We came to Baker Nevada (population 120) for the sole purpose of seeing Great Basin National Park. It's one of the smaller of the 58 places designated a National Park, and one of the more out-of-the-way being hundreds of miles away from the closest big towns like Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. The 90,000 visitors they see during an entire year is about what some of the bigger parks have during a long weekend. Created in 1986, it's also one of the newer parks. Until designated a National Park, much of the area was a National Forest and the well explored Lehman Caves, a centerpiece of the new Park, was a National Monument.
Since we were being chased by predicted weather... nasty cold rainy snowy blustery winter weather... we made the decision yesterday, Saturday, to do two days of travel in one and shorten our visit at Great Basin to just one precious day, Sunday. That allows us to drive far enough South, and to lower elevations, on Monday in order to escape the worst of this weather, due to arrive on Tuesday.
After setting up a minimal camp in Baker Saturday evening, we made plans to drive to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center on Sunday morning. We arrived about 8:30am and were able to buy tickets for the 9am tour of the Caves. There are a bunch of caves within the Park boundary, but Lehman is the most famous and the only one open to the public on a daily basis.
First found by a rancher named Lehman in the 1880's, these caves have been through a lot in the past 130 years. During the late 1800's and early 1900's, the owners sold access to the caves for $1, a considerable sum of money in those days. That dollar bought three things... access to the cave for a day, usually unescorted, a candle lantern for light, and the right to take home a souvenir... any stalactite or stalagmite or any other cave formation you could break off and carry away. Why, for a while, parties were held in the cave, and boy scouts would camp in the cave... it was a local amusement, entertainment, and a natural gift shop.
The cave was designated a National Monument in 1922 and fell under the auspices of the US Forest Service in 1933. During the 20's and 30's a growing number of people began to see the cave as something that should be preserved. The Civilian Conservation Corps was responsible for cleaning up the cave and making some improvements during the later 30's.
Despite the trauma the cave has endured in the past, it's still a magnificent thing to see. Over many millions of years, drops of water pick up minute quantities of minerals while seeping through the rocks and ground above the cave, eventually seep into these cave spaces, and, ever so slowly, deposit their cargo of minerals onto the cave structures built by the trillions of drops that preceded them -- adding an infinitesimal layer to the magnificent natural work of art. The cave is still "alive" and still growing. Many of the stalactites broken off by early cave visitors have new "mini-stalactites" growing from the bottom of their "stumps" -- it's taken about a hundred years to grow them about a half inch. Caves have a time scale all their own.
Cave tours are great for low-light photography, especially since most caves are artificially lit to dramatically highlight the best features and structures of the cave. We got a few good shots that Dar will have online soon. Oooo's and Ahhhh's are common as darkened spaces are suddenly lit and the scale of what you're looking at becomes far bigger than you first thought.
But sometimes it's best to put the camera away and just absorb the incredible natural sculpture... wonder at the timescale needed to do it... and hope that it can be preserved so our Grandkids can someday marvel likewise.
After the cave tour we headed up the road to Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain in the Park at just a hair over 13,000 feet. Along the way we stopped at a viewpoint pull-off and ate our picnic lunch. It's possible to drive to the 10,000 foot level of the mountain, where there's a number of trailheads and a campground that's open in the summer months. Our objective was to take a 4 mile hike, round trip, to a grove of bristlecone pines which are among the oldest organisms living on the planet.
Snow had already fallen on these mountains a week or so ago, and at the 10,000 and 11,000 foot level where our hike was today, it was 4 to 6 inches deep the entire way. The hike is classified as a moderate one, with an elevation change of about 800 feet, and a trail that clings to the sides of steep slopes for much of the way. The sky was bright blue and there wasn't a cloud to block the sun. We were determined to see these ancient trees that few people ever see. Bristlecone's like high, rough, rocky conditions and they grow best in clusters or groves. They thrive in adversity and hardship. The best examples of them are at the highest elevations, right at the tree-line, in the toughest conditions.
After an hour and a half of hiking, climbing, on a snowy and icy trail, there we were... among them. We walked amidst these 3,000 and 4,000 year old living trees and I found it hard to talk, to vocalize my feelings. They're not tall, by tree standards, and they all look like their environment... rough, tough, gnarly, weathered. Some of the older ones have portions that are dead, but other sections continue clinging to life with vigor. They've adapted, successfully I'd say. They grow very slowly and their wood is extremely hard and strong -- so strong they'll continue standing for many years after death. We saw one example that was still standing despite having died before Christopher Columbus discovered America... standing as it's own monument to it's adversity-filled life.
In addition to a great experience, the day has given me evidence that may come in handy with our grandkids someday, proof that Dar and I are NOT the oldest things on earth.
At Great Basin National Park...