*photo taken from the road through Snake Valley at Great Basin.
A year ago, my husband, Michael, and I were living in Ely, Nevada, a small mining town on Route 50, which is fondly known as the “loneliest highway in the world.” I doubt that it’s really the loneliest, since we saw plenty of traffic on the highway when we traveled it (all things considered—it was remote—it takes over three hours to get to the nearest town in any direction). The town of Ely truly tested our endurance for keeping ourselves entertained. While we lived there, we found only one restaurant we could tolerate—a pizza joint which had just reopened under new management—and little other than hiking or driving for fun. A local grocery store regularly ran out of staples like bread, eggs, or milk, and could be out of these basics for weeks at a time. All the prices in stores were jacked up madly, as if the place were some sort of high-roller escape, instead of the forgotten town everyone neglected to remodel after the 70s. Apparently all these issues have to do with the fact that Ely is now, and has been for most of its life, a mining town. Nevada has a lot of mining operations, whether it be precious metals, gem stones, or even uranium. Ely also happens to be home to a rather large prison for some of the most dangerous criminals on the coast, and at night we could see the lights atop the watchtowers from our RV park.
On the flip side, Ely did offer up a lot of hiking options, and while we lived there we explored the outdoors as often as possible. Mountain weather often whipped up in a hurry out there, so we had to take our trips between storms which often drove in with a lot of high winds. Still, I absolutely loved hiking on the Egan Crest Trail system which was on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, a place I often took the dogs. One could enjoy miles of trails in the desert, and some of the crests in the park deliver lovely views. Nearby Garnet Hill Recreation Area, also on BLM land, had some of the best views of the surrounding valleys, and had some leg-burning hikes that really got me in shape. Several times while I was hiking I ran into rock hunters who could be found digging for garnets, an activity which is something of a hobby for a surprising number of people out West. Cave Lake State Park was probably my favorite place to hike around Ely. The beautiful rock-studded mountains, the lush stream full of fish, the sapphire water of the lake, and the plentiful wildlife frequently left me speechless. Honestly, I never expected to find such gorgeous, colorful flowers all over the desert, nor did I expect to see antelope and wild horses as readily as I might see deer.
In its way, the high desert is a wily, untamed wilderness with more diversity than I ever realized existed until I saw it with my own eyes. I suspect few people realize how much beauty there is to appreciate in a place like Ely, which I why I believe if you care to trek out into the high desert of Nevada, you might be just as surprised as I was by the sheer impossibility of it all. This is what awaits you if you dare to take the drive to Great Basin National Park. Be aware that a trip to this park must be carefully planned. If you are an East Coaster, the amount of time you will drive without seeing ANYTHING will astonish you. Never leave any town without a full tank of gas, snacks, and drinks. It may be hours before you see another town. No kidding. If you are a West Coaster, the long drives between towns may be normal to you, but if you live in the lower regions away from the mountains…prepare thyself, cricket. The weather is a beast, and it’s no joke. High winds sustained at 60 mph are not unusual, blizzards kick up out of nowhere, and thunderstorms descend with rapid and erratic rain and cloud cover. But please don’t let that scare you away. Rather, be aware it is a possibility and be prepared for it, but also be prepared to experience a wide array of life secreted away in caves, bristlecone pines (some of the oldest trees in the world), and at the zenith of mountains which rival the Rockies in height. One of the most incredible aspects of the high desert wilderness to me is the fact that every thousand feet of elevation gain rewards the hiker with a new ecosystem of plants and animals. If you travel to this park, please stop at the visitor center to learn about it before you go out into the park. Besides, this park is quite remote and if you are unfamiliar with the high desert, you would be wise to speak with a park ranger before you wander onto the trails and go driving on the roads.
