Great Basin National Park

[ACHTUNG!: There is a picture of an old motel bathroom with some truly lamentable 70s wallpaper in this post. It may make you feel bad. You have been warned.]

In my ongoing quest to visit as many of the famous and not-so-famous sites in the general Utah/Colorado/Idaho/Nevada/etc. area before I move out of the state at some point in the indeterminate future…

Ok, I lost track of that sentence. The point is that I’ve made a list of all the places I want to go, and one of my goals is to get to all of the national parks in the region.

All the US national parks - notice how they're almost all in the western half of the country. (Map from: http://www.terragalleria.com/parks/parks-map.html)

And that’s why I found myself (with Aitch) driving towards Great Basin National Park—right across Utah’s western border with Nevada—one fine (hot) Friday afternoon in August.  

But who has ever heard of Great Basin National Park?

Nobody, that’s who. In spite of the fact that it’s only a few hours’ drive from Salt Lake City, St. George, Moab, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, Great Basin is one of the ten least visited national parks in the United States (most of the other least visited parks are in Alaska.) Whereas Zion NP in Southern Utah receives nearly 3 million visitors a year, Great Basin receives a measly 80,000. In fact, the park is so unknown that they don’t even charge you a fee to get in.

As far as I can tell, there are two reasons for the park’s obscurity:

A.      It’s in the Middle of Nowhere. Literally.  To get there, you drive a few hours into the Utah desert—and then you keep on driving. And driving. It’s no coincidence that the main road that runs past the park is nicknamed “the Loneliest Highway in America.”

B.      It’s just not that interesting compared to the other parks in the area. It’s apparently a biologically important area—herpetologists and botanists and biologists and phrenologists (?) and so on love it—but it doesn’t have any of the “must-see” sites of most of the other parks in the region.

Of course, the obscurity of the park has its benefits—or so they say. For one, owing to the fact that the nearest town of any size is more than a 100 miles away, it has some of the darkest skies in the country. The dark skies apparently allow for some really great stargazing.

Unfortunately, it was cloudy both nights we were there so we missed out on that benefit.

Another benefit is that, if you like solitude, this park has it in spades. 

“Oh, we don’t allow reservations because our campgrounds never fill up,” one of the Park Rangers explained when we called a few weeks ahead of our trip.

Motels (and Other Horrors?)

Of course, the night we got there all the campgrounds were completely full and we had to stay in a motel. A gross, stinking motel that looked like it hadn't received any upkeep (or had any of its decor/furniture replaced) since the 70s. I think I slept about two hours that night - because my bed made loud noises every time I moved and because motels are creepy.

Our motel room, since all the camp sites were full.

Our motel room's bathroom. (Yes, I'm showing you all the ugly things before I show you the pretty things.)

But anyways…

The park itself is actually nice. As you’re driving towards it, it doesn’t look like much. But then you start driving up a mountain—Wheeler Peak—and you pass flocks of wild turkeys looking ridiculous as they cross the road and you can kind of see the appeal. Wheeler Peak itself is quite distinctive and impressive (it’s the home to the only glacier in the state of Nevada), and once you’re up there the sheer flatness and vastness of the surrounding desert landscape is quite impressive (the top of the Wheeler Peak Drive is at about 11,000 feet. The desert floor is about 4,000 feet.)  

The view as we began to ascend Wheeler Peak Drive

Wheeler Peak

The view of Wheeler Peak from our campsite

Lehman Caves and, also, a Lizard

So after the disappointment of that first night (motels stink, literally), we were able to find a campground for the next night and then take a tour of one of the park’s two main attractions: Lehman Caves.

The caves had lots of cool features, but the very best feature was the temperature: A consistent 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature at our campground was nice (and breezy), since it was located at 11,000 feet—but the temperature in the desert wasn’t as nice so the caves were a very pleasant break. It's hard to take good pictures in caves - at least my camera - so forgive the quality. You'll have to take my word for it that they were much more impressive in real life. (And cool. Did I mention that they were cool? As in pleasantly-not-hot?)

Lehman Caves


It blends in pretty well with the background...

 The Bristlecones, and other Old Things

Sunday morning I took a hike up from our campground to the second main attraction of the park (located at about 12,000 feet above sea level): The Bristlecone Pine Grove.

The trail up to the grove

The slopes of Wheeler Peak are very rocky

Bristlecone Pines are the oldest known single living organisms in the world (there are some “clonal colonies” that live longer by constantly cloning themselves, but they're cheaters so they don't count.*) [*Incidentally, one of the largest "clonal colonies" in the world - a grove of quaking aspens that's supposed to be about a million years old - is located in central Utah. I'm already planning to visit it next year.]

