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Camping at Higher Altitude: Great Basin National Park

Updated: May 4

Summer means getting outdoors, however this year juggling the challenges of schedules, campsite availabilities, weather changes, and training a new puppy, has made getting to nature feel like a frustratingly difficult undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, the above struggles have all been good, but compiled together they have left me feeling deprived of our usual escapes and soul renewing outings.

It is because of this, that I was determined to get at least one new park checked off our list this summer. While there are a number of parks on our bucket list to visit, camping at Great Basin National Park was one experience in particular that I was adamant we were going to get to enjoy, come hell or high water.

Well, thanks to the past winter, the high water was a factor, however even with a few key trails being closed due to flooding or backcountry avalanche risks, the trails and camp options that were available allowed us to not only check off another National Park from our list, but also gave us a chance to see more of our beautiful state.

In true weekend warrior fashion, we turned this ten hour round road trip into a single night of camping and hiking adventures. This definitely stretched us for available trail time, however the views and experience was breathtaking and exactly what I needed.

snow on distant mountains. the foreground overlooks dense pine trees.

It was an ambitious undertaking; a 5am wakeup followed by five hours of driving. Most of the trip from Vegas to Caliente, to Panaca, to Pioche was familiar scenery; a blur of open desert painted with sage brush, Joshua trees and spineless yucca (it’s a plant, they’re not cowards). Unlike our first trip this route, the lakes within the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and Crystal and Ash Springs were full and a bright refreshing shade of blue thanks to the heavy winter. The route beyond Pioche spread out even more and served as the slowest section of the drive. It wasn’t until the last stretch before meeting up with highway 50 that we began seeing Great Basin’s Wheeler, Lincoln and Granite Peaks come into view and begin providing the added build up of excitement and assurance that we were almost there.

Road trips often serve as an emotional cleanse. They’re a chance to escape distractions, enjoy nothing but the present moment, and with no where else to go but forward; they provide opportunities for cathartic conversation. It’s in these moments, that emotions and gratitude spiral with the curves of the road and help create a celebration of life and love. Ultimately, they force me to focus on enjoying the drive and savoring the joy that is found in simplicity.

Merging with the U.S. 6 to the last leg of the drive on the 487 to Baker, I could not help but feel elated. Here we were at just over 5,000 feet in elevation in a small desert town and soon we would climb to around 10,000 feet and switch into the cooler mountainous forests that I love. But first, a stop in the Great Basin National Park visitor’s center and a quick bite to eat at the Bristlecone General Store.

Sitting on the porch of the general store, snacking on trail charcuterie snacks, playing with bubbles and looking out over the sleepy 36-person population town, brought us to slow down and simply take in the simplicity of the moment before preparing for the hiking and sightseeing that was soon to follow.

Heading up the mountain, our surroundings soon began changing from the nearly barren desert landscape around Baker, to lush forests.

Low-lying sagebrush flats were replaced with small shrubs and pinyon and juniper pines. By the time we reached 8,500 feet in elevation, mountain mahogany wilderness began surrounding our views with their rough looking branches before blending with groves of white and Douglas firs and ponderosa pines. These long towering trees and their hints of sweet aroma signaled that we had finally arrived to the forest climate.

Toward the top of the 12-mile stretch of steep winding road that led us closer to the campground and 10,000 feet in elevation, the labyrinth of pine trees began to blend with white-barked aspen trees and sprawled green fields. It’s incredible how quickly and how drastically the scenery can change in just 12 miles upward. In fact, I learned that the simple 12-mile drive from Baker to Wheeler Peak campground travels through the same eco-regions you would encounter should you drive from Baker to Canada’s frozen Yukon which is thousands of miles north.

Along the drive a number of scenic pullouts allowed us different vantage points of Wheeler and Doso Doyabi Peaks and Mount Moriah. They also provided isolated views of former glacial cirques which filled most of the valley at one time. Due to flooding and trail disarray from the heavy winter snows, this trip would not provide us with the opportunity to view the famous bristlecone groves or Wheeler Peak Cirque, where glacial ice still exists today. Regardless, seeing the indents in the mountain and remaining snow packs from our vantage points this far into July was still incredible.

Upon arriving at our camp spot, which was nestled in the highest point of the campground, our jaws dropped to find that we perfectly overlooked the snow capped Wheeler Peak. Camp set up, conditions checked and our hiking bags loaded up, we headed out to the Alpine Lakes loop trail for some much anticipated hiking and what we knew would be a beautiful hike.

Dirt trails below foot, pine and aspen trees surrounding us, tall snowy mountains overhead and icy lakes on the horizon…I was in my element and loving every minute of it. As snow continued to melt and pack in shady areas of the forest, sections of the trail provided us areas to make our way through newly formed streams, muddy trail sections and even traverse over snowy banks.

an alpine lake. driftwood is seen in the foreground of the lake with snow covered mountains on the opposite shoreline.

Before reaching the first destination of Stella Lake, we cut through an open field whose landscape made me feel as though I was in a scene from the Sound of Music as Julie Andrews ran through the grass singing. And yes…I couldn’t help but sing a bar or two replacing hills with mountains, and though it had nowhere near the same lyrical ease, it fit the landscape just the same in my opinion.

