Great Basin National Park: From Underground to the Top of the World in Two Hours

Great Basin National Park: From Underground to the Top of the World in Two Hours

Like Guadalupe National Park, Great Basin National Park is an island in the middle of the desert. The Great Basin desert, to be exact. Great Basin National Park covers part of the Snake Range, a mountain range running close to the Nevada/Utah border, and the tallest point is Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet. At treeline on Wheeler Peak and a few other high points you can find Bristlecone Pine trees that are thousands of years old. These trees are the oldest known living things. Ever.

But first, we go underground.

There are many caves in the park, but only one is currently open to the public, the developed Lehman Caves. Parks are becoming very concerned about the spread of white nose syndrome, a fungal disease infecting bats. It’s spreading west across the country but no one is exactly sure how or if humans have anything to do with the spread. Before entering Lehman Caves, we had to promise that we weren’t wearing anything we’d worn in another cave, and I had to wipe down my camera with a disinfectant wipe. I’m not sure how much this will help, but as Paul said, “we’ve got to give it the old college try.”

The caves themselves are amazing. I was worried after our trip to Carlsbad Caverns that any other cave would be anticlimactic, but I actually liked these small caves even better. They felt more personal, more human-scale, more relatable. Twisting and turning and ducking under and around and squeezing between million-year-old formations was just…fun. Our guide reminded us to always be sure to turn around — after all, the coolest thing may be right behind you.

Emerging from underground, you can quickly ascend thousands of feet in the air via the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, until you’re close to the summit of Wheeler Peak (but not close enough to casually climb up there). That’s where you can most easily see the Bristlecone Pines. Bristlecone Pines aren’t as old as the stalactites and stalagmites, but some almost 5,000 years old. And they’re still alive. They may as well be immortal. Think about it — what was happening 5,000 years ago (that’d be about 3000 BC)? Well, the pyramids were built around that time, among many other things that are ancient history to us humans. So, some of these trees started growing when the pyramids were built, and they’re still alive today. How many human generations is that? Let’s assume 30 years between generations: over 5,000 years, that’s 167 human generations. 167 human beings were consecutively born and then died while one tree has been alive. I’m not going into how many great-great-greats that represents. It is mind boggling.

The mountains themselves are dramatic too. From a distance, they look all grey and gravelly, but up close, the rocks are all different colors. Stripes of purple, green, red, pink, blue, brown, and what can only be described as sparkly run through the chunks of rock, sprinkled over the ground like a massive serving of colorful sea salt. In the summer, there are dramatic storms. Most mornings are clear; most afternoons are stormy. A typical three-day forecast: scattered thunderstorms, then isolated thunderstorms, followed by a chance of thunderstorms. The meteorologist must get bored just writing “thunderstorms” each day. It’s important to be specific: what kind of thunderstorm will we be having today?

One more thing. One night we were sitting at our campsite, at about 7,500 feet. All of the sudden, we smelled this incredibly musky, animal scent. It was like a really, really filthy, hairy golden retriever was rubbing all over our legs. But there were no dogs around; there was nothing that we could see. We haven’t seen a bear, but we could imagine that, up there, by our stream-side campsite, we finally at least smelled a bear. But there aren’t supposed to be any bears in the park. Maybe it was a badger?