Great Basin is a newer addition to the National Parks, so it doesn’t have the amenities of other parks which are so well-traveled, such as Yosemite or Yellowstone. Instead, Great Basin is largely made up of a system of dirt roads which take you to trail heads or specific points of interest. Michael and I were disappointed to learn that the cave requires advance notice to set up a tour, so we did not get to enjoy that. If you wish to visit Lehman Cave, call ahead and reserve your spot on a tour. Also disappointing for us was the fact that Wheeler Peak still remained closed when we arrived so early in the park’s season. If you plan a trip and want to get up there, wait until late June or even better, July or August. The snow on the high peaks of Nevada can last well into summer, and some years it may not even melt completely. We didn’t realize any of this when we got there in early May, so we missed out on some of the good stuff as a result. At least we’d already had over a month of time to acclimate to the elevation—a factor any visitor would be wise to consider when heading out there from a lower elevation, particularly folks who live close to sea level. Even at the lowest point of the park, you will still be at a relatively high elevation over 6,000 feet. When we first moved to Ely, it took Michael and I a month or so to acclimate to the 6,500-foot elevation of the town, which was then surrounded by mountains jutting up in every direction. We huffed and puffed everywhere we went.
The day we headed out to the park, it was sunny and warm, a beautiful day to be outside. Since both Michael and I are pale and pasty, we went armed with our hats and sunscreen to keep the burn away. Part of the drive was already familiar, as the road to get there was the road we drove into Ely when we traveled from Moab, at the time so unfamiliar and stark-looking. Now that I have hiked in the foothills and along the valley floor, I know that the sparseness of green in the desert there is full of life. My mind took it in differently with the familiarity of the landscape. This new perspective excites me to think about how I might feel about the entire country one day; after lots of travel to places I have never seen, how will it change my perspective? I imagine I will feel connected to all the places we live, as we gain familiarity with a region whilst living there for a few months. The mountains we passed on the way to the park tell me a different story than they did when we first passed them, and I feel as if they are now a part of me, no longer alien. Such connection to the wildlife and land is humbling and sweet all at once.
Having to drive only an hour from Ely, it felt like the time flew. After you travel ten or twelve hours in a day to cross the country, an hour is nothing. When we first arrived at the park, we stopped at the visitor’s office to pick up a park map, and we chatted with the ranger on duty at the front desk to get updates on what parts of the park are dog-friendly (not many), and what parts were open. We learned that the one place we would actually be allowed to take our dogs on a trail (this is a dumb policy of National Parks, in my opinion, as they bar all dogs from most trails unless they are service dogs) has a road which was washed out from recent creek rise. Michael and I take a few minutes to peruse the exhibit of what types of plants and animals we might see in the park, and then we try to head out to the Lexington Arch, despite the issues with the road. The way the ranger made it sound, if one has a four-wheel drive vehicle, we should have been able to make it through and hike to the arch. Off we went to locate the dirt road which leads to the trail. Reading the map to locate the road did not give a good indication of where it will be, so I found a road using a wash as a landmark on the map, hoping this was the road we wanted. [As an aside here, in general, the National Park maps are not very detailed. Thus far, every park we have visited has been frustrating to negotiate using the maps they provide, so try using Google or find another means to print a map prior to your trip to any National Park.] The road was terrible, rocky, rutted, and we had to drive down into a small canyon and through a creek before we came to the road which was better maintained by the park service. Most dismaying, we rammed the bumper of the truck into rocks in the canyon while crossing the creek, bending the bumper. Sad face. Don’t do what we did. In all fairness, there were no signs indicating where to go—again, this is a new park which is still a work in progress.
After we drove over the creek twice more, we finally came to a wide swath of water running over the road. End of the line. Michael determined we should not drive through the water, since it was too muddy and probably too deep, and there would be no getting ourselves out if we got stuck. Wise choice. We fooled around with some fallen trees for a few minutes to see if we could make a bridge to walk across, and then we could hike the rest of the way to the arch, but no dice there, either. The water was just too wide, and we didn’t have the proper gear to wade. In snake country, I had no intention of taking off my shoes and going barefoot—besides, it wasn’t that warm. Disappointed, we went back to the more well-traveled parts of the park where the dogs would only be allowed on the road. Sigh. Still, we drove through Snake Valley, where one can enjoy the sight of bright green along the creek, where trees and plants grow almost jungle-like in the desert, an oasis of color against the more muted tones elsewhere. We stopped and walked along the road for a ways along the creek, taking in the scenery. Seeing trees lightens my spirit, a sight I missed from the Northeast. I love the forests up North, and the lack of greenery was hard for me to live without. Regardless, we snapped a few photos of the lovely mountains, the trees, and some of the plants. Then we got back in the car to head over to Wheeler Peak. On our way out of Snake Valley, Michael suddenly said from the driver’s seat, “I think I just hit a snake.” I craned my neck to look behind us, but couldn’t see anything.
