The Park Service’s Best Kept Secret

View across the Snake Valley to Utah from Pole Canyon Trail

This month’s adventure was to Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. I had never spent much time in Nevada – other than a quick overnight in Las Vegas on the way to Death Valley back in January and driving a Uhaul truck from San Francisco to Salt Lake City after too much revelry at a friend’s wedding the day before. Thus my limited impressions of Nevada were of strip malls and hangovers. This past weekend cured me of those initial sickly impressions.

The park makes up most of the Snake Range and is the highest range in the Great Basin. Most of the trails and the developed portions of the park are all on the east side – facing Utah. By virtue of this, it offers some amazing views of the successive ranges of the Utah portion of the Great Basin. The visitor center itself offers clear views of the Confusion Range and the House Range with prominent Notch Peak. Clearer days provide even more distant views.

Blue sky and late spring snowpack at Johnson Lake

The park has received similar amounts of snow as Salt Lake City and the snowpack is around 200% of normal. I had wanted to climb Wheeler Peak, but with this much late season snow, it would have made for a very strenuous hike. We decided to stick to some lower altitude hikes for our three-day weekend. Upon arriving on Saturday we found a nice campsite in the Upper Lehman campground. Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I prefer to pack in to my campsites and generally I am not a fan of camping within view of one’s vehicle. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Much of the campground space in the park is tent-only since it is impossible to get a heavy RV up the narrow park roads. There are toilets and running water, but the campsites themselves are secluded and still feel relatively primitive.

Osceola Ditch Hike

Osceola Ditch trail

On our first day we hiked the Osceola Ditch – a nineteenth century water project that was a system of sluices to ferry water to the north side of the range for placer mining. The project was unsuccessful and the town of Osceola flourished and died with minimal profit ever derived from the lode. I could comment here about the booms and busts of the West’s mineral wealth especially since just yesterday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar essentially announced an end to Uranium mining in the Arizona Strip citing concerns for water in the Colorado River. This announcement was of course met with the usual collective ‘harumph’ from the locals complaining about ‘environmentalists’ and jobs. Leaving aside the fact that there are few uranium mining jobs in the strip now, most of these mineral projects are big, expensive and return less in the longer term to the locals than a permanent national park. Most of the mining jobs fall to outsiders anyway and when the resource is collected, the jobs follow the ore. Such was the case with the town of Osceola.

Wildflowers along the Osceola Ditch

The ditch now provides a nice introduction to the park’s topography as the trail follows the old route of the sluices. Wheeler Peak and Mount Moriah are visible over the ridges and at this time of year and with this much snowfall the wildflowers are stunning. The trail follows a line on the range that is perfectly between the dry sagebrush flats of the basin and the aspen and pine groves of the range. The streams were all quite swollen with runoff as well. I also noticed a good variety of local songbirds.

Lehman Caves

Lizard outside entrance to Lehlman Caves

Our second day dawned with intermittent heavy rain – this is the very first time since I returned from abroad in the fall that I have camped and had to deal with rain of any sort. Of course when one plans trips to Southern Utah or Death Valley, one greatly increases their chances of having nice weather. We decided to take a tour of the Lehman Caves and wait to see if the weather would dry out a bit. Again, anyone who knows me better, knows that I do not often opt for the organized tour, and again, I was pleasantly surprised. The park staff were all very knowledgeable and I was very impressed with our tour guide for the caves. I learned that very recently seven (!) new species of cave dwellers have been discovered here and are unique to the caves in the Snake Range. These include a cave millipede and and several arachnids including pseudo-scorpions. The cave was rather mistreated by early visitors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the park now maintains much of it in a pristine state and offers tours of the parts that were degraded in the early period of the park when it was still a national monument for just the cave itself. I detected the new philosophy in park management of discussing earlier (mis)uses of resources and putting them in proper context.

Pole Canyon Hike

Pole Canyon signpost and young natural arch

Aspen and sagebrush on the Pole Canyon Trail

After lunch on Saturday we explored the Pole Canyon trail and hiked just to the Timber Creek cutoff. Reading both the very general and not-to-adequate navigation scale park map and the 1:100,000 map I had with me I saw that there was a trail that continued up the ridge to Johnson Lake. Once at the cutoff, I could find no trace of any other trail. We spent some time hiking a bit in the woods following illusive game trails but eventually gave up and headed back down the canyon. Again on this hike I was impressed with the variation between semi-arid sagebrush desert and alpine range. I have never seen such an interesting mix of aspen and sagebrush. The June wildflowers were also impressive -a product of the massive winter snowfalls we have enjoyed.

Johnson Lake Hike

The highlight of the weekend was our hike to Johnson lake from the primitive campgrounds on the south end of the park. The hike starts at about 8,000 feet and climbs to 10,800 in about 3.6 miles. It crosses some of the same sagebrush and aspen areas then up into the more alpine zone. Once we reached about 9,500 feet we encountered deep snow and the last mile or so we had to cross the heavy remaining snowpack. Once in the basin of Johnson lake it was still full winter. The sky was a brilliant dark alpine blue and the lake and the surrounding peaks were still well hidden in snow. The ridges still have impressive cornices and there is evidence of several slides on the higher slopes – avalanche season is still active. It is mostly wet avalanches at this point, but the amount of snow is impressive for the very last day of spring 2011.

The most jaw-dropping aspect of this hike was the view to the east. We were rewarded with an expansive vista of the ranges marching eastward across the Great Basin in Utah. In the far distance almost ephemeral I could just make out some snow-capped peaks. These, unbelievably, were the southern extent of the Wasatch Range. In the view from this high alpine lake then, one can see half of the Great Basin. If we could see through the ridge backing the lake, might we have been able to see all the way to the Sierras? This makes me eager to actually climb Wheeler Peak on a crystal clear day to find out.

As with all of my adventures, I am now motivated to do more. The drive to the park goes right past Notch Peak in the House Range and I had recently read about it. It is a spectacular cliff face and the remote range should offer good prospects for future hikes. Even more, I am interested in exploring more of Nevada’s ranges and they seem to offer some unique backcountry experiences. They are unique islands rising out of the basin wastelands and I look forward to many more Nevada adventures free of strip malls, hangovers, and slow moving Uhaul trucks on the Interstate.

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One Response to The Park Service’s Best Kept Secret

  1. coquinchiot says:

    You forgot to mention jogging down the snow covered slopes like a mad man 😉

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