Great Basin is probably one of the least known national parks, partly as it was created recently, in 1986, prior to which only the caverns were officially recognized, as the Lehman Caves National Monument (established in 1922), and partly as the area is far from any other famous landmark, and not reached by any major cross-country road.
Great Basin National Park was set aside on 27 Oct 1986 by then President Ronald Regan. When we look back at those Presidents that stand out as protectors of the environment President Reagan isn’t one that would end up on many lists.
Long before he became president, actor Ronald Reagan visited Death Valley in 1948 when it was still a national monument. Reagan was a regular host of the wildly popular “Death Valley Days.” Sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax – which was appropriate because the discovery of borax was pivotal in the history of the region – “Death Valley Days” was originally a radio program and then also achieved stunning success as a television program, airing for 16 years before its final episode in 1968.
As governor of California Ronald Reagan set aside 145,000 acres of land for the State Park System and as President by the time Reagan left office his administration had added 38 million acres to various categories of permanent federal protection (3.1 million acres of additional national park land, and 11.7 million to the National Wilderness Preservation System, for example), and nearly 5,000 miles to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program and the National Estuarine Reserves.
There is an “absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment… The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our roads and other public projects must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance.” – President Ronald Reagan
The concept of protecting natural treasures for future generations can be traced back to the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson wrote about the benefits of open space and the danger of cutting down all the trees. He also sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a voyage of discovery to catalog the nature in the great West, which led to significant additions to the zoological and botanical knowledge of the continent. President Thomas Jefferson’s public lands legacy centers on the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Doubling the size of the country, the United States acquired territory that formed 15 new states and included the future sites of many national parks, including Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.
“Our national parks have allowed generations to discover history, nature, and wildlife in irreplaceable ways. From the highest peaks of Denali to the lowest dips of the Grand Canyon, families around our country enjoy the splendor of the outdoors.” – President Obama
On December 28, 2016 at the end of his presidency President Barack Obama created two new national monuments in Utah and Nevada, furthering his administration’s environmental legacy. The new monuments, Bears Ears and Gold Butte, cover over 1.5 million acres of land, which brings the total land Obama has protected during his presidency to more than 550 million acres — more than double the amount that the well-known conservationist Theodore Roosevelt did. Throughout his time in office, Obama used the Antiquities Act, which Roosevelt signed into law in 1906, to set aside public land for conservation. His efforts were largely applauded by environmentalists but criticized by some conservatives for placing too much land under federal control.
“It’s not just the iconic mountains and parks that we protect. It’s the forests where generations of families have hiked and picnicked and connected with nature.” – President Obama
As long as the Antiquities Act (1906) remains intact the President retains the authority to designate national monuments to protect federal land. Presidents from both parties have used the Antiquities Act to protect important public lands for more than 100 years, it would seem that the more dysfunctional Congress is, the more important the Antiquities Act becomes. On Wednesday, April 26 it is expected that President Trump will sign an executive order to require that the Interior Department secretary examine all national monument designations in the past 21 years (more than 50 National Monuments) to discern whether the size and scope are within the law’s intent. Although it doesn’t seem that this will threaten the Act itself it may begin the process of resizing or even rescinding the monuments under review. I guess only time will tell.
“The idea of preserving in a national grouping such spots of scenic beauty and historic memory originated here in this country…In Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, other countries have followed our pioneering example and set aside their most magnificent scenic areas as national treasures for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower
Back to Great Basin National Park
As mentioned above, Great Basin National Park is remote by any standard. Close to US 50, dubbed ‘The Loneliest Road in America’, and the only trans Nevada route that crosses into Utah for 210 miles. Just 7 miles from the state border, another lonely road (NV 487) branches off; the park entrance is along a side road near the little town of Baker, after which NV 487 continues into Utah, becomes UT 21 and traverses wide-open, empty lands for 120 miles before eventually joining I-15.