“Go back and look,” I said. “At the very least we should check to see if it’s injured.” I also added that we should do the kind thing if it was injured, since I don’t believe in leaving an animal to suffer if it’s been hit by a car. Sounds horrid, probably, but I think it’s more horrid to leave an animal to suffer after it sustains injuries it can’t survive. So we went back, and there in the road was a snake, curled into a loose coil. Fortunately, it appeared to be fine, and I was relieved that Michael had not run it over after all. I got excited that it might be a rattler, as the coloration was right, but then I could see its head wasn’t big enough to be venomous (a venomous snake will have a large, triangular head, while non-venomous snakes have slender heads closer to the size of the rest of the body). Still, I took pictures. I mean, seeing a snake in Snake Valley is pretty cool. Michael leaned over me to peer at the snake, and then when it started to slither under the truck, I told him to start driving so it wouldn’t end up under the vehicle. The snake turned away, and as it stretched out I could see its full length of at least three feet. Cool.
After Snake Valley lived up to its name, we went up the mountain toward Wheeler Peak. Right away we got a gorgeous view of the basin below as we skirted the mountain on a road which has rather sheer drops to one side. We got to an overlook at about 10,000 feet, and that’s as far as the road would take us. Wheeler Peak (at over 13,000 feet) was still closed due to snow. Michael and I got out and looked at the view, and I snapped a bunch of photos while I climbed around on the rocks where I probably shouldn’t be climbing, but I got a great view of the summit. After getting our fill of the sights, we got back in the truck and went down to Upper Lehman Creek, where we walked the dogs once again on the roads in the campground. If you happen to hit this park, these campsites look very nice. Lots of privacy between sites, newly freshened up with landscaping, and a great view of Wheeler Peak from the campground. The sound of rushing water will put you right to sleep at night. If you have a trailer or RV, you might need to find room at a different site in the park, as there is a length restriction—those roads are fairly curvy and tight to navigate with a large vehicle. Still, it would be a lovely spot to camp by tent or small camper, and there’s a nice trail off the campground there, too, for a little woodsy exploration.
I should say that both Michael and I were underwhelmed by this National Park at the time, mostly because we were already living in a place similar to the park and were already familiar with its features. Though the scenery is lovely, there is abundant animal activity, there is no entry fee (they accept donations at the visitor center), and there is a wide range of bio-diversity, this park is still so young in its establishment that much of the park is undeveloped. The park does not have a lot to offer in terms of interesting things to see, unless you geek out on seeing the diversity of plant life in the desert terrain and are prepared for backwoods camping (which is very well worth it, if you ask me, but not everyone is an outdoor geek). You do get to enjoy the range of high desert diversity in all its glory, but if you want to see rock arches, go to Arches National Park in Utah. If you want to see high peaks, go to Yosemite or the Rockies. Caves to explore can be found across the country, and Mammoth Caves is one of many parks dedicated to subterranean fun. Do not expect the same types of fancy amenities as other National Parks. You will not find restaurants in or around the park. There are few places to purchase supplies, so come stocked with whatever you will need for the entirety of your stay. However, if you do stay at this park, you will get to enjoy some of the darkest skies in the country, which means lots and lots of stars. You can be mystified by the incredulity of flowers blooming in green grass above one of the driest places in the US. If you’re lucky, you might see antelope, great horned owls, bears, mountain lions, or jackrabbits. You will definitely hear coyotes at night. Best of all, this park is remote enough to keep away the big crowds you will find at other, more popular parks. Our trip to Yosemite was surprisingly frustrating due to the volume of people absolutely everywhere in the park, even the more remote places. At Great Basin, you can enjoy the wilderness with less competition. If high desert wilderness sounds like an adventure, you will be forever changed if you make the choice to brave one of the wildest places I have ever lived.