The original plan for this autumn was a trip to the Northwest and British Columbia, both of which unfortunately caught fire. But in late August, we studied the daily online air pollution maps and noticed that much of the smoke coming from the West seemed to be arching up over the Tetons, with the flow of the jet stream; Colorado and Utah were clear, too. The various webcams looked good, so hurrah for Plan B!
Our first destination was Great Basin National Park, since it was sort of on the way to the Tetons. The big goal on our first day (Sept. 9) was an RV park in tiny Pioche, Nevada, 450 miles from home, a long day of driving. But surprise! We had a strong tailwind most of the day (which makes a big difference when towing a trailer), and we got to Pioche in the afternoon. It was hot. Stop, or keep going? We knew there were no other RV parks along the route, but maybe we could get to a campground in the evening, using our trusty headlamps to set up camp in the dark . . . .
We just kept barreling north on Highway 93, through the scenic but desolate high desert. Northern Nevada is not like the area around Las Vegas -- it is mountainous, with chaparral on the hillsides. The road was empty: just the way I like it. To alleviate her usual "trapped in the passenger seat" restlessness, Felice tried out a NASA-style bungee workout cord that I had improvised. (The verdict: not wonderful, but better than nothing.) As we approached Great Basin, Felice pored over the map and discovered a BLM campground, Sacramento Pass, perfectly located on Highway 50.
We stopped around sunset (550 miles -- a new daily record for us!) and set up camp, and yes, the headlamps were successfully deployed. For future reference, the campsites nearer to the highway have a little more road noise (not surprisingly). There is an interior loop up a steep roadway, called the Equestrian Area, that is farther from the highway (but which seemed crowded for a Sunday night in September).
That night, the Milky Way display was one of the best we have ever seen -- the bright "star" on the left is actually a planet, Mars. The photo does not do justice to the deep rust color of Mars; on the other hand, the photo slightly exaggerates the beauty of the Milky Way, so it comes out even:
As it turned out, the view of the Milky Way was better from Sacramento Pass than from Wheeler Peak Campground in Great Basin: since the horizon to the south was not blocked by the mountains, the bright center of the galaxy was fully visible. (Those are high, thin clouds just to the right of the galactic center, not part of the Milky Way itself.)
Sept. 10: This was a bonus day -- we were supposed to be in transit, but our marathon drive to Sacramento Pass meant that we were able to get to Lehman Caves for the morning tour. The tour was interesting -- the guide knew quite a bit about the local geology, and the formations were satisfyingly grotesque. Amazingly, these shots were all taken on Felice's iPhone -- none of our other cameras worked well in the dim lighting:
There was even some wildlife -- this little guy is a pseudo-scorpion, about an inch long:
After the cave tour, we headed up the hill to Wheeler Peak Campground, at around 10,000 feet. The road to the campground is steep and twisty, but a good tow vehicle would have no trouble pulling a small trailer up that grade. The interior roads in the campground were pretty tight but not impossible.
The views of the ridge from some of the campsites were excellent:
Our campsite was in the trees, but we could still see the mountains from our front window:
As you might expect at 10,000 feet, the stars were terrific, even if the nearby peaks cut off part of the Milky Way:
Sept. 11: We had already acclimated to the elevation for a couple of nights, so why not tackle the Wheeler Peak trail? The last time we tried (almost exactly two years ago), the snow and ice and howling wind stopped us about halfway up.
All along the trail, the aspens were at peak color:
There was no snow, which made the footing a lot easier, even if the dry mountains were a little less scenic:
Up on the ridge at well over 12,000 feet, the wind was (once again) howling -- my guess is that it was above 40 knots, not quite as bad as the last time we were here. We were so high up that the sky was a very dark blue:
I tried to narrate a short video, describing the view into Utah and much of Northern Nevada, but the wind blasted the microphone:
Felice did her best Rocky the Flying Squirrel imitation:
We were within a thousand feet of the peak when we had to turn back -- I am not sure we will ever make it to the top of this mountain. (For the record, we climbed well over 2,000 vertical feet and hiked more than 8 miles.) On the way back down to the trailhead, the aspens were backlit by the afternoon sunlight:
Sept. 12: We hitched up and headed out of the campground through a tunnel of aspens:
We headed northeast through northern Utah and Wyoming toward the Tetons, stopping for the night in Thayne, Wyoming, a 430 mile day. Not an epic drive, but plenty long.
Next: Part 2 (The Tetons).