Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park, established in 1986, preserves a diverse environment including palatial limestone caves, Nevada’s largest glacier, and stands of bristlecone pine, the world’s oldest tree. Lehman Caves National Monument has been part of the Park Service for 75 years, first designated in 1922 by President Warren G. Harding.
The Great Basin is a huge dry region of the western United States, which consists of 90 alternating valleys and mountain ranges. It stretches from the Wasatch Mountains in Utah to the Sierra Nevada range in California. The encircling mountains mean that rivers and streams do not drain into the ocean, but soak into the ground or accumulate in landlocked lakes. In an otherwise dry and dusty environment, the mountains capture enough moisture to sustain ecosystems which are so rich as to be unimaginable on the plains below.
The 77,109-acre Great Basin National Park is one of the youngest in the nation. Due to its age and great distance from major population centers — Salt Lake City and Las Vegas are 340 and 250 miles away respectively — the park is rarely crowded. Many of Great Basin’s visitors comment that they see more animals than people while hiking the park’s 65 miles of trails.
A visit to Great Basin usually begins at the Lehman Caves, a quarter-mile-long subterranean landscape of limestone and marble chambers carved by water seeping through cracks in the rock. Mineral-rich water then created fantastic stalactites and stalagmites, columns, flowstones, rare shields and clusters of snow-white needles.
A 12-mile highway known as Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (closed in winter) takes visitors into the heart of the Snake Range. From here an easy hiking trail leads to the top of Wheeler Peak-at 13,063 feet, the second-highest summit in Nevada. As the road climbs, the arid sagebrush of the desert floor sinks away below, and pinon-juniper woodlands and aspen trees start to appear along with clumps of manzanita shrubs and mountain mahogany, which grow to tree height. At 9,000 feet, Douglas fir and spruce trees complete the transformation from the Nevada Desert to this island of northern vegetation. Subalpine forests of limber pine, spruce and aspen are interspersed with meadows filled with wildflowers.
The road ends at the Wheeler Peak Campground-one of four campgrounds in the park-and the rest of the trip to the summit must be accomplished on foot. On the way, ice-cold streams twist and tumble through the forests, which are home to many of Great Basin’s numerous mule deer. Sparkling blue alpine lakes are fed by the rains and meltwaters from Nevada’s only glacier. The glacier is nestled in a great U-shaped basin at the foot of the 2,000-foot cliffs on Wheeler’s northeast face.
At the 10,000-foot elevation point grows one of the park’s three groves of tenacious bristlecone pines-Pinus longaeva, or “long-lived pines.” These gnarled and twisted survivors are the world’s oldest living tree species. With their gray, wind-sculpted trunks, bristlecones may appear dead, but they cling to life, almost oblivious to the passage of time. The trees adjust to changes in moisture, and the dense, resinous wood prevents rot. Many of these venerable trees are more than 4,000 years old. At the snowy summit of Wheeler Peak, the solitude and isolation of Great Basin National Park are at their most pronounced. On a clear day, the view can extend for up to 140 miles in any direction, the most allowed by the earth’s curvature.