Located in east-central Nevada, Great Basin National Park provides an excellent example of the disparity that exists amid the southwestern US basin and range province. Beginning in the tiny town of Baker in the eastern basin, the road into the park ascends to over 10,000 feet as it approaches Wheeler Peak (13,063 feet), the second-highest point in the state. From the Great Basin Desert to the alpine glaciers, the elevation gradient presents impressive changes in climate, ecology, and scenery along the way. Formed by crustal extension and block faulting over the last 17 million years, these roughly parallel and alternating sequences of low, dry valleys and snow-capped mountain ranges are typical of this region.
My wife, her friend and I got our first view of this park as we rounded a bend coming east on US-6/50 from Ely, Nevada. From this high point we could see Wheeler Peak rising from across the wide intervening basin, highlighting the stark elevation differences that exist across the region.
Although several snow-capped mountains in the nearby ranges were spectacular, Wheeler Peak was particularly tall and photogenic. While the temperature in the western basin was above 70F, snow at the summit of Wheeler suggested substantial sub-freezing temperatures.
After a brief stop at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center we began to drive up the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. It wasn’t long before the vegetation changed from scrubby desert shrubs and ephemeral flowers to more substantial pines and junipers.
As we gained elevation we were able to look back to the east at the adjacent basin, harboring the distant town of Baker. On the horizon the next range revealed its position just inside the Utah border.
To the north the local plants framed a shot across the basin to the next mountain range.
The lack of guard rails made the road’s elevation more exciting as we passed 7,500 feet:
From here the remaining drifts of winter snow were juxtaposed against the warm, dry basin below:
Along the entire route, the high peaks of this particular range dominated the skyline:
As we approached these peaks, we began to reach the snow stretching out from their summits.
Before we knew it, snowier conditions farther up the road presented a roadblock:
Here at Osceola Ditch (about 8,500 feet) the snow was about ten inches deep, and this would be as far as we could travel up the road.
With several feet of snow still blanketing the road at higher elevations, we were unable to continue. Although the views near Wheeler Peak were bound to be even more spectacular, the snowy conditions that exist at high elevations were an inevitable limitation. As with other national parks that span mountain ranges, snow accumulation prevents complete exploration in all but the warmest few months of the year.
In addition to being denied the views from near the top of Wheeler Peak, we were also denied access to the ancient bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva, Pinaceae) that inhabit the higher elevations here. At nearly 5,000 years of age, these trees are the oldest single living organisms on earth. Considering what I missed, returning to Great Basin during a warmer time of year is definitely on my agenda.