It takes exactly six hours to get to Great Basin National Park from Carson City. This is on a Friday afternoon in late April. Matt and I don’t talk much during the drive. The familiar landscape of Highway 50 was taking all of our attention because it looks different on this day. The overcast sky and sudden bursts of rain saturate the normally muted colors. It’s beautiful.
The rain gets heavier as we near the park and we are grateful that Matt had booked us a room in Baker. We had planned to camp but the sudden inclement weather had brought snow to the higher elevations and more was on the way. Happy in our spartan little room, we crack open two bottles of Icky – and you know that feeling you get when everything is going so perfectly? – that is how we feel when we clink the bottles together. Hell yeah, we’re on vacation.
The town of Baker is teeny tiny (pop. 68) and we encounter very few people the next morning, except for ironically, a couple from my hometown in Michigan that literally live down the street from my parents. Terry, the owner of The Silver Jack Inn, welcomes us to breakfast and cooks us up a delicious batch of banana pecan pancakes. There aren’t many choices for lodging in Baker, but this place is a very pleasant surprise, Terry has thought of everything to accommodate his guests.
After breakfast, we take a drive up the park road to check out Wheeler Peak. There is fresh snow on the ground but the sun is shining and it’s melting fast. We’re able to get all the way up to the parking area past 10,000 feet. Matt wants to hike in to see the 5,000 year old bristlecone pines, but there is a heavy blanket of snow and no visible marked trail. We should have brought snowshoes (Terry has them available to borrow) but we go for it anyway. Map in hand, we muddle our way closer to the 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak and in a roundabout way get to a grove of bristlecones, we stop to admire their gnarly-ness but we need to hustle back to the car unless we want to hike back knee deep in snow. (The trail we would have have done, had there been no snow, is likely the Bristlecone Trail – 2.8 miles with interpretive signs – or the Bristlecone and Glacier Trail which goes beyond the bristlecone grove to the only glacier in Nevada – 4.6 miles.)
Our next stop is Lexington Arch, a bit of a drive at about 25 miles south of Baker, but when we arrive at the parking area we are once again delighted to have the place to ourselves (and no snow at 7,440 feet!). According to the NPS website, the hike to the arch is 1.7 miles one way with an 820 feet gain in elevation. When you reach the end of the trail, there are a couple of park benches set up to admire the arch and have lunch, which is exactly what we do.
On our way back to Baker, Matt wants to do a little fishing, so I sit in the sun and do a little reading. He catches a beautiful Bonneville Cutthroat Trout and tries to document it with his camera. It’s lacking a battery. The battery that is still on the charger in the car that’s with me, way down the river. For the record, he did catch that fish.
We head to dinner around 6 and linger over another meal prepared by Terry. We plan to drive back up the park road to get some late evening shots of Wheeler Peak and check out the night sky as it’s well-known for some serious star-gazing. I know full well that there is a close to full moon happening that night, but seriously, what else are we going to do – there appears to be no nightlife in Baker. We park the car next to an overlook and I set up my tripod. Matt opens himself a beer and pours me a glass of wine. We stand out on the viewing platform for as long as comfortably possible as the temperatures drop. The moon comes out early but we stay, soaking up the stillness and the quiet.
The next morning is our tour of Lehman Caves (We booked this in advance and I’m so glad we did – the tour was full – this is where all the people are!). The Grand Palace Tour is 90 minutes of awesome. There are some stairs and skinny passageways to negotiate that makes it all the more fun. There is beauty everywhere in these caves and we take picture after picture that just can’t quite grasp the awe.
Great Basin is not the least visited national park, but it only gets around 90,000 visitors a year which isn’t much compared to the several millions the big guys like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone attract. The caves alone are well worth a visit to this park, and Matt and I are still talking about them as we drive east into Utah towards Moab to meet my family for a week of fun.