After much delay and anticipation I have finally found time to sit down and publish photos and some posts about our road trip to Colorado. We were on the road for seventeen days, leaving September 23 and returning to San Jose on October 9. The catalyst for this road trip was the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. We decided that instead of simply flying out for the three day festival we would make the best of it and visit as many parks as we could on a two week drive to Denver and back. Our first stop was Great Basin National Park.
Leaving after work on Friday, we drove over 120 and camped just off of the road between Mono Lake and Benton. The next morning we connected with Highway 6 and began the long drive across Nevada. This drive goes something like this: Mountain. Fun pass! Flat. Flat. Flat (nice view of the mountains in the distance). Flat flat flat. MOUNTAINS PASS Flat flat flat flat. MOUNTAIN. Nice view. FLAT. FLAT.
By 1 pm we had nearly reached the border of Nevada and Utah and turned south towards the visitor’s center at Great Basin National Park. We planned on getting tickets for the 3pm Lehman Caves tour, spending the night in the park, and then hiking Wheeler Peak the following morning. Unfortunately the tickets for the cave tour were sold out, so we reserved tickets for the next day’s 9am tour and decided to book it to the Wheeler Peak Trailhead for a sunset hike of the second highest peak in Nevada (13,063 ft).
By 2:45 we were at the trailhead and packed up for the 8 mile, 3000 ft gain hike to the summit of Wheeler. There is a trail all the way to the top so route finding was not a concern, but I kept my GPS running and headlamps packed. The trail begins by passing through several aspen groves, with occasional peeks of the impressive eastern headwall of Wheeler. The first two miles are gently graded and hard packed dirt, making for a quick approach to the rocky ridge that the final two miles follow to the peak. The second half of the hike is still quite straightforward since there is a trail, but it does get steeper and rockier and potentially much more uncomfortable due to the exposure (not drop offs, rather the lack of any trees or protection from the elements). Luckily we had a beautiful evening and easily made the summit by 5 pm.
We had passed many descending hikers on our climb; it seems that this is a popular hike in Great Basin. Due to our late start we had the summit to ourselves. Finally, the lengthening shadows and dropping temperature reminded us that there was a cozy campfire and hot dinner ahead so we quickly descended the trail, stopping only to take pictures of the golden sunset light on the surrounding valleys and mountains.
Ambient light lit the way until the final 1/3 mile where the now pitch black aspen groves forced me to switch on my headlamp. Back at the truck by 7pm, we threw our packs in the back and drove the 1/2 mile down the road to Wheeler Peak Campground where we settled in for a cold fall night at 10k ft.
The following morning we had a leisurely coffee around camp and then drove down to the Visitor Center for our 9am tour of Lehman Caves. It was similar to other cave tours we’ve done; cool formations, interesting guide, and too many photos taken. After our 90 minute tour and an early picnic lunch we hopped back in the truck to continue our drive east. Next destination: Dinosaur National Monument.
It seems that many people come to Great Basin just for the caves, but make sure to look around other places. It’s a quiet and diverse park in the middle of nowhere. Being used to parks like Yosemite it was nice to be able to drive into a campground at 7pm on a Saturday night and have our choice of spots. Don’t miss it!
In and Out hike on trail
8.5 miles round trip
+/- 3000 ft
Trailhead and Permit Notes:
Pay National Park entrance fees before parking at the trailhead near the visitor center. Roads to the trailhead are paved, and a small parking lot is available at the trailhead. Road access to the trailhead is seasonal, check with the park for current conditions.
The closest campground to Wheeler Peak is aptly named the Wheeler Peak Campground. Its sites are first come, first served. One advantage to this remote National Park is that visitation is low and you don’t need to scramble to find a campsite like you would at, say, Yosemite.