Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park in Nevada is a park in the middle of nowhere that not many people have actually heard of it. Of course, I make it my business to know about such parks, so when I was planning a huge National Park trip to neighboring Utah, I included Great Basin. Utah and parts of neighboring states has the greatest concentration of National Parks in the country. By traveling in a loop, you can visit Great Basin in Nevada, Zion and Bryce Canyon in Utah, Grand Canyon (North Rim) in Arizona, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands in Utah, and Mesa Verde in Colorado. I took this trip in the fall of 1998 over a two-week period. Two weeks was enough to see quite a bit in each park, but three weeks would have been much better. I flew into Salt Lake City and started the loop in a counterclockwise direction, hitting Great Basin first and the other parks in the order indicated above. I will talk about Great Basin National Park in this post, followed by the other parks in subsequent posts.

As with many national parks, the part accessible by road is only a small portion of the park. As you would expect, that part of the park has many things to see. Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet (3,982 m), is the second highest point in Nevada, and the road goes up to the 10,160 foot level. At that point, the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail begins ascending 2,900 feet (890 m) to the top on an 8.6 mile (14 km) round trip hike. The hike is a fairly steady climb. As is often the case on a mountain hike, there is a point where you think you are near the top, but it turns out to be just a brief leveling off. As you approach the “top,” the rest of the mountain appears, looming over you. My own name for that point on Wheeler Peak is You-gotta-be-kidding-me Ridge. Well, actually I did not use the word “kidding” at the time. Though it does take work to get to the top, the hike is relatively easy, not counting the normal gasping for breath. The payoff is the view of other mountains, lakes, valleys, and clouds. Because of the relative lack of surrounding scenery, the view is not as grand as at Yosemite or Glacier, but a plain old mountaintop view is still better than almost any other view. Being a bit younger at the time, I didn’t mind dragging my heavy tripod with me, and I took my favorite photo of myself at the top of Wheeler Peak.

The bad thing about being at the top of a mountain is that you need to walk back down. The inexperienced might think that the climb up is harder than the climb down, but I usually find it to be the opposite. While the climb up is difficult, the difficulty consists merely of tired legs and gasping for breath. The difficulty going down is the constant abuse of your knees and the danger of falling. The Wheeler Peak trail is very rocky. The rocks are somewhat smooth and about 6 inches to a foot in length. This makes for very treacherous footing and brutal abuse of the knees. My knees survived fine, but now with older knees I would use trekking poles on the downhill journey.

As great as the Wheeler Peak hike was, the highlight of the park for me was the Bristlecone Pine Trail. I am a tree lover and borderline tree-hugger. To stand next to a 3,000 year old tree was a highlight of my life and a privilege for which I will be forever grateful. There are even older trees in the Inyo National Forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California (Methuselah is almost 5,000 years old), but this was good enough for me. I was disappointed to learn on a recent trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden that bristlecone pines in the United States are no longer the oldest known trees in the world. There is a Norway spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old.

Near the Wheeler Peak and Bristlecone Pine Trails is the Alpine Lakes Loop. This is a nice hike past Stella and Teresa Lakes.

Finally, Great Basin National Park has a cave. Indeed, the original name of the park was Lehman Caves National Monument. I remember that I enjoyed the cave trip, as I always do, but truthfully I do not remember anything about the cave. If you have seen Mammoth Cave or Carlsbad Cavern, there is little need to see Lehman Cave. Of course, if you are there anyway, why not?

Though Great Basin National Park does not have the spectacular scenery of the nearby Utah parks, it is definitely worth a visit, especially for the bristlecone pines. Moreover, Wheeler Peak is probably one of the easiest 13,000 footers. The facilities near the park are rather limited, befitting a park that is in the middle of nowhere. The nearby town of Baker has one motel with seven units and a restaurant or two. It is (or at least was in 1998) refreshingly devoid of the circus-like atmosphere present in many National Park gateway towns.

My visit: September 1998

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New National Park Books

I recently purchased two new National Park books. The first one is Fodor's The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West, which is the second edition of my favorite general National Park guidebook. This new edition has some differences from the first edition, with the disadvantages outweighing the advantages. The photos and maps in the new edition are all in color, which is nice but really rather unnecessary. I got a big kick out of the straight-out-of-the-60s "In Full Color" on the cover. I do like the new feature on how geysers and other thermal features work. Unfortunately, the book is noticeably thicker and heavier than the first edition, which is a big disadvantage if you want to take it along with you. The pages are also stiffer, which makes it harder to flip through. In summary, the new edition is nicer if you are sitting in your La-Z-Boy dreaming about the parks, but not as useful as a book to take along with you.

The other new book is National Geographic's The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks. It is not a guidebook, but rather a book to bring with you to the aforementioned La-Z-Boy. I have not had a chance to read it yet, but flipping through it shows that it is pretty much what you would expect from the title. It looks like it will be a good read. The book is arranged into nine categories: Natural Wonders; By Land; By Sea, Lake, and River; Seasonal Enjoyment; Wildlife; Learning Experiences; Discovering History; Sleeping and Eating; and Other Wonders. Each of these sections has anywhere from 4 to 16 subsections, each with the 10 best. Examples under Natural Wonders include Landmarks, Waterfalls, Caves, and Glaciers. Examples under By Land include Day Hikes, Walk-up Summits, Canyon Hikes, and Day Hikes with a Twist. The authors also supply lists of their own favorite National Parks. Looking at the book as I write this makes me want to abandon the book I am currently reading (China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom by Richard Baum) and start on this one right away!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reading Odyssa

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT) has been the subject of many books recounting peoples' experiences on the trail. About a year ago, I talked about the excellent books, Southbound and Walking Home, by the Barefoot Sisters (jackrabbit and Isis). I have read several others since then, some good, some just okay. I have not had the urge to write about one of them until now.  

Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail by Jennifer Pharr Davis (Odyssa) is the best AT book I have read since the Barefoot Sisters and is one of the best books of any kind I have read lately. Content-wise, I'll still go with the sisters. Their books are much longer and more detailed. However, in two other important ways Odyssa has the sisters beat. First, her writing is excellent, the best writing I have seen in an AT book and excellent writing by any standard. Her words are a pleasure to read. Second, and more importantly, her writing put me in her head better than any other AT book author. Her various comments and observations allowed me to relate to her. I never felt that I was simply observing someone's hike. Many reviews made a big deal about her being a woman. However, I found the book to be about a person hiking the AT, interesting to anyone who enjoys such books.

Every once in a while I run across a phrase or idea in a book that makes me sit there for a few minutes saying "Wow." There was one such passage in Becoming Odyssa (italics mine): "I spent one full afternoon on the rocks of Clarendon Gorge talking with the locals who had retreated to the cool rapids of Mill River to escape the summer heat. They shared their food and their stories with me. And as I sat and listened to them talk about interests ranging from car parts to pottery and football to farming, it struck me that every person I had ever met and would ever meet knew something I didn’t and could do something I couldn’t. It was a simple truth, but I finally realized that the more people I invested in, the smarter and better equipped I would be."

I highly recommend this book. Don't wait for it to come out in paperback. Get it now.