Great Basin National Park: A Disappointing Visit, Understandably So

GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK, NEVADA- Great Basin National Park is one of the least-visited National Parks in the U.S., and it’s easy to see why. Situated a few miles off U.S. Route 50—the Loneliest Road in America—the town of Baker, Nevada is the only settlement for miles. Baker sits at the foot of Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain wholly in the state, which is known for the ring of rare and ancient bristlecone pines clustered at high elevations. It has a single gas station (no attendant, no cash accepted), one general store (closed by 5PM), an RV Park (vacant), and besides that there really is nothing for miles and miles and miles around Great Basin National Park.

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Great Basin is best known as the former home of Prometheus, once the oldest known tree in the world before it was accidentally killed in 1964 by a graduate researcher in an ill-fated attempt to determine—you guessed it—the oldest tree in the world. Bristlecone Pines are non-clonal organisms. Each tree has its own roots, and when the tree dies, the roots die as well. Aspen trees, for example, are clonal organisms; a grove of Aspens shares a network of roots underground. All Aspens in the grove originally come from a single parent tree, so when one dies, the network of roots does not, and the grove as a whole lives on. The oldest known grove of Aspens is suspected to be up to 80,000 years old, but no single tree lives for more than 150 years. This pales in comparison to Bristlecone Pines, where each single tree can live for up to 4,000-5,000 years.

 

The largest Bristlecone Pine grove in Great Basin National Park is nestled in the side of Wheeler Peak, at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. Unfortunately, your correspondent didn’t get the chance to lay his eyes on these majestic life forms since the road leading up to the grove was closed. There were only eight groups camping in the entire park, so attendance was a bit…sparse. The visitor center, set to open at 8 am, was also closed when I visited at 8:45 am. The Lehman Caves, an important refuge for up to ten species of bats was also closed at 8:45 am as well. There are some obvious drawbacks to visiting one of the least visited National Parks.

 View of the night sky from Great Basin National Park

View of the night sky from Great Basin National Park

Great Basin is in the middle of nowhere, and as such it’s a place you go expecting solitude, exploration, and a night sky sparkling with constellations. The downside is that it lacks the facilities to provide you with the same experience you might get at a Yellowstone or a Yosemite, parks which millions of visitors stream through every year (admittedly creating headaches for park rangers and visitors alike). Granted, I was only in the park for one day, and was unprepared with the requisite snowshoes to hike out on my own to one of the more remote groves, but it was a disappointment that I wasn’t able to see the most famous part of the park because the road was closed.

 

The morning of my visit, the weather was beautiful, with blue sky and a slight chill in the air. The tip of the mountain was covered in snow, but driving 8000 feet up the scenic trail winding up Wheeler Peak, there were only tiny, football-sized patches of snow on the embankments on either side of the road. Presumably the road could have been covered in snow further up, but there were no alerts on the website that this was the case. I’m only speculating here, but the fact that the visitor center was still closed 45 minutes after the posted opening time leads me to believe that the park wasn’t staffed with the personnel to accommodate visitors beyond a certain point. In their defense, it was before Memorial Day Weekend.

 

I fully support keeping these national treasures under the stewardship of the National Park System, but I did drive all the way to the eastern corner of Nevada so that I could see the oldest trees in the world and visit the Lehman Caves, and it was kind of a bummer that I couldn’t. Seeking a remote experience can have drawbacks, and there is some merit to visiting one of the larger National Parks—where sure, there are going to be parts closed off to visitors due to adverse conditions, but at least you’ll be able to speak with a ranger about it since they’re staffed to accommodate larger groups of visitors. It was a mild disappointment not to be able to see, or even learn about, what Great Basin National Park prides itself on having: the oldest trees in the world.