After the morning’s solar eclipse, Sean and I decided to spend the afternoon of August 21, our final full day at Great Basin National Park, exploring one of the only remaining major sections of the Park that we hadn’t yet visited: the Snake Creek Canyon area. Like most of the other reasonably accessible portions of the Park, it is reached from the Snake Valley side of the Snake Range.
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.
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.