(Remember that you can click on the photos to see a slideshow, and then hit "escape" to get back to the text. Also, a note on the photo credits: as always, both Felice and I took these shots, and many of my shots resulted from her suggestions. I do the photo editing using Lightroom; my goal is to reproduce just what we saw, as faithfully as possible.)
Sept. 22: We drove from Twin Falls to Great Basin, less than 350 miles. It rained on and off all the way, but it was still an easy and pleasant drive. The road (Highway 93) was absolutely empty, the road drainage was fine, and it was not hot! Northeastern Nevada is a hilly desert, not as bleak as the area around Las Vegas. We passed the time listening to podcasts that Felice had downloaded at home – very enjoyable.
As with most of the territory we saw during this whole month, this was “double scan” country: turn on the radio, hit the “scan” button, and nothing comes up, neither on the AM nor the FM bands. Just static. That is wonderful, as far as I am concerned – it’s a sign that we are really out in the boonies. The only problem is that we were completely out of touch with the news during the height of election season. (On the other hand, not such a problem at all, especially this year.)
We got to Great Basin in the mid-afternoon in a rainstorm and snagged a campsite at Lower Lehman Campground (or so we thought). After unhitching and paying, we drove to the nearby Lehman Cave Visitor Center to ask a few questions, and we spotted this great rainbow over Baker, Nevada, to the east of us:
But when we got back to our campsite, there was some unfortunate guy in a beat-up old van parked in front of our trailer. He told us that this was his campsite! It turns out that he was so broke that when he had taken the campsite and had later left for the day, he had nothing in his van that he could have left on the pad to show that the site was taken, which is the universal practice – not even a chair or a bucket. He had attached a little paper tag to the clip on the campsite pole, but the rain had plastered it to the pole and it was not visible. Moral of the story: even if a campsite looks vacant, check the clip to see if there is a current tag.
So we re-hitched and drove over to the Baker Creek Campground and got the last open trailer-friendly site. We were surprised that all of the campgrounds had filled up on a rainy Thursday in late September; this could have been a problem, since all of the campgrounds are first-come, first-served at this time of year, and we would have had to go elsewhere. As it turned out, we really liked our campsite – we could hear the stream, the campground was very quiet, and there were four wild turkeys who paraded comically back and forth through the bushes, a mother with three chicks. (We later figured out that they were gorging on pine nuts -- pre-stuffed turkeys! Just add sage . . . . )
Sept. 23: It had rained on and off during the night, and we could see snow in the higher elevations. Let’s go! So we took the Wheeler Peak Road all the way up to the trailhead at 10,000 feet, hoping to get to the Bristlecone trees, the oldest living things on Earth, and then up to the only glacier in Nevada. (5 miles and 1100 feet of gain.)
On the way to the trailhead, we stopped off at Mather Overlook:
Right at the trailhead, there were snowy bare aspens next to trees still full of color:
There was fresh snow on the trail to the Bristlecones:
According to the plaque, this tree (still living) is 3200 years old – that kind of perseverance deserves a picture:
The snowy, gnarled Bristlecones were silhouetted against the storm clouds:
Beyond the Bristlecone grove, we had the trail to the glacier completely to ourselves. There were no footprints in the new-fallen snow except ours:
These pictures make the hike look more adventurous, difficult, and cold than it was. The temperature was in the high 20s, perfectly comfortable for hiking. It was windy and sometimes a little foggy, but not too bad at all. The snow was only about six inches deep. And we were wearing our snow gaiters, which are knee-length and waterproof.
In this next shot, Felice is in the lower left corner. The hilly stuff in the middle of the picture is a rock glacier:
Apparently, the rock is thickly laced with ice that thaws and freezes. As it re-freezes, the ice between the rocks expands, pushing the pile of rocks slowly downhill. The trail took us up onto the rock glacier, fairly close to the headwall, over some pretty blocky talus. The drifted snow on the trail actually made the hiking easier because it filled in some of the rougher patches.
As we were getting ready to turn around, the sun came out for a moment and illuminated the stratified rock:
Sept. 24: We took the Timber Creek Loop, 5 miles and 1700 feet of gain. Most of the route up was very steep, but at least the surface was good. There were plenty of old aspens along the trail:
Up at the crest, near where the Timber Creek trail joined up with the south fork of Baker Creek, there was a grove of really huge aspens:
There was more fall color on the trip back down:
The trail down was right along the creek, with many small cascades – very shady and pleasant.