These things are old. Some of them are nearly 5,000 years old. When the pyramids of Giza were being built, some of these things were already 500 years old. When Alexander the Great conquered the known world, some of these trees were already 2500 years old.

I like how someone scratched out the word "grotesque"

The sign says that this tree is more than 3200 years old - and that it required five core samples from the tree to get a complete sequence of its growth rings.

These things are old.

And the hike up to them was very beautiful, and satisfying (note to self: Go on more hikes.) There was something very peaceful (and even comforting) about standing near the top of a mountain in this grove of ancient organisms.

And Glaciers!


Since I had already hiked a few miles to see the trees, I decided to go just a little bit farther (and a little bit higher) to see the Wheeler Park Glacier. Which, as it turns out, is just a tiny patch of dirty snow.
But, hey! Glacier!   

The trail past the Bristlecone Grove, towards the glacier

See that tiny patch of snow? Yeah, that's the glacier.

A close-up of the "glacier." To be fair, I was there in August - when it's probably as its smallest.

An Alpine "lake" on my way back down the mountain

At the bottom of the trail


If you can only visit five national parks within a five-hour drive of Salt Lake City, Great Basin doesn’t need to be one of them. However, if you live in the area—or if you happen to be driving from, say, California to Utah—it might be worth the detour. But it’s one of those parks where you have to get out of your car and hike a bit to really appreciate—so only go if you know you can get tickets to the caves and if you’re ready to take the fairly strenuous Bristlecone Pike Hike.  

...And back across the desert we go.

A crazy person

Sevier Lake in Utah's west desert - it's huge and it looks like it has water, but it's almost always bone dry


Mesa Verde National Park (Western Colorado Trip, Part IV)

With the gorgeous and terrifying San Juan Mountains behind us, we left our hotel the next morning for the final stop of our adventure: Mesa Verde National Park.

 Unlike our other rather obscure destinations during the trip—Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the Million Dollar Highway—Mesa Verde is actually pretty famous.

You’ve seen pictures of it. At some point you may have even thought: “Hey, that would be a cool place to visit—someday.”

The top of the mesa is actually pretty boring—just a lot of desert shrubbery and an occasional old, mostly unexcavated ruin. It’s what’s on the sides of the mesa that counts.

In short, Mesa Verde is the place with all the cliff dwellings you see in history books and National Geographic. And it doesn’t have just one cliff dwelling—it has many. At one particular overlook, you could see five or six separate dwellings on the side of a sheer cliff.

The coolest part? We were actually able to walk through two of the dwellings while we were there. The first dwelling, Spruce Tree House, was easy to access—just about a ¼ mile down a gradual slope to the bottom ravine of sorts—and thus it was quite crowded with people. Nevertheless, it was a cool experience.

A lot of different thoughts go through your head as you walk through a 1000+ year old town carved into a cliff:

“How did they build this?”
“I can’t believe people actually lived here.”
“Did they really have to climb out of here every day?”
“Wow, I guess these people weren’t afraid of heights.”
“Where did I come from? Where am I going? Are families forever?”

The second dwelling we toured was even cooler, and quite a bit more like what you imagine when you think of cliff dwellings. Whereas Spruce Tree House was pretty much at ground level, this one was smack dab in the middle of a sheer cliff face. Due to the relative danger and difficulty of access (at least for those not used to climbing up steep walls), this one required tickets and a Park Ranger tour guide.

And since the description labeled this tour as “extreme” and mentioned things like “multiple climbs up 32 foot ladders” and “squeezing through 12-foot long crawl spaces,” Mom and Dad decided to stay behind while Heather and I embarked on this adventure.  


One of the recurring themes of this weekend trip was acrophobia—and this second tour gave me a chance to re-establish, once again, that I am indeed afraid of heights.

To get down to the dwelling, you have to walk down a steep, sloping trail carved into the cliff side. The trail is narrow, and a foot to your left is a steep thousand foot drop.

Then you have to climb up a 32-foot ladder.

The view from the dwelling

To get back out, you have to crawl on your hands and knees through a very narrow space and then climb another tall ladder and then walk up some very steep, shallow steps carved into the cliff. It was all very exciting and stuff.

But while you’re actually in the dwelling, it’s quite cool. The tour guide told us a lot about the day-to-day lives and religious beliefs/ceremonies of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples who once lived there. She told us about why they chose these locations (for defense, obviously) and what kinds of foods they ate and so on and so forth. (I would go into more detail here, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of what she told us.)

“Just don’t lean against the rock wall on the edge of the dwelling,” she added, “because it’s not very stable and people have fallen.”

Fortunately, I didn’t fall. That totally would have ruined the whole trip.