Great Basin National Park, Nevada (September 2016) "Let Me Introduce You"
“Uh, sure…Great Basin National Park....” Well, I’d never heard of it either, like the lovely Colorado National Monument that we stumbled upon last year, but Bill made Great Basin the first destination of our 2016/17 snowbird season.
We can all forgive ourselves for our ignorance: Great Basin wasn’t created until 1986, it’s very much in the middle of nowhere Nevada on the border with Utah, and it seemed like a connoisseurs national park. It has no geysers like Yellowstone, no massive salt flats like Death Valley, and lacks the “WOW” factor of Arches red rocks and of Bryce’s hoodoos. But when we arrived, every car in the small Visitor’s Center lot was from a different state, so we knew something was going on.
The colorful aspens were delightful accents to the mountain landscape.
We went to the park for the high elevation hiking (with no bears) on the way to the Grand Canyon though one of its big claims to fame is its dark sky. It’s the rare combination of low humidity and little air pollution along with its lowest elevations being around 6,500’ that create exceptional star gazing opportunities. Fund raising is underway to build an observatory but for now you are on your own to view the nighttime spectacle or you can join a ranger talk at dusk some nights.
The Great Basin desert area is roughly equivalent to the state of Nevada’s boundaries, minus the southern triangle that includes Las Vegas, plus western Utah. All of the water within the basin drains internally, as in no river outlets. The elevation extremes that top-out at 13,000’ on Wheeler Peak contribute to great diversity in flora and fauna as well as various geological regions. The flora cool-stuff includes stands of bristlecone pines growing between 9,500’-11,000’ above sea level that are as much as 5,000 years old. Their needles can survive for 40 years."But, but, but…”
That was our early impression of Great Basin National Park after our stop at one of the 2 visitor’s centers, getting the intro pitch from a ranger, going on 2 hikes, and reading the 2 typical handouts.
There were a couple of stands of the archaic bristlecone pines in the park (named for the needles on the cones).
I always treasure the national park newspapers because they are a wealth of information—they are to me what Cliffs Notes are to literature students. The papers are always a quick way to get accurate information about the sights to see, special safety issues in the park (like bears and flash floods), the park’s history, and some interesting scientific lesson. I usually look at the seasonal edition daily while there to fully appreciate what I am seeing. And I read every word of the map handout as well because it always has another cut on the park info.
But it wasn't until Day 3 that we realized that we’d totally missed the boat: the reason for Great Basin’s existence was the Lehman Caves (which is really a single cave). There was zero information in my cherished little newspaper about them—only a phone number entry for “Cave Tour Reservations” in the directory. The map, the other standard issue at the entrance gate, did describe the cave briefly but without any particular emphasis.
Only by pressing another ranger did I learn that Great Basin began as a National Monument in 1922 specifically to protect the Lehman Caves and that doing the cave tour was THE reason the vast majority of the visitors came to the park. For most of those folks, their experience of the park is limited to a 60 or 90 minute cave tour and then they are on their way. Fair enough: you have to be a pretty fit hiker to enjoy being out in nature given most of the trailheads in the park were at 7,500-10,000’ in elevation and went up from there.
I was totally frustrated after spending 15 minutes on the phone at a central reservation number to book a cave tour from a clueless individual (the conversation began with “We don’t schedule those here”) and being told that only 2 tours were available to us and both were the truncated version. It was when we arrived for our tour the next day and discovered that tours were departing every half an hour that morning and there were openings on multiple tours that day my frustration escalated to a slow boil. I pressed the ranger and he indicated that I needed to have called some vague number of days earlier than I did to get a slot in the primer 90 minute tour. But while we waited, he offered spots in the 90 minute tour in a few hours to the next batch of visitors. I was getting misinformation at every turn and hadn’t even known from the published park information that the cave was a big deal.
The typical formations at Lehman Caves were worth a look.
The 60 minute tour was fine for our level of interest: we’d seen many extensive limestone caverns with the same assortment of formations but I was chagrinned that I was back to the remedial level in being a savvy park visitor. And my disappointment didn’t stop there. Despite our young tour guide's professed interest in geology, he didn’t know much. A nice guy but the most common thing he said was: “Gee, I don’t know, I guess I could research that.” Not surprisingly, he didn’t know that he had a good chance of being furloughed in a few days with the pending government shutdown.
Bill kept saying “This must be a training park” because a number of aspects about the park’s operation seemed uncharacteristically amateurish. It didn’t take long to realize that the hike ratings of “Easy", “Moderate", and “Strenuous" were based entirely on the elevation gain, with the break points being around 600’ and 2600’. I’m confident that few would label a 9.2 mile hike that begins at 8,200’ as “Easy” even though it only had 200’ of elevation gain, especially since 8,250’ is accepted as the elevation at which acute mountain sickness frequency increases dramatically. And I was disappointed that the ranger didn’t have a clue as to whether there was snow on the trail to Wheeler Peak—the other big draw for the park.
