Great Basin National Park is well worth a visit, as it is full of fascinating features including a cave, some of the oldest life on Earth, historic mining operations, and glaciated mountains. Situated in eastern Nevada miles from anything, a sign proclaiming “Great Basin National Park 131 miles” makes one think the park is close by. In a sense, it is: the high point in the park, Wheeler Peak, can be seen from miles away.
Mormon settlers were the first non-native visitors to the area in the 1800s. An expedition by Lt. Wheeler and colleagues firmly mapped out the area, documenting that the peak stood firmly 13,000 feet above sea level (by modern mapping, 13,065′). Miners soon came to the area, and discovered riches of gold. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough water to successfully refine the gold, and mining operations were abandoned. Around 1881 a rancher in the area, Lehman, found a cave (previously found and not used by the natives) and used a sledge hammer to bust his way down into it, and shortly thereafter was charging for tours to the site. Remains of the old rickety wooden stairs may still be seen. The caves became a hot spot for social life, with the members of Ely’s Elks Club hosting meetings in the cave, and dances and weddings were hosted as well. The caves were established as a National Monument in 1922, leading to a greater degree of preservation of the cave features. The cave is now estimated to be fully explored. Isotopic dating techniques have been employed to estimate the age of the limestone features in the cave at around 1.5 million years. In 1986 additional land was purchased to expand the monument and form Great Basin National Park.
The Great Basin is a closed-drainage desert region encompassing almost all of Nevada and parts of the surrounding regions. The harsh, dry climates have lead to some unique ecological niches, with the cooler, wetter environments of mountain high peaks forming “islands in the desert” in which life may flourish. One of the most fascinating of these is the Bristlecone Pine, which is one of the longest-lived species, with possible life spans of over 7000 years. The trees are so hearty that they take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose, and they are so well adapted to the harsh environment that planting them in more forgiving conditions leads to early death. Visiting the bristlecones one may be truly astonished that some of these trees were 1200 years old by the time these trees were saplings, and yet the Redwoods absolutely dwarf the bristlecones, which may survive in only two inches of soil. Still, it’s sobering to think that climate change is killing many of the world’s oldest trees.
The centerpiece of Great basin National Park, Wheeler Peak, rises 7,568′ above the Snake valley, and is ranked as the twelfth most prominent peak and the twelfth most isolated peak in the contiguous United States, with the nearest point of comparable elevation 231 miles away. Wheeler Peak is a glaciated mountain, and features Nevada’s only glacier. The hiking here is spectacular.