“We spent several days exploring the high country, climbed Wheeler Peak and descended the north face far enough to see ice, and eventually made our way into the great north cirque…[W]hen we passed the portal-like cliffs and saw into the cirque, we both shouted at once. For there before us, cradled in the gigantic rock basin, was not just ice, but an active glacier. All the signs of moving ice were readily apparent—névé, bergschrunds, crevasses, and fresh moraines. True, this was no giant river of ice. It was triangular in shape, and its greatest dimension probably didn’t exceed 2,000 feet. But the wonder was that it should be there at all in the midst of the Nevada desert.”
-Weldon F. Heald, conservationist, “The Proposed Great Basin Range National Park,” Sierra Club Bulletin (December 1956)
“The fact that this is the only known glacier in the Great Basin lying between the Rockies and California’s Sierra Nevada…and that in five horizontal miles the ascent of Wheeler Peak goes through five life zones, from the Upper Sonoran to the Arctic-Alpine, makes the area unique from a scientific standpoint. The spectacular scenery of the great peak, with its tremendous cirque, comparable to the famous east face of the Longs Peak in Colorado, combine to give the area the necessary qualifications as a unit of the national park system.”
-C. Edward Graves, western representative of the National Parks Association, as quoted by Heald in “National Park Proposed for Nevada,” National Parks Magazine (July-September 1957)
In order to see Nevada’s last remaining glacier, supine and ablating beneath the central Great Basin’s highest peak—in order to see trees old as the storied Pyramids of Egypt, old as cuneiform, older than dirt—foremost was the matter of covering considerable ground. Before reaching those sights, before glimpsing the sublimity of lush, mountainous “sky islands” floating in a sea of sage, I first had to drive. For a while. From Gerlach to Baker, Nevada, a trip of more than seven hours along the “Loneliest Road in America,” Highway 50. Four hundred twenty-five miles across basins and over ranges that rose and fell like lithic waves in that wide, sagacious sea. But it was worth every minute, every drop of precious fuel.
Great Basin National Park, designated on October 27, 1986, is the only such park to lie solely within Nevada’s borders. (Death Valley and Lake Mead, the state’s other two National Park-status areas, bleed into California and Arizona, respectively.) Its 77,180 acres boast an eclectic mix of habitats—from sagebrush steppe to alpine slopes, riparian glades to limestone caverns—reflecting the varied and vertiginous topography: from the Great Basin Visitor Center to the summit of Wheeler Peak is an altitudinal difference of almost 8,000 feet. Fourteen of the park’s peaks top 11,000 feet. Wheeler, elevation 13,063, is second only to Boundary Peak as the highest eminence in range-riven Nevada.
Diversity of terrain begets diversity of life. There are more than 800 plant species found in the park, including the venerable Great Basin bristlecone pine. There are badgers, mountain lions, skunks, kit foxes, almost a dozen species of bat. There are sandhill cranes, sage-grouse, pine siskins, cinnamon teals, bald eagles; also common snipe, Audubon’s warbler, black rosy-finch and some 230 others. Mottled sculpins, speckled dace, Bonneville cutthroat trout. Several cave species, including the Model Cave harvestman and Lehman Caves millipede, found nowhere else. Black widows and monarch butterflies, spadefoot toads and Sonoran kingsnakes. The list goes on.
I was able to spend just a couple days at Great Basin National Park. I could’ve stayed a couple weeks, such was the illimitable potential for exploration and discovery within its bounds. Showcased there is the central Great Basin at its most fruitful and plentiful—nowhere else in Nevada will one find such lofty glacier-carved oases teeming with life above the sagebrush, secreted away in the vast high desert. A description of the park published in Smithsonian magazine, November 1987, serves as a fitting coda:
If Yellowstone and Yosemite are diamonds in the nation’s diadem of parks, Great Basin Park is perhaps more like a piece of turquoise. With the exception of Lehman Caves, a cavern whose intricate and beautiful decorations qualify it as a natural marvel by any standard, the park does not so much overpower a visitor, the way the Grand Canyon does, as creep up on him. The bristlecones, the deceptively high peaks…the steep walled glacial lakes and narrow canyons command an appreciation that only gradually—but steadily—shades into awe.
The park’s appeal has to do with silence and space, with the grand lonesome sweep of the country itself, with long vistas and clear air and sudden winds that roar like a locomotive and secret meadows jammed with wildflowers.