the Wasatch front of the Rocky Mountains in Utah and from the edge of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Plateau in the south to the Snake River Plain of Idaho and the Harney Basin of Oregon in the north, the Great Basin comprises a huge expanse of the American West. While it is vast enough to encompass a variety of landscapes and habitats from alpine peaks low-lying desert, the Great Basin is generally signified by high, arid sagebrush desert cut by mountain ranges. The Great Basin boasts 160 north-south trending mountain ranges separating ninety valleys.
One of those mountain ranges is the Snake Range in eastern Nevada near the Utah border, which separates Snake Valley (elevation: 5,300 feet) in the east from Spring Valley (elevation: 6,400 feet) in the west. The Snake Range is capped by Wheeler Peak at 13,065 feet, the second-highest peak in Nevada. In 1922, President Warren Harding established Lehman Caves National Monument to protect a magnificently decorated cave in the eastern slopes of the south Snake Range. For the succeeding sixty years, talk ebbed and flowed of creating a National Park in the Snake Range. Finally on October 27, 1986, Congress combined Lehman Caves National Monument with a portion of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to create Great Basin National Park, 77,180 acres of sagebrush sea, Pinyon-Juniper woodland, conifer forest, sub-alpine and alpine mountain habitat, Lehman Caves, Lexington Arch, and Great Basin Bristlecone Pine woodlands.