Great Basin National Park consists of 77,180 acres of federal land. The park includes much of the South Snake Range, a great example of a desert mountain island. From the sagebrush at its alluvial base to the 13,063 foot summit of Wheeler Peak, the park includes streams, lakes, alpine plants, abundant wildlife, a variety of forest types including groves of ancient bristle-cone pines and numerous limestone caverns, including beautiful Lehman Caves. I was told that Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain that is fully in the state of Nevada (Boundary Peak is the highest peak in terms of elevation, however, it is on the stateliness and has only 253 feet of clean prominence and so is usually considered a subsidiary peak of Montgomery Peak in California).
The park was established to set aside exceptional examples of the Great Basin region. Great Basin is a hydrologic region (watershed) where all precipitation, whether in the form of rain or snowmelt, that occurs in the region stays in the basin where it either evaporates or filters down into underground aquifers never reaching the ocean. The region covers over 200,000 squares miles, extending from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the West to the Wasatch Range in the east and from Idaho in the north to southern Nevada.
I stayed in an RV Park in Baker Nevada just outside the park entrance (Baker is about as small a town as they come) and spent two days exploring the park. A week or so before arriving at Great Basin I learned through the “Gray Bears” list serve (retired state park folks) that a retired State Parks Ranger – Steve Moore – was working as a seasonal NPS Interpretive Ranger at Great Basin. We made contact through email and he stopped by to say hello the evening I arrived in Baker. Steve was able to give me some great advice on things to see and do while visiting the park and it is always great to see a familiar friendly face in my travels.
While at Great Basin I would have loved to see the Bristlecone Pines but like many travelers I was unaware of how much snow there might be in a park in Nevada! With Wheeler Peak at just over 13,000′ and the pines near the top I certainly should have known better. So saving a trip to the pines for another warmer part of the year I hiked the 6 mile Pole Canyon/Timber Creek loop which gave me some good evolution gain, a great workout, marvelous views and areas of snow to plow through as I climbed to over 8,000′ elevation. It was a great hike and one where I felt a sense of accomplishment when done.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey
A visit to Great Basin wouldn’t be complete without a tour of Lehman Caves. First discovered in 1885 by Absolom Lehman, the cave is an excellent example of a limestone solution cavern. Famous for it’s abundant shield formations, the cave contains several unusual formations that are found very few places on earth. After connecting with Ranger Steve I made reservations to attend his afternoon cave tour. Due to the popularity of these tours it is recommended that you make reservations ahead of your visit to be sure and get in on one.
Our group consisted of a couple of families with very engaged kids that were great to watch as the explored the cave. I met a great family from back east that was traveling with the goal of exposing their 5 (almost 6) year old son to all of the National Parks. They were accomplishing their goal in chunks taking vacations and flying to different areas to hit the parks. So far they had explored 35 National Parks and had plans to see the rest. It was very inspiring to talk with them and share experiences. Reminded me of the trips that Matt and I took as he was growing up.
“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased; and not impaired in value.” – President Theodore Roosevelt
The goal for my last day at Great Basin was to off-road to the Lexington Arch Trailhead and hike to the arch located on the edge of the southern part of the park. The highway to get to the arch crossed into Utah before the turnoff on a dirt road heading back into the mountains. Not maintained but passable with my Jeep Wrangler until the second creek crossing. The road had been washed out after a fire and mudslides resulting from heavy rains. Caution overcame the desire to see the arch as with the muddy river it was impossible to tell how deep it was in the middle – as I wasn’t about the take off my shoes and wade across (way too cold) I instead took the north fork road and did some hiking into the mountains with Cory along the dirt road.
Cory had a great time running and playing in the snow on the road and the scenery was worth the drive and the hike.
Next trip to Great Basin will be in the Summer or Fall when I can get up to 11,000′ in elevation, visit the Bristlecone Pines, and stand in the majesty of those ancient trees, the oldest living things on earth.
“Laws change; people die; the land remains.” – Abraham Lincoln