As our visit to Great Basin National Park moved into its final third, the only thing defining our remaining time was the solar eclipse that would occur on the morning of August 21.
After our midday hike on Sunday, August 20 to Lexington Arch, Sean and I returned to Baker and drove over to Baker Archeological Site on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land just north of town. The site was the location of a Fremont people village, which had been excavated in the early 1990s. The Fremonts, named after a river in Utah where their sites were first discovered, lived in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Colorado from roughly 1 to 1300 CE.
The nice thing about giving ourselves ample time in a relatively small National Park is that by the morning of our third day in the Park we had done quite a lot of the must-do experiences. Now any Park could withstand a visit of a week or more, but staying a couple nights (as we had at Badlands, Wind Cave, Bryce Canyon, etc.) can at least be a rock-solid introduction to the main features of a Park. But we had allotted more time to Great Basin than we had to Yosemite…or Grand Canyon…or Death Valley. We’d allotted it the same amount of time as Denali. The result was that we were able to get a little more off the beaten path.
On Sunday, August 20, that meant getting off the beaten path and on to the destroyed path to Lexington Arch.
August 19 was our Saturday at Great Basin National Park. While we had not mapped out any day-by-day approach to exploring the Park, we suspected that if the weather were nice, we’d likely climb up something. From the campground at 10,000 feet, Wheeler Peak at 13,063 feet looked intimidating. Being unused to elevation was clearly an issue for us at this point in the trip. I suggested that we do the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail from the campground and also hike up to the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Bald Mountain. From there we’d have a view of Spring Valley on the other side of the range. Then if we felt like it, we could hike up Bald Mountain to its 11,562-foot summit.
On the afternoon of August 18, after our lunch and a rest in camp, we decided to go on an afternoon hike to the Bristlecone Pine Grove beneath the Wheeler Peak Cirque. The Bristlecones are accessible three miles and six-hundred feet up a winding forest trail that begins at the entrance to Wheeler Peak Campground. The trail continues another mile to the remnant of a glacier. On the question of whether we’d go all the way to the glacier, we decided to see how we felt once we’d seen the Bristlecones, which were our main objective.
The morning of August 18 was devoted to our tour of Lehman Caves, the highly decorated limestone cave that the south Snake Range had first become famous (and federally protected) for. When our friend Patrick had visited Great Basin National Park on a lark during a road trip from the Bay Area to Chicago, he hadn’t been able to tour the cave because the tours were sold out. We had booked ours weeks in advance so that wouldn’t happen to us. My thinking had been that we would do the cave tour straight off on the morning of our first day in the Park, then we’d have the rest of our time to do whatever we wanted whenever we wanted.
Wheeler Peak and the Snake Range from Spring Valley
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.
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.