Great Basin

   Great Basin NP is located in northern Nevada, just over the border from Utah. Wheeler Peak (seen here)- a 13,063 foot mountain in the Snake Range, is its centerpiece. The Snake Range and its lower slopes comprise most of the park. The Great Basin Region- of which Great Basin National Park is only a small part, covers most of Nevada and portions of the bordering states. This region is called the "Great Basin" because, unlike the rest of the continent, rainfall in the Great Basin region does not flow eventually into the Atlantic, or the Pacific. Like a water basin, rainfall is collected, and must either evaporate, or seep into the ground. This does not mean the region is in the shape of a simple bowl. It n the shape of a simple bowl. It is a series of parallel mountain ranges. Running generally north/south these ridges striate the high desert into a series of long narrow valleys- or "basins", from which rivers and streams don't escape. Each mountain range acts as an island of cooler, more hospitable, habitat in the ocean of desert.

   The desert plain surrounding Mt. Wheeler, and the Snake Range, is at an elevation of 5,000 feet. As the mountains climb out of this arid sagebrush desert their slopes provide a series of cooler and wetter climatic zones. These "mountain islands" support forests of Pine, and Aspen. Stream fed meadows, and lakes enjoy the mountain runoff. As the mountains climb higher, the plants once again thin out until, at 11,000 feet the last of them surrenders to the cold, exposing the naked yellow and gray rock of the peaks. You can see the treeline here in this photo taken from about 10,000 feet along the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail.

   Near the Wheeler Peak Campground are easy trails leading mpground are easy trails leading to the Alpine Lakes, a bristlecone pine grove, and a more strenuous trail to Wheeler Glacier. These Alpine Lakes- Teresa Lake, and Stella Lake (seen here) - are modest depressions scooped out by glaciers, and filled by mountain runoff. These pure clear lakes freeze over each winter, and are largely devoid of life.  The Alpine Lakes Loop trail circles a area of stream fed meadows. The almost tropical looking tall emerald grasses are incongruous amongst the general rocky bareness. Deer forage through the meadows, and retreat lazily away from you as you walk the trails.

Ancient Bristle Cone Pines

   A side trail from the Lakes Loop trail leads up to a grove of Ancient Bristlecone Pine (seen here). The Bristlecone, and Limber pines populate the higher regions of the park where other less hardy species have fallen back. These trees can live for hundreds of years. The bleak habitat protects them from competitors. The oldest of these are the bristlecone hermits that cling to the upper slopes where the conditions are the most severe. The depravation makes them grow more slowly. These dwarfs are the gray old men of the mountain who live for thousands of years.   One tree was found to be nearly 5,000 years old making it the oldest living thing on earth.&oldest living thing on earth.  Remote, and regal - they dream through their slow motion lives far above the ephemeral world below.

Trail up Mt. Wheeler

   In this photo, near the start, the trail passes through a forest of yellow barked aspen trees. Mt. Wheeler Peak is visible in the distance. These aspen stand in thick groves. The branches and leaves sprout well above ground leaving the crooked yellow trunks visible. The trunks sketch a mesh of overlapping vertical lines that thicken with distance. Each step on the trail causes the trunks on either side to shift position against each other, lining up and separating again. Ahead there is a perpetual thick knot of trees that accommodates you by spreading apart as you approach. The gentle early morning light streams low through the trunks weaving a pattern of amber light and ving a pattern of amber light and shade.

   The trail begins at 10,161 and climbs in a about 5 miles to 13,063 feet. The high elevation, bright sun, steep trail, and often ferocious weather can make this a very strenuous climb. You should start early, and allow most of the day. If possible spend the night at Wheeler campground to get acclimated to the altitude, and to allow for an early start from the trail head just down the road from the campground. This photo was taken along the trail as it climbs up the slopes of Bald Mt.. The peak of Mt. Wheeler is in the upper left. The trail heads south toward the saddle of land between Wheeler and Bald mountains (right edge of photo), and then follows the ridge that slopes up left across the picture to the peak. As you can see the trail gets steeper as you approach the top. While looking up at the peak I interpreted the flat topped cliff as being one side of a plateau. In fact the peak is a long thin fin of rock, the top being only a few meters wide at some points.


The trail swit;

The trail switchbacks up the eastern slope of Bald Mt.. directly opposite Mt. Wheeler reaching a saddle between the two at about 10,800 feet. This saddle is the last large stretch of easy level hiking. As the trail climbs it changes from dirt, to gravel, and finally becomes screes of large ankle twisting rock. This photo was taken from above the saddle along the hard slog to the top. As you get closer to the top the trail becomes a series of staircase like switchbacks.

   This photo taken from the summit looking north. This view takes in most of the park, and the trail up the mountain. On the right the road winds to its end at Wheeler Campground. Stella lake is visible in the middle- a bit left of center. Teresa lake is less apparent in the lower right (below the cloud shadow). The Bristlcone Pine, and Wheeler Glacier trails skirt Teresa lake, and are then hidden by the ridge that curls downward along the bottom right corner of the photo. The trail up Mt. Wheeler begins in the forest in the center of the photo, and goes north up the slopes of Bald Mt. It then loops around back south (towards the camera) climbing up the eastern edge of the saddle, with a good view of Stella Lake below. After crossing the saddle, it follows the riddle, it follows the ridge line on the left edge of the photo as it slopes up the mountain.


This is Jeff Davis Peak to east. It is a second highest point along the loop of mountain ridge that includes Mt. Wheeler. During the last ice age glaciers grew downward from these peaks, reaching well below the tree line. They scoured the rock, and bulldozed debris into piles before them. Wheeler glacier ( not in any of these photos) is all that remains. It is the southern most glacier in the North America.

Looking south towards Baker Peak.

From the top of Mt. Wheeler at 13,000 the desert valley at its approximate elevation of 5,000 feet is a full 8,000 feet below you. The peak is a long narrow ridgetop with cliffs, and steep slopes dropping off into space on all sides. Endless space wraps around you. There iss space wraps around you. There is that otherworldly sense, that comes to one on mountain tops, of standing between the sky, and the earth. To east and west mountain ridges paint dark stripes on the pale yellow desert, continuing over the horizon in the endless rows of the Great Basin.

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All images © John Donohue, 1995,1996

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