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Random Musings From Great Basin National Park

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Fall colors grace the path to Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park/Lee Dalton

One of my most favorite places on the face of the Earth is Great Basin National Park. It’s one of those Get Out and Do parks, although it certainly has a bunch of stuff for you if you prefer Look and See.

I rolled in about noon on September 19 and found no decently shaded campsites along Lehman Creek because the Upper Lehman Campground is being renovated. Shady sites were all taken in Lower Lehman. I was pretty sure I’d find some at Wheeler Peak Campground, but that would mean dragging my portable motel up ten miles of 8 percent grade. That’s not a real problem, but the weather forecast was calling for rain and falling temperatures beginning the next day. With a forecast low of 28 degrees at the camp’s 10,000-foot elevation, that meant snow. I kinda didn’t want to try driving back down that road when there is snow on it.

So it was up the three-mile, mostly smooth, gravel road to Baker Creek Campground, where I did manage to find a site that was sort of level with a concrete picnic table under fine shade trees. There was even a welcoming committee of seven wild turkeys waiting for me.

All campsites in the park except Gray Cliffs group camp are first-come. I’m afraid Great Basin is being discovered, though, and finding an open site isn’t as easy as it was in the Good Old Days.

A quick stop at Lehman Caves Visitor Center informed me that I’d need to stop by fairly early the next morning to reserve a spot on a cave tour later in the day. While in the center, though, I finally was able to take a good look at the fabled Great Basin Winchester. This is the rifle that was found a couple of years ago standing against a tree trunk. It was shipped from the factory in 1883, but beyond that no one has any idea how or why it wound up long ago leaning against that tree in a wild place. (I won’t spend much type on the rifle. Its story has been told once or twice in detail in Traveler. )

As I drove in earlier from the west along Highway 50 from Ely, Nevada, my eyes were filled with the sudden sight of the west side of 13,030-foot Wheeler Peak. It’s the tallest mountain in Nevada, and during my visit it was graced with a scattering of gold mixed with deep green conifers. It’s fall, and golden aspen leaves are at their peak of brilliance. It was time to head my truck up that steep grade so my camera could do its work and try to catch some of the beauty. I was richly rewarded.

Aspens brighten a stormy fall day in Great Basin/Lee Dalton

Back to camp for supper. Overhead, some fairly large and juicy looking cumulus clouds were skidding across the sky. It was breezy. But because this was the prelude to the arrival of the forecast cold front, it was still warm. I sat outside and watched as night stole into the canyon; overhead, stars began to turn on one by one. Great Basin claims some of the darkest skies anywhere. In fact, the park newspaper, The Bristlecone, told me there is now a world-class research astronomical observatory here. There's even an astronomy festival on the late-September, early-October calendar. 

Dang! I’d love to be here. But I’ve been on the road for four weeks, and I needed to get home to take care of some things. 

Next year. Yeah, next year. . . .

Lehman Caves

President Warren G. Harding created Lehman Caves National Monument by presidential proclamation on January 24, 1922. Congress turned it into a national park on October 27, 1986, expanding it to include a huge chunk of surrounding national forest and BLM lands.

Certainly, the majority of the park’s visitors come only to visit the cave. Ranger-guided tours run year-round, and during much of the year it can be difficult to obtain a ticket. They may be reserved in advance through Recreation.gov, although some are kept available for walk-ins at the visitor center.

I enjoyed a tour through the cave guided by Ranger Elizabeth. And just before my tour began, I saw a woman in a wheelchair leaving the cave. She and another lady pushing the chair had been on a special abbreviated tour with another ranger. Wonderful!

The Times They Are A’Changing

Baker, Nevada, is the tiny town lying at the park’s entrance. Once upon a time there was almost nothing there. But now as more and more visitors discover Great Basin, changes are becoming more and more apparent. There is a campground with RV hookups. A couple of small stores and eateries have popped up along with some limited lodging. Where it was once possible to easily find a vacant campsite, it’s becoming a challenge.

Baker is a reflection of the very remote land in which it lies. The Snake Valley has always been sparsely populated. It still is. The nearest towns are Ely, Nevada, 68 miles west, and Delta, Utah which is 106 miles to the east.

But the park is now opening larger possibilities for Baker’s businesses. There is even cell phone service there now.

Suddenly, possibilities are almost endless. Yet some of Baker’s citizens wonder where the future will be taking them. I met two women who have lived in Baker for 35 and 40 years, respectively. “I guess it’s a good thing,” one of them said. “But it’s still kind of scary.” The other nodded agreement. One of the things I always found so attractive about Great Basin was the charm of an American town that hasn’t been overrun by avarice. People in Baker are still friendly, though somewhat reserved. You know that if you need help, you’ll find it. Life’s pace is slow and peaceful.

Baker is part of something called the Great Basin National Heritage Area. It is an acknowledgement of the Basin’s human history spanning thousands of years from the first Americans through today’s ranchers. 

I sincerely hope that as more and more people discover Great Basin and as Baker and its surrounding country grows, people will exercise great wisdom and restraint to avoid the kind of development that has turned too many other once similarly charming places into industrialized commercial tourist traps.

Park crews turned hazard trees into chair seats rather than removing the entire tree/Lee Dalton

A Salute to the Maintenance Crew

This park is nearly immaculate everywhere you look. Even the pit potties are cleaner than some restaurant kitchens. They smell good, too. Nearly everything I see, from the park entrance and direction signs, to sidewalks, buildings, picnic areas, campsites, and the potties testify to an obvious fact: this park has a maintenance crew that works hard and certainly cares about the place they’re protecting for us.

