Bristlecones And Alpine Lakes In The Nevada Desert

This June we decided to go to Nevada.  But, where in Nevada?  Not Vegas, we knew that.  Maybe Great Basin National Park.  How far is that?  It’s only six hours?  And we have three days off this week?  Ok, Great Basin it is.  A few pictures of alpine lakes and word of some of the oldest living life forms on Earth had me convinced.  Didn’t take much.


That was it.  We packed up all our camping gear and headed out with a vague idea of where we were going.   Yes, it was only six hours, but Baker, the closest town, has like, two hotels and we didn’t want to have to search for a camp spot in the dark, so we found a hotel in Delta, Utah, hit a curb, got scared by cats, and holed up there for the night.


We got up earlyish to drive the last hour and a half to the park.  The drive isn’t great.  It’s flat.  Desert-y, but like, brown desert, not red.  It’s surrounded by small mountains at one point and then you’re on the loneliest road in America and all of a sudden you’re in Nevada.  The park is only a few miles from the Utah/Nevada border.  Baker isn’t really much.  It’s got like, two streets in it and like, four restaurants (that might not be 100% correct, I don’t know an exact number), but we only ate at one the whole time: Kerouac’s and I would 1000% recommend it.  Everything we had there was delicious and it’s a super cute little place.


Now onto the good part, the park.  We found a spot at the Upper Lehman Creek Campground and it was the perfect spot.  We wanted to get a spot a Wheeler campground, but there were only a few left in Upper Lehman and we didn’t want to lose one of those and end up without a camp spot if Wheeler was full, so we took it and ended up loving it.


The first day after we got settled we headed up the scenic drive to Wheeler Peak and the hiking trails up there.  We decided to do the Alpine Lake trail that day and the Bristlecone the next.  So, off we went.

The hiking wasn’t difficult, which was nice.  There was still snow on the ground and I never thought I would be as excited as I was to see snow.  In June, too!  We saw a few other people on the trail, but I really only mean a few.  We almost saw more deer than people.  This isn’t quite like the other parks in the area.  And by that I mean absolutely packed.


We got to Stella Lake first.  It wasn’t as bright as a lot of alpine lakes you see pictures of, but there were only three other people there and you have Wheeler Peak in the background.  It would be extremely easy to be the only person there, that’s for sure.  We didn’t hang out there too long and continued on to Theresa Lake.

This one we had to ourselves and spent a lot more time wandering around the area taking pictures and stomping around the snow.  A few people passed by while we were there, but I was never terribly worried about bears or mountain lions, which I almost always am in the woods.


Soon we headed down to go back to the campsite, but we got to the trail intersection with the Bristlecone trail and figured why not just do this too since we’re already here?  So we did.  This trail was more difficult with a lot more elevation gain, but it’s totally worth it.


You get sprawling views over the desert below and you’re walking among the oldest living things on Earth, the Bristlecone Pines.  The trunks are twisting and almost look dead, but they’re thriving up on the side of that mountain.  There are only a few Bristlecone groves in the park.  The higher we went, the more snow there was, but it didn’t make the hiking too much more difficult.  Once you were really in the grove it sort of evened out and the hiking was pretty easy, we just had to try not to slip on some of the snow.


We spent some time hanging out up there as well and even kept going to see the glacier, the only glacier in Nevada, nestled below Wheeler Peak.  While I was enjoying it up there, I was also getting really cold.  The sun was sinking lower in the sky and the breezes were picking up where we were.  It was time to head back down and scramble back across the snow we just maneuvered over.


So, we made it back to the campsite and had like, six turkey and cheese sandwiches for dinner and got a fire going.  Once we were sitting by the fire, we noticed mice running up from the road, under the picnic table, and into the brush behind us.  Like, a lot of them.  Some would make it to a log with some brush next to me, hide, try to run out and run back into hiding when I looked over.  This went on for quite a while and it was always funny to see one shoot up around our feet and chairs.


Another awesome thing about Great Basin is that “half the park is after dark,” meaning the sky is so dark you can see more stars than you ever could imagine.  The Rangers have dark sky programs a couple nights a week, but we missed those.  You don’t need to go to one to appreciate visibility of the stars, though.  We had a great view just from our campsite.  Definitely make sure you get to see them at least once while you’re there, even if it’s brief.


The next day we were going to go down the road by Snake Creek and explore that area and do the Lehman Cave tour the next morning before we left.  That didn’t work out.  We ended up at Snake Creek in the morning and in the cave in the afternoon since the next day didn’t have any tickets available.


When we went to Snake Creek we only saw like, two other cars and they were parked at the end trailhead.  We saw no one and there were a bunch of other campsites here, which was awesome to see they were there.  We didn’t really hike around here, we just hung out by the creek for a bit taking pictures before heading back to the cave.


The cave tours can sell out weeks in advance sometimes, and the visitors center only sells them for the day of, so go early to get tickets.  Thankfully we did get tickets and were able to see the cave.  I really wanted to see it, I love caves.  The last one I was in was Carlsbad Caverns two summers ago, so I was excited for another one.


We got Ranger Paul as our guide and when he said his tour theme was history, I got a little nervous.  It’s not my favorite subject, but it turned out to be an awesome tour and i don’t think anyone could have done it better.  Ranger Paul was the best.

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We learned all about the how it was found and that Absalom Lehman, the guy that found them, ran tours through the cave, and eventually it got too popular so he just sent people in with a candle and basically said have fun!  We also learned that part of Wizard of Mars was filmed in Lehman Cave and there were even meetings in the Lodge Room back in the day.

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I really enjoyed it here.  It was so nice to be in a park without thousands of people on the same trails at the same time.  It’s now one of my favorite National Parks and there’s so much more I want to do there.  I will definitely be back sooner than later.  It was a great last minute park decision.

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Tips for visiting Great Basin National Park:

  • Park entrance is free!
  • Campgrounds are first come first serve, so get there earlier in the day to make sure you get a good spot.  Or a spot at all.
  • Definitely eat at Kerouac’s.  They are closed on Tuesday, though.
  • If you’re doing any evening hikes, especially up by Wheeler Peak, bring a light jacket.  It gets cool up there.  Maybe have a rain jacket, too, just in case.
  • If you’re camping and cooking yourself, bring all the food you want.  If you pass through Delta, UT, this is a good place to stock up.
  • Cave tours can sell out weeks in advance, so if you know when you’ll be there and want to do a tour, you can get tickets online at
  • There are two tours: Lodge room (60 minutes, $8) and Grand Palace (90 minutes, $10). We did the Lodge Room and it was pretty cool, but the Grand Palace was sold out or we would have done that.  If you do the Grand Palace Tour, you don’t need to do the Lodge Room.
  • Make sure you stay up to see the stars at least once, or get up in the middle of the night to do it.
  • The ranger night programs are every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday in the summer.  There are fewer in the Spring and Fall.  They are held at the Lehman Visitors Center and you do not need reservations for them.
  • It’s way out of the way of anything, but totally worth a trip.

Have you been to Great Basin?  What did you think of it?  Do you want to go?  What’s the coolest cave you’ve been to?

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