Editor’s note: Great Basin is at the top of my national parks wishlist, and I’m grateful to our NPS expert Christian for his glimpse into it! For more of his amazing articles, click here.
In his 1962 book Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck describes the then-fledgling interstate system as “a slash across the nation.” The American freeway is ubiquitous today, but it wasn’t a feature of this nation until the mid 1950s. Steinbeck disdainfully describes the freeway system as a force that allows Americans to disconnect from their surroundings, and traverse the nation while knowing nothing more about it than how I-15 connects to I-70 connects to I-76 connects to I-80. (You just got all the way from LA to New York, by the way.)
Steinbeck would’ve liked Great Basin National Park, though. It’s about as far from an interstate as you can get in the United States. Great Basin is right off Route 50 – dubbed by Life Magazine a generation ago as the “Loneliest Road in America.” The night prior to driving out to Great Basin, I spent the evening watching The Bachelorette in a hotel casino on the old Vegas strip; it’s hard to imagine more diametrically opposed places than the Vegas casinos on I-15 and the quiet park out on the Loneliest Road. The places are similar, though, in the awe they inspire as you see them in the distance.
When driving into Las Vegas, you see pyramids, skyscrapers, and roller coasters rising from the desert floor (and suburbs spread indefinitely in every direction, unencumbered by any sort of geographical boundary). When driving towards Great Basin you’ll see wild turkeys, then impossibly tall mountains rising from the desert floor (and sagebrush spread indefinitely in every direction, unencumbered by any sort of geographical boundary).
The park is considered a “sky island” because the mountains that comprise the park are high enough above the desert floor to have a completely different ecosystem. The day that I was there it was raining in some of the park’s high points, but the desert floor was still as dry as ever. The high point in the park, at over 13,000 feet, is over a mile higher than the low point of the park.
Not exactly what most people think when they hear Nevada
The craggy peaks here that rise above the desert floor were shaped by a lot of different geological processes. Most recently, glaciers carved through mountains around ten thousand years ago. Less recently, about five million years ago, much of the park was covered by a shallow sea. The limestone rock that modern tourists see here is actually the accumulation of dead sea creatures sinking to the ocean floor – the weight of the additional layers ends up compressing them into the rock that is now visible.
More stunning vistas
Below the park is Lehman Caves. Though the park now lies in the middle of the desert, even after it was a shallow sea, there was abundant water in the Southwest. The cave system was carved out by this water seeping through the limestone rock for millions of years. Full disclosure: I’m not much of a cave person, and I didn’t go into the caves. In my opinion there are few places less hospitable and inviting to human life than caves. Geologically impressive or otherwise, they tend to give me the heebie jeebies.
You can’t see this in a cave
To me, the most amazing part of the park isn’t the cave system. Here, at the treeline… in a forest… on a mountain… in the desert… is where you’ll find the oldest living things on earth: the Bristlecone Pine. They live around 4,000 years. If your mind isn’t blown, then read this paragraph again. That means they’ve been around for more than 160 human generations. The trees growing here started growing 2,000 years before the peak of the Roman Empire, and they started growing about 4,000 years before Zac Clark won the critically acclaimed television hit, The Bachelorette.
Like it? Pin it!