Majestic Wheeler Peak presides over lakes, valleys, limestone caves and some of the oldest trees on Earth.
By Donna B. Ulrich
Great Basin National Park has everything from snow-covered peaks and alpine lakes to trees as old as the hills. What it doesn’t have is a major city nearby, unless you count Baker, Nevada, population 68. If you like the thought of a park without cars and buses packed into parking lots, take this little side trip off what Life magazine once labeled “The Loneliest Road in America,” Highway 50 across Nevada.
You’ll find the park on the eastern edge of the Basin and Range Province, the region extending east from California’s Sierra Nevada to Utah’s Wasatch Range, and from southern Oregon to southern Nevada. A distinguishing feature is that all of the region’s rivers flow inland, not to the ocean.
At 13,063 feet, Wheeler Peak soars above the desert valleys and dominates the skyline. The 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (open in summer only) climbs nearly 3,000 feet from the park boundary to its terminus at 10,000 feet. At the road’s end are a campground, trailheads for climbing, high mountain lakes and a bristlecone pine forest. The popular Alpine Loops trail passes by Teresa and Stella lakes, both above 10,000 feet in elevation.
Bristlecone pines are among the oldest trees on Earth; some were young when the Egyptian pyramids were under construction. In 1964, one pine tree on Wheeler Peak was determined to be 4,862 years old. Fantastically twisted, gnarled and fastened to the earth with roots like steel, bristlecone pines tell a tale of struggle for survival on barren, rocky, windblown terrain. The wood, worn smooth by the elements, has a sculpted beauty not unlike polished stone.
Down on Wheeler’s flank are the Lehman Caves and the impressive Lexington Arch, carved out of limestone by ancient waters. It’s thought that the arch was once part of a passage in a cave system.
My husband, Larry, and I often stop at Great Basin on our travels to Utah, the Rockies or beyond. When the high desert is awash with mixtures of Indian paintbrush, desert dandelion and prickly pear cactus, all scattered amid the sagebrush, we’re happy for this oasis just off the Loneliest Road in America.
Photos by Larry Ulrich