Our misadventures with information carried over to our little RV park in adjacent Baker. Three nights in a single space was all our host could guarantee but he promised to have his more capable wife work through the ‘musical chairs’ game that evening in hopes of giving us 5 nights without moving. Much to our disappointment, that didn’t happen. When Bill went to confirm that a successful paper shuffle had occurred, he learned that no action had been taken. Luckily, the assistant manager was able to book us in the same site for 2 more nights.
We barely dodged considerable inconvenience at the RV park but others were not so lucky: somehow the staff never managed to flip the “FULL” sign over for our last 2 nights there. Who knows how many campers were unnecessarily deflected by the misinformation, especially in a village where there weren’t too many options.
Only in Nevada?? This was the assistant manager's house at the rustic RV park.
Despite the administrative challenges that made waves in what should have been a sea of tranquility, we throughly enjoyed our 3 hiking days at Great Basin, including our highest peak to date, Wheeler Peak at 13,060’. We suspected that we were visiting at the very best time of year because the yellow and orange aspens added wonderful color to the muted tones of the landscape and the numerous little trail bridges were currently over dry stream beds.From the Frying Pan into the Fire?
We were in no hurry to leave the fine hiking at Great Basin but were really disappointed that leaving didn’t solve our information glitches. We left on a Wednesday morning for the Grand Canyon and the vote in Congress the day before had been expected to avert the impending government shut down in 2 days but it didn’t happen. The surprised legislators were scrambling and so were we. Our 2 weeks of overlapping reservations at 3 different places in the Grand Canyon that would allow us to pick the best weather day for our Rim-2-Rim epic hike in the first half of October were on the line.
Realizing that the midnight Friday Congressional deadline wasn’t a good fit with our scheduled Saturday arrival, we started cancelling reservations while the phones were still being answered. After some fussing and checking the details of the stormy weather for the next 3 days, we hit upon hiking Humphrey’s Peak from nearby Flagstaff as a choice consolation prize to a potentially “Closed” sign at the gate to the Grand Canyon. Saturday could be the perfect weather day sandwiched between 3 possible rain days and Sunday with increasing winds that would top out at 70 mph on Monday. It was the best plan to keep us afloat in the literal and figurative storms around us.A Welcome Distraction
Humphrey's Peak would be more than a consolation prize: it would check one off our short bucket list. Deep snow that made it slow going and impossible to follow the trail compounded with Bill under-hydrating for the altitude conspired against us reaching the summit on our first attempt in April of 2015. We made it to the 12,000’level of the 12,600’ peak but wisely turned around. As it was, we barely finished in the last light of the day and were cold and exhausted.
But 2016 was different: Bill had cracked the code on keeping his salt and water intake where they needed to be at altitude; we were already somewhat altitude acclimated; and we’d learned how to get ourselves out the door in the morning hours earlier than we were doing in 2015.
Being pelted by hail minutes after reaching the summit of Humphrey's Peak wasn't in the forecast.
Then the flag dropped: a friend’s email alerted us to an impending funding agreement in Congress hours after Bill had read a very pessimistic report about a stalemate. If events unfolded as now expected, we’d awaken the next morning to news that indeed there would be no government shutdown on October 1. If so, we could operationalize our final set of plans for hiking Rim-2-Rim.
The other wildcard had been the weather and for the last week we’d begun each day with a look at the rolling 10 day forecast for the Grand Canyon. We held our breath when 1, 2, and then 3 days of rain appeared on the 10th day but those were systematically replaced with dry but cooler days. The recent 80 degree temperatures were displaced by mid 60’s, which was still a bit warmer than was ideal for us. About half of the 22-24 mile hike would be on the valley floor, which usually runs 20 or more degrees warmer than the South Rim. It is the valley heat, generally in the summer, that necessitates the rescue of around 250 visitors to the park each year. We’d never been in the valley during the summer but nonetheless had experienced overheating on miles of trail devoid of shade.Clarity At Last
With the uncontrollable external factors now certainties, we set our calendar for the next 2 weeks and made our shopping list for the last Costco we’d see for almost 3 weeks. Stowing enough of our preferred menu items for a 14 day stay in the park is always a challenge. But at last, the final countdown had begun and we were stoked.
A 2 night stay at Flagstaff would be perfect for climbing Humphrey's Peak and then it would be on to the Grand Canyon. Seven months of conditioning and planning no longer had a vague completion date, we’d narrowed our Rim-2-Rim hike to a small window with the final date selection to be made when we had more information about the forecast. It was now “Grand Canyon or Bust."