It is pitch black. We are 7000 feet up, on the side of a mountain, our car tires inches from the unguarded edge. Our ears pop as my sister drives higher. We go around a bend. Headlights. She swerves to avoid the oncoming car, slamming on the brakes to stop us from driving off the edge. The car passes. We all laugh the delusional laugh of people who have just avoided death. We drive up the mountain, more slowly this time.
There is no easy way to get to Great Basin. It is a lonely national park on the east side of Nevada, almost touching Utah. My guess is most people fly into Salt Lake City and then drive several hours to reach it. We drove from the center of Utah, taking Route 21.
Route 21 is a surreal drive.
There is no one and nothing. Plains and valleys surround you on all sides and the only guide line is the road that stretches for miles into the distance in front of you. On our several hour trip, we saw two other cars.
Sitting in the backseat, my forehead pressed against the window, I was overcome with the feeling of possibility, of promise. Is this the feeling of Manifest Destiny? I assumed all the families who pulled up their lives to travel the Oregon Trail were terrified. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they felt hope instead.
There are a lot of camp grounds at Great Basin. It really is in the middle of nowhere. Most of the hotels are in Ely, over an hour away. There is an inn in the town next to Great Basin. One inn. We made a reservation at the Grey Cliffs Campground just in case we were too late for walk-in camping.
We didn’t need to worry. Despite it being after dark, there was plenty of spaces at the Wheeler Peak campground. We camped next to another family but there was so much space between sites we forgot they were there. There is water and vault toilets.
Nature called at 3am but I couldn’t find the flashlight. I decided to see how good my night vision was and opened the tent. There was no moon but light from just the stars flooded in. I woke everybody up and we stood outside, just looking at the stars. We were 10,000 feet up.
Alpine Lakes Trail
There are several hikes at Wheeler Peak campground. There is an 8 or so mile hike to the top of Wheeler Peak, a 3 mile hike to a glacier, and a 3 mile hike to see two alpine lakes. We booked a Lehman cave tour at 9am so we had limited time.
The Alpine Lake Trail winds its way up the mountain gradually. Never having done mountain trails before, I had no idea how much I was missing.
I felt cradled by the mountain ridges above me as I walked next to strange looking trees. Chipmunks and birds flitted in and out of my vision as I looked around in child-like awe. We were the only ones on the trail and if felt like the mountain was there just for us.
TIP: Bring the little map with you.
The trail crisscrosses with other trails and gets a little confusing. I highly recommend you bring the little map from the “newspaper” with you.
We finally made it to Stella Lake. It was worth everything.
After taking far too many pictures of Stella Lake and realizing we were going to be late for the cave tour if we didn’t get going, we got going.
A mountain stream with plants clinging to its side alerted us to the lake up ahead.
Teresa Lake is little more than a mountain pond. Not as spectacular as Stella Lake but there is a nice shot of some snow in August.
Having the trail all to ourselves made me feel like a pioneer, an explorer, a mountain man, a throw-back to a time when people walked. I felt like I was nostalgia personified.
Technically, we had done the scenic drive the night before when we drove up the mountain. This time we got to actually see it.
While seeing the valley below from 10,000 feet up is cool, I wouldn’t go to Great Basin just for the scenic drive. Because it was a mountain, there were no turn offs and most of it was concealed by a line of trees.
In this case, it really is about the destination (the hikes at the end) than the journey (the scenic drive).
Lehman Caves Tour – Grand Palace Tour
We finally found all the people. They were waiting for the tour to start. The Lehman Caves Visitors Center was full of people waiting for the cave tour. Several people would have to wait a little longer because they tried to buy their tickets the day of.
TIP: Buy your tickets in advanced, online.
The Grand Palace Tour is an hour and a half. If I could do it again, I’d go for the Lodge Room Tour. An hour and a half is a long time and I was itching to get out by the end.
One member of our group was claustrophobic. He made it two feet inside the tunnel entrance and had to turn around. I was bummed because according to the Internet, the cave gets really big once you are inside. Well, let me dispel that myth for you. The cave is not the size of a Grand Palace or Lodge Room.
TIP: Don’t go if you are claustrophobic.
The largest room was the size of a good-sized living room. And at some points we had to turn ourselves sideways just to fit. I’m 5″2′.
Luckily, the visitors center has a 45 minute video so people who don’t go on the tour can kill some time that way.
That being said, it’s a pretty cool cave. The tour is maxed out at 20 people. We stayed near the back so we couldn’t hear much of what the ranger was saying. He did come back to us and show us some cool things every once in a while.
One thing I did not expect was all the cool colors. It isn’t just grey rock down there. There were pinks and beiges and yellows and pure whites.
The structures were really beautiful. I’ve been in a few caves but mostly they are just splits in the rock, cold and colorless, dead.
Lehman Cave felt alive.
If you’re one of those cave-heads (a term I may or may not have just made up), Lehman Cave is actually pretty cool. There’s a lot of geology going on in there. There are things called disks that apparently a very small percentage of caves have, and Lehman Cave had a ton of them. No one knows how they are formed.
If you hate people but love national parks, go to Great Basin! I think Isle Royale in Michigan is the least visited national park but Great Basin might be a close second. The cave tour was a little crowded but the trails and camping were not.