Sean and I departed Chicago for Great Basin National Park on Wednesday, August 16, 2017. The night before we had celebrated our second wedding anniversary with a lovely evening of tapas and paella. After a strategic planning call on Wednesday afternoon, I shouldered my large pack, which I’d brought with me to my office in the Loop, and headed for the Blue Line El to O’Hare Airport. Unfortunately, there was a severe delay, so Sean and I changed plans. We met at the corner of Dearborn and Randolph and were driven to O’Hare by a Lyft driver named Juan. Juan’s youngest son was studying business at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. After school, Juan’s son planned to learn the legal marijuana business in Colorado before returning home once it was legalized in Illinois. I guess it sounded like the kid had a good head on his shoulders.
Stretching from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California all the way to the Wasatch front of the Rocky Mountains in Utah and from the edge of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Plateau in the south to the Snake River Plain of Idaho and the Harney Basin of Oregon in the north, the Great Basin comprises a huge expanse of the American West. While it is vast enough to encompass a variety of landscapes and habitats from alpine peaks low-lying desert, the Great Basin is generally signified by high, arid sagebrush desert cut by mountain ranges. The Great Basin boasts 160 north-south trending mountain ranges separating ninety valleys.
One of those mountain ranges is the Snake Range in eastern Nevada near the Utah border, which separates Snake Valley (elevation: 5,300 feet) in the east from Spring Valley (elevation: 6,400 feet) in the west. The Snake Range is capped by Wheeler Peak at 13,065 feet, the second-highest peak in Nevada. In 1922, President Warren Harding established Lehman Caves National Monument to protect a magnificently decorated cave in the eastern slopes of the south Snake Range. For the succeeding sixty years, talk ebbed and flowed of creating a National Park in the Snake Range. Finally on October 27, 1986, Congress combined Lehman Caves National Monument with a portion of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to create Great Basin National Park, 77,180 acres of sagebrush sea, Pinyon-Juniper woodland, conifer forest, sub-alpine and alpine mountain habitat, Lehman Caves, Lexington Arch, and Great Basin Bristlecone Pine woodlands.
President Barack Obama established Pullman National Monument on Chicago’s far South Side in February 2015. The site, Chicago’s only National Park unit, commemorates layers of industrial, labor, and race history that continue to the present day.
When I started working at Openlands in June 2012, I was excited that my new job would expose me to lots of places to get outside in and around Chicago. A native Detroiter, I knew precious little about Chicago’s suburbs and exurbs or about rural Illinois. Getting outside meant going up to Wisconsin or back to Michigan. In 2014, Sean and I started taking one Saturday a month between May and October to go with friends on a day hike somewhere within two hours or so of Chicago. The places we visited included Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Sagawau Canyon, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Ryerson Woods, and others. What started with a few friends grew into a Facebook group with friends of friends of friends. In 2018 the group has over fifty members.
On Sunday, June 18, 2017, our “Let’s Go Outside” group went to Pullman National Monument and a few other South Side spots.
Our final morning at Death Valley National Park dawned with the sun pushing away the shadows from this vast place. It was Tuesday morning, February 28, and we’d have to start back to San Diego by noon at the latest. The following afternoon, Sean and I would fly home to Chicago.
The previous night as we found our campsite, everything was a rich black. In the morning as we looked out of our tents into the sunrise, we found the foothills of the Cottonwood mountains, where our camp was nestled, gloriously lit up. As were the quickly departing clouds. Although other parts of the valley had felt the drop of rain overnight, our tiny corner of it hadn’t.
Mosaic Canyon follows a fault almost two miles into Tucki Mountain. Actually, the canyon continues farther into the mountain, but at 1.8 miles, an insurmountable fifty-foot dry fall marks the end of a really great hike. Mosaic Canyon is a testament to the power of water written in beautiful stone.
Andrew, Sean, and I arrived at the parking area for Mosaic Canyon at about a quarter to four on February 27. We had traveled some eighty miles from our campsite on Harry Wade Road far near the southern end of Death Valley. Now in the foothills of Tucki Mountain above Stovepipe Wells, we were ready for our final adventure of our final full day in Death Valley National Park.
Badwater Basin in Death Valley is 282 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on North America and among the lowest on the planet. The basin is covered in a crust of salt, ninety-five percent of which is table salt (sodium chloride). With nowhere lower to go, the Amargosa River ends its one-hundred eighty-five-mile journey here. Runoff from the eastern side of the Panamint Range and the western side of the Amargosa Range also ends up here. Once, Death Valley was filled by Lake Manley, eighty miles long and six-hundred feet deep. But the lake slowly dried up after the last Ice Age, leaving a bed of salt replenished by salts and minerals carried by water trapped here before evaporating.
After our twilight drive down Death Valley the previous evening, we were ready to spend Monday, February 27 making our way slowly back up the valley to the vicinity of Stovepipe Wells. The plan for the day was to take our time exploring some canyons and visiting Badwater Basin. We’d walked down to the Amargosa River after breakfast. Now, having struck our camp along Harry Wade Road, Sean, Andrew, and I were back in the Jeep headed to Room Canyon not far to the north.
Room Canyon, hidden in the foothills of the Black Mountains south of Mormon Point, features sheer reddish walls opening to a large room (for which the canyon is named) beneath a dry fall. The room is a 1.3-mile hike from Badwater Road. Side canyons add some distance, making exploring Room Canyon a 3.6-mile total out-and-back hike from the road.