Stella Lake was gorgeous with pristine water and views of Wheeler Peak and Doso Doyabi. A few photos snapped, I instantly went to the banks to feel the coolness of the water. With a few visitors along the banks and one annoying tourist flying a drone overhead, we decided not to stick around and headed back to the trail to make our way to the next alpine lake and hopefully distance ourselves from the other visitors.

Traversing deeper into the forest, Theresa Lake was more enclosed in the trees and its glacial water was a vibrant turquoise hue. Though smaller than Stella Lake, it was a perfect picturesque lake view and it took all my willpower not to jump in for an icy swim. Caught up in the views I couldn’t help but take in all the smells of cool forest air, a clean pine scent so fresh it revives your train of thought with each inhale.

Rocky and wet from snow melt, we made our way down the trail found in many parts only by perfectly placed trail markers along the trees. With the Bristlecone and Glacier Trails closed, we headed back to the trail head. The trail crossed the exit streams from the lakes several times, and as a result, the hike back was shadier and provided more areas of snowy trail and muddy slopes. Hiking over snow that refused to melt in the shade and traversing streams of melted ice runoff that made its way down the mountain, we were grateful for the direction in which we had started this hike, as going down this segment was significantly easier than going up would have been.

At the trail head we cooled down with the shorter Island Forest Nature Trail, or Sky Island Loop, as we saw both names for it, and enjoyed some solitude amongst the trees and read informational markers about the coniferous woods and the trickledown effect the glacier-carved walls of Wheeler Peak provide through funneling rain and snowmelt from the upper lakes through the ground to feed creeks and the lower valley where its diverted for irrigation. Another thing I found fascinating was learning of the forest gaps where spruce-pine and aspens collide as a result of lightning-caused fire.

There is something miraculous learning that each tree you come upon has years of survival strategies and adaptations just to continue to grow. It’s why I will never not be impressed with nature and ecosystems.

Back at camp, we enjoyed our ceremonial happy hour before enjoying a simple camp meal and an evening stroll around the campground and part of the Lehman Creek Trail. Taking in all the sights and sounds we were relieved that once the late afternoon hit, the bug population dispersed from our area and left us to enjoy the evening.

During the early evening hours not only did we bask in the beauty of the landscape but we were also graced with the presence of a spotted mule deer, a long tailed weasel and numerous hawks that flew with such grace overhead you can’t help but feel time suspended as they coasted along currents above us. Of them all however, the weasel was what brought me the most excitement to see, as it was a first for us and he was absolutely adorable.

As beautiful as the daytime views were, the real spectacle was after sunset. There is no doubt why Great Basin National Park is an international dark sky certified park. Even with continuous winds, the pristine starry skies and Milky Way views were incredible. Although the winds prevented me from setting up my camera as I had hoped, I still managed to capture a couple starry scenes and enjoyed a couple hours of enjoying gorgeous stargazing.

Growing up in Northern Nevada, I had the privilege of Milky Way views and stargazing nights rather often, which could bee why I’m so drawn to dark sky parks. What I can’t believe however is that according to a 2020 study, nearly 90 percent of Americans have never seen the Milky Way! Once again feeling blessed for the occasion to experience something so naturally spectacular, I urge anyone reading this… if camping and hiking are not your forte of activities, do nothing else than plan a trip that takes you to the middle of nowhere so you can enjoy the magnitude of dark skies and Milky Way views.

The next morning was off to a slow start, much in part to wanting to bask in the views and surroundings that our campsite provided. As I woke up, looking out at the dawn covered mountains still capped with snow I did everything I could to let my senses take in all the amazement our campground had to offer. With each breathe wondering how to hold onto the awe of this place. Hold onto the gift of all the small things; the smell of the trees, our presence in this space, and the time we had in a place where time felt still.

Once breakfast was enjoyed and our campsite was packed up we reluctantly headed down the mountain. Making a brief stop at Osceola Ditch Trailhead before continuing to the Lehman Caves visitor center where we stocked up on more patches, magnets and stickers to document our travels and learn about the cave system the park is most known for. The vast cave system below ground is home to marble passageways adorned with stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn and cave bacon, in other words; the epitome of condensation corrosion and tapering formations of salt deposits, sediments and stone.

With this trip being a short overnight adventure, we didn’t have enough time to explore the caves, but we know we’ll be back for a multi-day trip at some point to enjoy them and some of the key trails we weren’t able to explore this visit. After making plans for our next visit we checked out Baker Creek trail to enjoy a little dirt road driving and a brief walk along the creek before heading out of the park and returning south.

The road trip back included a high point of enjoying lunch overlooking Cathedral Gorge State Park which, due to the extreme heat we had to ourself. The drive also included the low point of being involved in some moron’s joy ride of attempting to run people off the road, in which we avoided a side swipe and pulled over briefly to check on another driver who was given quite a fright by the same reckless driver. There’s nothing quite like ending a trip to nature with confirmations of why escaping from humanity and enjoying the wilderness is so darn enjoyable.

Regardless of the bit of chaos on the drive home, overall the trip was a beautiful reminder to slow down, open up and take everything in.

Now, on to plan the next trip.

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