National Parks road trip Uncategorized

Earth’s oldest trees in Great Basin National Park Nevada

Bristlecone pine groves with the oldest living trees on Earth, the southernmost glacier in the U.S., one of the darkest places in the lower 48 states at night and the cleanest air in the continental U.S. are attributes of Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada.  Created in 1986, Great Basin National Park  is one of the least visited national parks in the United States and offers visitors an amazing contrast to the arid desert landscape most associated with Nevada. The remoteness of Great Basin set my mind to making this destination part of our western states road trip on our way to Denver, Colorado.

a mountain with snow on top

Great Basin National Park is about 80 miles east of Ely, Nevada on Highway 6/Highway 50 near the Utah border. The small town of Baker, Nevada has a gas station and the Great Basin National Park Visitor Center.

Another attribute of the Great Basin desert is water from rain and snow melt does not flow to the ocean, but instead remains trapped in underground reservoirs in the arid bowl of the Great Basin desert. Thus, the name Great Basin.

There were about a dozen cars in the Great Basin National Park visitor center parking lot. Kelley and I were the only tourists in the visitor center. The park rangers said we had time to make the next Lehman Caves tour. Great Basin National Park has no entrance fee, but the 90-minute cave tour is a $10 fee.

After 29 years living with Kelley, I realized for the first time she has a fear of caves stemming from a childhood trip to caves in  Pinnacles National Monument near our home in Monterey, California. In contrast to Kelley, my childhood experiences as an 11 year old living on the high security desert military base of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico while my father was in Vietnam included many hikes in the Organ Mountains to visit caves.  And touring Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico is one of my most vivid childhood memories.

Since the Lehman Caves tour was out, the other activity was driving Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, a well-paved road rising from the desert floor at nearly 6,000 feet to almost 10,200 feet on the face of 13,065 ft. Wheeler Peak, the second highest peak in Nevada. There are even more things to do at Great Basin National Park if you are adventurous.

a road with trees and mountains in the background
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive at about 9,500 ft.

A visitor center display at Great Basin National Park indicated each 1,000 ft. rise in elevation is equivalent to traveling 600 miles north in terms of climate. This is a general rule used to describe the climate change with elevation in the high mountains of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada ranges in the western U.S.

Keep in mind though that the rapid elevation change can be hard on the human body. I drove the road and therefore had limited opportunities for taking photos, but suffice to say that the views are incredible as the road winds up the mountainside.

Bristlecone Pines – Earth’s oldest living trees

Great Basin bristlecone pines live in the sub-alpine forest range at the edge of the alpine arctic environment nearly 11,000 feet in elevation on Wheeler Peak. At the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive road there is the Bristlecone Pine Trail for a 3 mile roundtrip hike to the site of the oldest known trees in the world. There is also a campground located at the end of the paved road at 10,200 feet. with a bathroom structure and water.

Back in 1964, before the Wheeler Peak area was designated a national park, a university student researching bristlecone pines was given permission by the U.S. Forest Service to take bristlecone pine tree core samples and cut down one of the trees. The tree known as Prometheus was cut down and revealed to have 4,900 growth rings making it the oldest known living tree in the world at the time it was removed from Wheeler Peak.

a road with trees and mountains in the background

The temperature dropped from 90 to a comfortable 63 degrees as we climbed from the Great Basin valley floor to nearly 10,200 feet on Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.  Hiking at this altitude is challenging and the snow melt muddied the Bristlecone Pine trail making most of the walk through shallow streams of downhill flowing water. The trail runs through forest of aspen and pines and alongside alpine lakes.

a road with trees in the background
Wheeler Peak campground at 10,000+ feet in elevation, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Spending the night here would certainly be an adventure and there were probably 25 people or so camping at the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive summit campground. We met people from Germany, England, Arizona and Massachusetts on the trail.

We did not pack camping gear for this trip for the experience of sleeping high up on the mountain in a place known for its dark night skies and clean clear air.

Maybe next time.

Related links: A description of hiking Wheeler Peak on with photos of bristlecone pines. story about Great Basin National Park. This site is a valuable resource for National Parks information.


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