After driving almost 3 hours out into the desert nothingness of Nevada, and hitting a couple unfortunate birds at 90 mph on the empty highway, I ascended to Great Basin National Park. After thoughtlessly and groggily chugging instant coffee at five in the morning, this required a sneaky wee on the side of the dry grassy road next to my car. There are no (and I repeat no) bathrooms whatsoever on the way out coming from the southeast. Be prepared.
The roads were winding and dizzying as they rose to over 10,000 feet, a very nerve-racking drive to someone coming from the swamp-filled flatlands. I couldn’t believe the sight of snow in Nevada in July on those peaks, although I couldn’t stare very long for fear of careening off those steeply sloped switchbacks. The sweeping desert below was hazy, and almost didn’t look real for how far the horizon dragged out. Nothing but a single sun-bleached road leading back to the sparse two-pump gas station I’d visited before the long way out.
I parked at the Bristlecone-Alpine Lakes Trailhead after getting a map at the small visitor center. Apparently, this place is known for the Lehman Caves, tours of which leave from the visitor center. I had only focused on the trails in my planning, but if I ever came back to visit, I would like to take one of those tours. Reasonably priced and looked interesting.
To my Florida eyes, I was ecstatic to see snow!!
Little piles of it laid around the trailhead map sign, and the kids I saw jumping in the small snow packs were just as excited as I was. I think a little embarrassing squee left my throat when I realized what I was looking at.
The alpine air could be bottled and sold for millions. It was light and clear, icy cold pine mixed with petrichor and glacial, running water. It woke me up, invigorating and purifying, cleansing my lungs. I would return to this park just to breathe the air again.
While I had planned to hike the Bristlecone Grove/Glacier trail (4 miles out and back), a sign put up told me that there was far too much snow for it to be hiked comfortably, something I didn’t believe until I saw the latter half of the other trail I hiked.
So I decided on a shorter loop instead, the Alpine Lakes loop which was about 2.6 miles. As I stepped off, I was immediately enveloped by age-old bristlecones and tall, white-barked aspen trees. It was a serene, life-filled green, snow-dusted landscape. Intense, crystal-clear views of Wheeler Peak can be seen at nearly all times along the trail. Lines of snow laid on the sleek slate slopes of the mountain, an outright offense to the outlying Nevada heat.
Every snow pack I saw was in the process of melting (although it was a wonderful 74 degrees outside), generating rushing, bubbling streams and smaller, trickling flows. I was terrified that I would see some kind of large wildlife as I walked, mountain lions or coyotes (or bears, as I was wrong to think lived there). But the views of the two alpine lakes were well-worth the hike.
Stella Lake and Teresa Lake. The shirtless man I saw lounging on the lakeside certainly had the right idea. It was the clearest water I had ever seen. Icy, crystal clear, the mountains sloped with snow that dipped directly into the water, and dotted with skinny green spruce trees.
I was even more excited to get to walk through sections of cleared snow on the trail. It had never even occurred to me that the snow had to be cleared on these kinds of trails, the park maintenance actively having to take the trails back from nature. The path had been shoveled out to form a rut in the snow packs that would have made the path difficult. These had not been cleared in places, prompting a very slippery crossing. And because I have no idea how to walk on snow (I’ve never lived in a place where it snows in the winter), this was even more of a challenge for me, something I would need to learn quickly.
The snow also made navigation more difficult. Even on this short trail, I really had a difficult time figuring out the way forward about a mile in. The snow entirely covered the ground at that elevation, and thickly. There were bootprints going in a couple different directions, and the orange trail markers attached to the trees were nowhere in sight. It took a good few minutes of looking at my map, GPS, and talking to other hikers before we all figured out the right way forward. I was not keen on stomping off in a direction that -may- have been the trail just to end up getting lost. So we all headed in the direction of Teresa Lake, the latter lake on the loop, up and around a switchback to find the path again.
One of the greatest rules of hiking: if you can’t see the way forward, or think you may have gone off trail, turn back. Don’t become a headline in the news.
I loved every bit of these bright and green woods, and correctly found my way back to the trailhead. Still craving a little more distance after 2 miles, I took a short walk around the neighboring (empty, for some reason) campground. It was a wonderful place to take a rest at the quiet, deserted picnic tables at the various campsites. Whispering groves of aspen lined the main road, and an unexpected open field of spring-green grass painted an amazing, solitary picture.
If anything, I did not spend enough time at Great Basin, especially for the length of the drive out there. Many people don’t visit this park due to its seclusion, but it offers some of the best alpine views in the middle of the otherwise desolate Nevada desert. 10 miles would not have been a long enough hike in so beautiful of a place.
Visit the viewpoints along the road on your way out, especially Mather Overlook. You will not be disappointed.