That afternoon, we drove up the Wheeler Peak road to the 8500 foot level, where we had spotted a dense grove of piñon trees. We had been told that the pine nuts were in season and that there were two ways to harvest them: directly from the cones, or else from the ground where they had fallen from the tree.
Frankly, we were skeptical – if the pine nuts were any good, how could there be any left on the ground? Wouldn’t the squirrels eat them all? It turns out that there were so many pine nuts under the trees – thousands under each one – that the squirrels were probably sick of eating them.
We were also told that the cones were full of sticky sap – as this photo clearly shows. That white junk on the tips of the cone segments is like glue:
Each of those nutshells is around 3/4 of an inch long -- maybe a little less. The nut inside is about a half-inch long and a quarter-inch wide. We decided not to touch those cones and opted for the “just pick them up from the ground” strategy.
To protect our hands from the sap that had dripped from the cones onto the ground, we wore disposable nitrile gloves – the ones we usually use when dumping the black and gray water. (News flash: gathering pine nuts is more fun.) We also brought a small step-stool, so that we wouldn't have to kneel or squat -- too hard on the knees!
In much less than an hour, we had gathered two decent-sized plastic bags full of pine nuts, while working in the pine-scented shade on a mountainside at 8500 feet. If you have to do stoop labor, this is the place to do it:
When we got back home, we discovered that they were easy to prepare – rinse them, soak them in salty water for a few hours, drain, and roast at 325 degrees for 20 minutes. They're done when the nuts turn a butterscotch color -- frequent testing is required. Delicious! But kind of a lot of work to eat – you have to crack each shell with your teeth (gently) and extract the nut. A little time-consuming, but in a good way.
That night, we again indulged my Milky Way obsession, since we were in a place that is known for its “primeval” dark skies, to quote the Park Service publication. We drove up to the Mather Overlook at around 9000 feet (cold and breezy, of course), and this was the result:
(That picture might be worth clicking on.) If you look closely, you can see that the mountainsides are faintly illuminated: the stars were so brilliant that they were dimly reflected by the fresh snow on the north face of Wheeler Peak.
This is a similar shot, oriented horizontally -- I have re-worked it in Lightroom to bring out more of the snow:
Sept. 25: We attempted the Wheeler Peak Trail, actually covering about 7 miles with 2000 feet of gain. At the trailhead, there were great views of the sheer canyon below the peak:
The first part of the trail was pretty flat and smooth, winding around the base of the mountain. After a few miles, though, the trail ascended through the talus on the north slope. At the 11,000 foot level, we ran into a lot of snow and ice. The views were astounding – we could see for well over a hundred miles in every direction. When we got up toward 12,000 feet, the wind started to howl over the ridge, making it really hard to stand:
In this brief video, I am actually leaning into the wind at about a 45 degree angle, and the pressure of the wind is supporting me -- fun!!
But in a few minutes, it got significantly worse – we could no longer stand up safely, even in a deep crouch. We had to sit down. The wind was so loud that we could not hear each other shouting. Sticking a hand up felt exactly like putting a hand out of the window of a car on the freeway. Bits of ice were sandblasting our faces.
Basing my opinion on some Internet research and a series of videos shot at the Mt. Washington Observatory in New Hampshire (where they have a wind gauge and they showed the effects of wind on humans at varying speeds), I am fairly sure that the wind was gusting between 70 and 80 mph. Especially with all of the ice and snow, it was no longer safe to keep climbing, so we had to head down. Fun is fun, but there is a limit to adventure.
On the way back to the trailhead, we stopped to admire the 13,000 foot peak:
This multicolored aspen was right along the road on the way back down to the campground -- all of those colors are on one tree:
Later that afternoon, we stopped in at the Lehman Visitor Center to see if they had a wind gauge on the peak (no), and then we noticed a fruit orchard just east of the parking area. The trees looked ancient, and they are – we later found out that this was the Lehman Orchard, planted over a hundred years ago by an early settler, the discoverer of Lehman Cave. (I think his name was Lehman.)
One of the apricot trees still had ripe fruit on the branches – little reddish-orange apricots, and some of them were pretty good!
Overall, Great Basin substantially exceeded our expectations. It is such a cool and green anomaly, set in the middle of the high desert. There aren't very many hiking trails available, but this park is certainly worth a stay of three or four nights. And it would make a great stopover on a trip from California to Utah or Colorado.
Part V: Eastern Sierra