Archive: Bristlecone Pine Forest

Radiator Explosions, Glacier Scaling and the Bristlecone Pine Forest of Great Basin National Park (#29 out of 59)

Great Basin National Park is around four hours from Salt Lake City, UT, but since most wouldn’t consider Salt Lake a point of reference, I’m not sure how much that helps. Located along the Central-Eastern edge of Nevada along the Utah border, Great Basin is an imposing mountain range that rises from nothing and boasts an alpine and sub-alpine ecosystem around 20 minutes after passing your first depressing slot machine.


From what I could gather, Great Basin’s claim to fame is that it’s a mountain range that fails to drain. There aren’t any lakes, rivers, or – for that matter – any discernible life at all in the surrounding desert. It’s a forested stretch of peaks where the weather turns violent every afternoon without any way for those elements to drain. The result is a mountain range mirage that appears after a long day of driving that contains gorgeous alpine lakes, pristine forests, wildlife, a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way, and some the oldest trees on the face of the Earth. During my visit, it also hosted an army of Mormons who were celebrating their upcoming Pioneer Day, and they too lacked an effective way to drain into the desert.

To say that there’s nothing between Salt Lake City and Great Basin would be a disservice to the meth addicts and ghost towns through which I feared my jalopy would break down. The average temperature during the drive was just shy of the Sun. Salt flats baked the horizon and the radio looped around like a centrifuge in its futile attempts to pick-up a station. Four hours after departing Salt Lake City, you finally cross into the state of Nevada. But this wasn’t like Stateline or Tahoe, that tries to turn it into a sad celebration of sorts. This corner of Nevada had nothing but a dusty motel with slot machines and a gas station surrounded by a desert with a looming mountain range and grey sky hovering overhead.


Ten minutes later, I arrived at the town of Baker, Nevada, at the foothills of Great Basin. I got my passport stamped at the national park visitor’s center and was informed all the campsites were full. I had the misfortune of planning this trip the weekend before one of the biggest holidays of the year. Not July 4th, no, this was even bigger. Apparently there is a Utah state holiday called Pioneer Day, which celebrates when some Mormons did something Mormony and the entire region goes nuts. Not nuts like drink alcohol or caffeine. No, instead they all descend on Great Basin National Park and fill-up all the campsites.

There was only one option in the town itself and it consisted of an RV park down a gravel road behind a bar. As soon as I arrived in the RV park, I was greeted by a shirtless man whose entire torso was covered in bandages. His mother rushed over to explain that he had just been the victim of an exploding radiator while trying to fix his car. The man held ice to the bandages while circling the campground in a daze and his mom hurried around to make sure he was all right. In a weird way, this was both the last thing I expected to find and exactly what I figured I would find at an RV park along the Utah-Nevada border.


All their regular campsites and RV plots were full because of Pioneer Day, so the best they could offer me was to pitch my tent over a pile of woodchips in the corner of the park. My other option would have been trying the nearest state park campground – another two hours away. So, at a decent expense for a day trip, four-hour drive across nothing and watching a guy tend to his second-degree radiator burns, I got to camp on top of some mulch in the corner of a Baker, Nevada campsite while using my rental to shield the plot from any RVs that might not realize this was my homestead for the evening. And I was lucky to find it. Considering that I hit this low point on just about every national park adventure, you would think that I’d have more considerations for these stupid trips I take.

I drove into the park at night because Great Basin is designated as a Dark Skies spot, and it totally lived up to the expectation. Could I have driven two hours to the Mojave and seen the same thing? Best not to think about that. Was it unreal to see the Milky Way sitting in the middle of a Nevada Basin? Yeah, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. There were volunteers who did an astronomy presentation and trained a telescope on Saturn’s rings. The cluster of stars stretching from one horizon to the other felt like I was sitting in a screensaver, and right before the clouds rolled in, I was pretty sure it was worth the adventure. I wove down the mountain and back to my tent site just as the thunderstorm rolled in. It was a nice distraction from the splinters doing their best to puncture the sleeping pad and exploding radiators that greeted my arrival.


Day two involved an early wake-up and drive towards the summit of the park’s main attraction, Wheeler Peak. This is a little annoying, but half the stuff online says that Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in Nevada. The other half says that there’s part of a California mountain in the state of Nevada that’s taller than Wheeler. This makes it difficult to say, “Went to the tallest point in Nevada,” because it’s followed by a difficult explanation over semantics that involves surveying, engineers and barometric pressure that’s still all dependent on the position of the North American tectonic plate at any given moment. Either way, it’s a tall mountain. Wheeler Peak contains a Bristlecone Pine Forest, which contains some of the oldest trees on the planet, but again the crown for the oldest ones – at over 5,000 years old – reside in California.

The temperature flips every five minutes as you rise higher and higher along the road to the summit. One second you have an unimpeded view of the entire Utah-Nevada desert, the next you’re fighting a blinding thunderstorm. And near the top of this mountain are a few stellar hikes that feature alpine lakes and the only glacier in Nevada. It should be noted that the glacier was about the size my one-bedroom apartment back in L.A., but it was still, technically, a glacier. It looked less like a glacier and more like someone had left some snow lying around. I withheld the urge to convert the glacier into a snowman and continued along the trail. The reward for this adventure was finding a grove of bristlecone pine trees, some of the oldest living organisms on the planet.


In some ways, seeing these 3,000-year-old statues was more impressive than the awe-inspiring redwoods and sequoias. Standing beside a redwood is unmatched, but they are almost too enormous to fully appreciate. Like my brain can’t entirely wrap its head around how tall of a tree they are because they’re truly massive and there is no way to put them into scale. It’s different when you stand beside a mangled, basketball-player sized bristlecone pine tree that is twisted from the wind and wildlife. These trees have been around since Rome was an empire. They look like they’re not going to live until next week. They are golden-hued, spindly and unique, in contrast to the majesty of the Redwoods. The fact that they survived the onslaught of Nevada’s only puddle-sized glacier is impressive enough.

Part of it also is the work it takes to get the reward of being in their presence. In Sequoia National Park, you park at a crowded lot and take a shuttle to circle big trees with tens of thousands of other selfie-snapping tourists. You have to wait in line to get a photo. At Great Basin, you have to drive four hours from Salt Lake City through nothing. You have to stay at a dodgy RV park with a guy who just burnt himself from a radiator explosion. Then you need to drive to the top of a mountain where the weather changes every five minutes and hike for seven miles. Plus all the ice gear needed to walk across the two feet of glacier that you could probably just circle and avoid on your own accord. And at the end, you get to see these ugly trees that have stuck around longer than anything else on Earth.


I opted against the park’s third main attraction, a tour of Lehman Caves. After visiting Oregon Caves National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, it’s really difficult to get excited about an additional cave tour. There are only so many times you can withstand a tour with pesky children who insist they know the difference between stalagmites and stalactites. The way to remember which is which is that stalactites hold on tight to the ceiling and stalagmites might make me care less about which one is which.

If there’s any kind of takeaway from this somewhat foolhardy adventure to cross off number 29, I guess that it requires the bristlecone pine forest’s stubborn persistence to see all 59 parks in the National Park system. If that’s the goal I set out to achieve, then there are going to be some really unpleasant moments along the way. There will plenty of long drives for measly payoffs and questionable campsites to come. And if the reward is sitting on top of a mountain along the Utah-Nevada border and taking in some of the oldest and coolest trees on the planet after a night of viewing the Milky Way, then sign me up for whatever adventure comes next.


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