As I hiked and wandered around the park, there were a few things that particularly caught my eyes. Most striking, I think, was something I’ve never seen anywhere else – rubber shower matting material used to pave the wheelchair accessible Island Forest Nature Trail just outside of Wheeler Peak Campground. I’m sure it was much less expensive than asphalt, yet it provides what has to be an excellent surface for wheelchairs and people who push them. It controls erosion, too. I asked one park employee about it and she said it’s been there as long as she can remember. What a great idea! Someone was really thinking when they came up with this idea.

Another thing that caught my eye were some little details along other trails. Such things as stonework waterways that are real miniworks of art. Someone even used a chainsaw to carve some small chairs along the Teresa Lake Trail when it was necessary to remove hazard trees. I sat on one to make a sock adjustment. It was actually comfortable.

And then there’s all the extremely difficult work required to maintain trails, lighting, and just cleaning inside Lehman Cave. That’s a whole other story.

My impression of Great Basin is that somehow they never let maintenance issues get out of hand. They’ve worked to stay ahead of them. I began to wonder if some of this might not be due to a chief of maintenance who has served for a long time here. It’s apparent that someone has a lot of personal pride wrapped up in the park’s appearance. I asked and learned that the chief of maintenance, Glen Dearden, has, in fact, been here a very long time. One ranger said Dearden started out at the bottom ladder rung and worked his way up. One maintenance worker said he sets high standards and expects them to be met.

So when I got home, I exchanged a couple of emails with  Superintendent Steve Mietz and Chief Dearden. Glen confirmed that he has, indeed, spent his entire National Park Service career at Great Basin. He’s a fourth-generation rancher who grew up in the Snake Valley near the park. He still ranches even as he works in the park. He started as a seasonal in 1996, became permanent in 1997, and has done virtually every kind of job there is to be done in the park. He has been maintenance chief since 2006.

I asked Superintendent Mietz about something a ranger had mentioned. Something called the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act. I had never heard of it before. It seems that in 1997 and ‘98, Congress passed a law providing for sale of public lands north of the city of Las Vegas for private development and to “give Las Vegas room to grow.” At least a portion of money derived from sale of those lands was designated for Great Basin – a little political prune juice to help slide the act through. (Now an ever-burgeoning Las Vegas is trying to build a pipeline to take precious water from Snake Valley’s ranchers. That’s another story, too.)

When the ranger mentioned the act, she commented that Great Basin has a distinct advantage over most other parks because they have “some independent funds not tied to the federal budget.” Superintendent Mietz confirmed that indeed, since about 2006, Great Basin has received somewhere around $10 million for upgrading and maintaining the park. But he also added, “While it is true that SNPLMA funds have allowed us to upgrade some of our facilities, I believe it is the strategic implementation of these funds and other resources by park staff that make us successful.”

It shows. And it all works together to help make Great Basin National Park a place that, in my opinion at least, is an exemplar for other parks. 

Now all we have to do is find a way to make Congress understand what they should be doing to make that possible everywhere.

A Personal Plea

There is just one thing I really want to ask. PLEASE don’t send the Great Basin Winchester to a museum somewhere. Keep it on display right where it is in the Lehman Caves visitor center. That rifle is a fascinating part of Great Basin’s story. It needs to stay there!

Lehman Caves just might be Great Basin's main attraction/Lee Dalton

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Below Wheeler Peak along the lateral moraine, grow ancient bristlecone pines.  This was the study site for comparing the Great Basin and Rocky Mountain disjunct populations of bristlecone pine by Dr. Dana K. Bailey who published in 1970 his results including the longer lived Great Basin Bristlecone Pine be named a separate species from Pinus aristata, THE NEW SPECIES now recognized as Pinus longaeva; no one had carefully compared these disjunct populations and had assumed they both were P. aristata.  

This is also the site where geographer Donald Curry searched for very old trees; the one he located was still alive via a narrow lifeline of cambium.  Tragically, Curry decided to cut the ancient tree as a means to determined its age.  He was never associated with the Tree Ring Scientists of the University of Arizona and was unaware of the proven methodology for coring and cross dating tree ring cores.  The Bristlecone Pine he cut was older than 5,200 years with its true center eroded long ago by the eroding winds carrying ice and sand particles.  To date no one has found an older bristlecone pine.  Curry was assisted by the U.S. Forest Service and had to backpack the chainsaw up the lateral moraine; little respect was shown to these timberline ancients by the federal agencies.

Hopefully, the NPS will show them more respect and protect them from vandals.


I was there last week at Baker Creek an did the caves and bristlecone pine hike.

Did you see the albino turkey in the Baker Creek flock?


I went to Great Basin for the first time at the beginning of October. We did a quick drive-through with the in-laws. I can't wait to come back & camp & explore. What a gorgeous place.


Always enjoy your wander-abouts, Lee.

 


As a major fan of GRBA, I feel obliged to point out that Wheeler Peak (13,063)  is not the tallest mountain in Nevada. Boundary Peak, at 13,147, has that distinction. Wheeler is, however, considered the tallest independent peak in the state.


Thanks for the information, Nina.  But it's a real bummer.  I can no longer believe I stood on the highest rock in Nevada.  Rats!


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