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
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.
Trail up Mt. Wheeler
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
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.
All images © John Donohue,
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