America’s Great Basin encompasses over 200,000 square miles of our country – most of Nevada, half of Utah, portions of Oregon and California, and small parts of Wyoming and Idaho. We’re talking a HUGE area! All the water in the region is retained – none of it drains to the ocean, and the landscape is a series of alternating mountain ranges and flat valleys that are called “basin and range” topography, formed over the last 30 million years. All of this terrain is a high desert – even the valleys are at altitude.
We drove from Salt Lake City (the eastern edge of the Great Basin) into eastern Nevada to visit Great Basin National Park. Along the way we traveled on US 50, known as “America’s Loneliest Road” – a pretty accurate description.
We stopped along the way to fly the drone – it’s a great way to get a sense of the mountains and flat valleys in between. The white material on the ground isn’t snow – it’s salt crust.
We spotted mule deer, pronghorn antelope…
…and even a tiny horned lizard hiding in the brush.
As we neared the national park we found a display about the ranching history of the area, as well as early car travel.
Our main objective, though, was to explore Great Basin National Park.
The fall foliage was past its peak in the high desert, though the rabbitbrush was still vibrant…
…and a few aspens still had color.
We hiked around some different parts of the park in the Snake Mountains, admiring the sweeping views of the flat valley below. Although Great Basin National Park is a bit out of the way, it’s a shame that more people don’t visit it – it’s very beautiful and it has some hidden gems. The mountains have limestone under them, and limestone can mean caves. Lehman Cave is just one of the caves in the park, though it’s the only one open for public viewing. We took the 90 minute tour, admiring the formations and learning about the bats that live inside.
Unfortunately, Lehman Cave has been exploited for tourism going back to the 1880s, and at that time visitors were encouraged to break off small stalactites or the formation-building “soda straws”. Evidence of this damage was everywhere – so very sad, though we’re glad the cave is now protected and can resume it’s slooooooooow process of building new formations. Maybe in another million years or so, the old damage will have been erased.
In addition to the cave, the other special treasure we found were the Great Basin bristlecone pine trees. The trees live high up along the tree line, and they are some of the longest living things on our planet. Pinus longaeva live 4000-5000 years!
Although we had been hiking at altitude for a couple of weeks already, we had to take it slow on the trailhead that started at 10,000′.
I have to say that we were awed by these trees – living in and adapting to harsh conditions for THOUSANDS of years. Just imagine the history that has occurred in the lifetime of these trees. Of all the natural marvels we’ve seen in our travels, I think these trees rank among the most wondrous.
In addition to the hidden world underground and the amazing bristlecone pines, we also lucked out and happened to catch a stargazing event at the park. Great Basin is one of the “dark sky” National Parks, and they offer an astronomy talk and a chance to look through telescopes on Saturday nights. We were at the tail end of the season, and it was COLD sitting outside, but the talk was great and we viewed Saturn (rings!) and Andromeda and two other star clusters. Magical! Our timing was bad – the moon was nearly full so it washed out the Milky Way, but if that’s our biggest “complaint”…
Great Basin National Park is a little gem, lightly visited because it’s off the beaten path, but well worth the trip.