Great Basin National Park

During our time in the US we have been visiting national parks outside peak tourist season. We enjoy the outdoors but when the trails get crowded, the wilderness and outdoor experience we are searching for is eroded. And so, once Utah started getting busy we skipped across the border to northern Nevada. And in Great Basin National Park we found a most lovely place to linger. All roads and campgrounds are closed save for one and since the mountains are still cloaked in snow, there are very few people around.

I’ve recently begun re-reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and he has a wonderful rant about the National Parks Service’s affinity for building roads so we never need to get out of our vehicles to walk. Great Basin is an excellent example of how roads ruin wilderness and turns us into sloths. In the summer it is possible to drive to within a few kilometres of Wheeler Peak, one of Nevada’s tallest peaks. My question is, “Why?” From the Lower Lehman campground it is only six and a half kilometres to the current road’s end and another seven kilometres to the summit. Mountain vistas are all the more sweet when they are hard earned.

Wee enjoyed solitude on a fantastic day hike/snowshoe up Wheeler Peak. We began in the pinyon-juniper forests and past several south-facing stands of mountain mahogany which normally are only shrub size but here grow tall like gambrel oaks trees. We snowshoed through the mixed conifer forests of white and Douglas fir and ponderosa pines and into the limber pine and Englemann spruce (many of which are dead, creating a bounty of food for woodpeckers and sapsuckers) and even found a few beautifully twisted bristlecone pine trees.

From frozen Stella Lake it was a steady steep climb up into the alpine and to Wheeler Peak, where our muscles certainly felt the altitude at 13,063 feet/3982 metres. We saw lots of wild turkeys (introduced by BLM) and flocks of black rosy finches.

Once on the summit, it was quite the vista of rolling mountain peaks and a valley floor of greasewood and sagebrush desert and a sprawling windmill farm. We arrived back at the campground just before sunset. We cooked up a hearty pot of rice and lentils watching indigo skies and cotton candy pink clouds fade away to darkness and stars.

While hiking one quote continued to circulate in my mind. I think it sums up not only our day but how we try to live our lives: “Let the beauty of what we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Rumi.

The following day was less adventurous but nonetheless delightful. We spent the morning sitting at our campsite watching birds over endless mugs of coffee. Wild turkeys foraged in the grasses and towhees kicked leaves in the forest undergrowth. A Clark’s nutcracker watched us, eyeing our bin of apples, avocados and strawberries. The songs of Townsend’s solitaires competed with the trill of ruby-crowned kinglets. A chipmunk came down to the creek by our picnic table, its long tail swishing and swaying as he knelt for a drink. Two robins squawked, jumped in the water for a bath, furiously flapping wings then flew up onto a juniper branch to preen. A red-naped sapsucker rapped on an old dead aspen while in the nearby white fir we heard fluttering but could not see the bird. A mumbled, “Chick-a-dee” resounded, letting us know it was the mountain variety. The cool wind coming down the snow-blanketed mountains brought the pungent scent of single-needle pine and Douglas fir. The sky was clear, the sun beating down on us and quickly rendering the surrounding snow piles into puddles.

There was so much to see, to hear, to feel. And we didn’t need to move from our seats all morning.

The naked trees exposed last year’s birds’ nests and we tried to imagine who they might have belonged to. One nest, built in the crutch of a poplar, was surrounded by ruthless thorny rose bushes. Natural defence.

I spent my afternoon with Terry Tempest Williams Red and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. John was absorbed in Craig Child’s House Of Rain. More mugs of coffee and tea were emptied, passages from our books shared aloud. The evening consisted of another simple dinner of rice, lentils and vegetables beneath violet skies and Barbie pink clouds before darkness fell and the stars came out to twinkle. Last night, while struggling to fall back asleep, my eyes followed the paths of countless shooting stars. Tonight, I will look for them again as I drift off.

Bonus: On the drive into Great Basin we pulled off the highway to watch a herd of pronghorn antelopes amble across the desert floor, North America’s fastest land mammal that can run up to 95 km/hr.