National Park Number: 17 of 59
I grew up in the Great Basin Desert in Idaho and I never knew about Great Basin National Park. This is a shame, because the park is basically a big celebration of the landscape I grew up in and until recently, I didn’t fully appreciate it. I could’ve used a little GBNP teaching me about high-desert love.
My specific hometown is in a little valley, surrounded by forested mountains; it’s lovely and it’s a well-irrigated farm town, so I didn’t realize until I was 12 or so that it is actually a desert. In much of the surrounding area, outside Cache Valley, the land is covered in sagebrush and scrub, dusty and dry and cattle-grazed. I never thought of this as being beautiful. Natural beauty was granite peaks and pine trees, or sand and cacti, or ocean and beachgrass, or rolling hills and dense forest. Basically any landscape other than the one I was surrounded by. I’m not sure why it took me so long, but in the past several years, I have fallen in love with the high desert. Being married to David helps: he’s always loved the sagebrush and sees a hundred shades where I see only brown. Chalk it up to his artists’ eye: the man sees beauty absolutely everywhere.
I learned a bunch of things at Great Basin that made me appreciate this area even more; our visit was short (only two days), but we loved it. Just in case you’re not wild about the landscapes of Nevada and the wider Great Basin, I’m going to try to win you over to them in this blog post :).
So, first thing: the Great Basin region covers most of Nevada, western Utah, southern Idaho, and eastern Oregon. It’s one of four deserts in the U.S.—the others being the Sonoran, Chihuachuan and Mojave—and is the only “cold desert” of the four. Because of the range of elevation in the region, there is a stunning diversity of habitats, from salt desert and sagebrush grasslands to alpine forest and mountain meadow. From Baker, NV, just outside the park, you can drive from an altitude of 5300 feet up to 10,000 feet via the Wheeler Peak drive, and each 1000 feet of elevation gain is equivalent to driving north 600 miles in terms of weather pattern and habitat.
Great Basin National Park has more than 40 caves; one of these, Lehman Cave, is a star attraction of the park. We started our visit by taking a tour. Our ranger guide started by telling us the story of how Absalom Lehman, a rancher, discovered the cave. Here it is: because Absalom worked out in the fields all day, far from home, he always ate a huge breakfast. One day, he cooked too much bacon even for himself to eat, so he made a big bacon sandwich that he packed away for his lunch before riding into the fields.
Later in the day, Absalom found a shady tree, unsaddled and pulled out his sandwich. He set it on a rock for a moment while reaching for his handkerchief to wipe his hands; when he looked back, his sandwich was gone. He spotted a packrat a few yards away, sandwich in mouth, running away as fast as he could. Lehman, unwilling to part with his sandwich, jumped on his horse and took off after the rat. After a short chase, the rat disappeared and Absalom saw too late where the rat had gone: before he could stop his horse, they had plunged headlong into a gaping hole in the ground. Luckily, Absalom was a quick thinker and an even quicker lasso-er; he grabbed his rope and threw his lasso around a rock just outside the cave entrance. And so Lehman and his horse dangled mid-cave, Absalom clinging to his rope and holding his horse up with his legs.
This is literally one of the stories Absalom Lehman told a newspaper about his discovery of the cave; he gave different stories to every publication he talked to and this is one of the gems.
Lehman started a little tourist business giving tours of the cave and his policy was, “If you can break it, you can take it.” Lots of the smaller formations in the cave were broken off before the cave became more carefully protected.
Our guide was excellent and we learned a lot about how different speleothems, or cave decorations, are formed. The basic process: water works its way through the cave walls, ceilings or floors, and minerals build up around the drips and streams, creating (over very long periods of time) speleothems like stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, cave popcorn, and cave bacon.
After our tour of the cave, we headed up Wheeler Peak to see the views overlooking the valley. We also drove up because since heading south from Glacier, we were dealing with really hot weather for the first time on our trip and sleeping in the bus had become a very sweaty experience. That night, we explored the woods around Wheeler Peak campground and spent the night at 10,000 feet, nice and cool in our little home on wheels.
We set off the next morning to knock out all the hikes we wanted to do at once: first we hiked the Alpine Lakes Loop, then headed up the Bristlecone Trail and pushed on to the glacier overlook.
The trail wound through cool subalpine forest, around Stella and Teresa lakes, and around orange rocky ridges to a grove of bristlecone pines. I had no idea these existed; now I think they are the COOLEST TREES EVER. Bristlecones are the oldest living things on the entire earth. They grow near treeline, amid harsh conditions that require them to grow incredibly slowly—this slow growth makes the wood extremely hard. Additionally, because the wood has such a high resin content, bristlecones don’t rot; instead, they erode. Some of the living trees in the grove were 4000 years old and there were dead ones still fully formed after 6000 years.
There is a small trail that winds through some of the oldest trees; nearby plaques tell their stories. Walking through is a profound experience; there’s nothing quite like touching wood that was already thousands of years old when the pyramids were built.
The trail continues beyond the bristlecone grove to a glacier, the only one in Nevada. It’s a rock glacier, which we first saw in Alaska and which are totally fascinating to me (basically, if an ice glacier is, let’s say, 80% ice and 20% rock, a rock glacier has the proportions switched: it’s basically like a bunch of concrete held together with ice). We hiked to the overlook before making our way back down the mountain.
As soon as we got back in the bus, it started pouring rain; then quickly the rain turned to hail. We’d been planning to stay in the park til the next morning, but instead fled down into the valley and ended up heading back to Utah to see some friends and family. But all the way back, we continued to see the landscape in a new way. That was the blessing of this park to us, and I think it’s the blessing of national parks and preserved wilderness generally—they teach us to see our environments with new knowledge and new eyes and new wonder.