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Great Basin's Wheeler Peak

Image: Marketa Mark

The hike to the summit of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park (nps.gov/grba) is tops on my list of things to do while exploring this hardly visited eco-jackpot, just a few miles west of the Utah-Nevada state line. But when a neighboring camper mentions he and his wife suffered headaches and other unsavory symptoms of altitude sickness when climbing the peak, my resolve weakens.

“Hey, I’m acclimated,” I tell him. “I live at 7,000 feet.” But the Ogden resident is pretty spry himself, and so is his much younger (than I) wife. I am worried.

A guidebook advises hikers to get an early start on the three- to five-hour trek to the summit, avoiding afternoon thunderstorms that regularly harass the naked peak above the tree line. It’s just before noon as we reach the top. We are sprinkled on a bit, but there is nary a rumble of thunder. The day before, lightning sent several drenched hikers scurrying. They reported feeling heat and the electrical charge. Though a bit of a gamble, the hike is well worth the risk. This is Nevada, after all.

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Lehman Caves can be explored on a 90-minute guided tour.

Image: Perry Baker

Great Basin National Park is to the camper, the hiker, and the urban refugee what Wendover is to the gambler: the jackpot, mother lode, pot of gold—particularly during the fall, when aspen forests swaddling Wheeler Peak are in full color.

But the bonanza doesn’t end there. Great Basin is the national park system’s best-kept secret—close enough to get to in an afternoon, but far enough off the beaten path that on the Friday before Labor Day we found a primo campsite abutting an alpine meadow, popular with resident mule deer.

As national parks go, Great Basin is pretty much a newcomer. Congress passed the Great Basin National Park Act in 1986, preserving 120 square miles of rugged beauty and initiating an interpretive platform for the entire Great Basin region. It is the only national park wholly within Nevada’s borders, but we meet more Utahns than Nevada residents on the trail. It’s also one of the few national parks with no entrance fee, but the cheap cost of admission doesn’t mean basic services are lacking. The Wheeler Peak Campground, where we stayed, has improved pit toilets, potable water, and 37 roomy campsites, many of which back up to lovely Lehman Creek.

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The creek, along with many other park attractions, is named for Absalom Lehman. In 1885 the rancher and his horse fell into a large hole on the lower flank of the peaks. As the story goes, the horse was suspended in the hole for several days. In the process of liberating the animal, Lehman discovered the splendid caves below that would one day bear his name. He made the many chambers accessible, developing them with techniques considered shocking by today’s standards: late-19th-century spelunkers were permitted to whack off souvenir stalactites and stalagmites, and in one large room of mineral magic early tourists used candles to light the way and char names and dates on the ceiling. Despite the environmental assaults, the caves’ beauty remains, making the 90-minute Lehman Caves tour a must-do.

Great distances between the Snake Range and major population centers make the skies above Great Basin some of the darkest in the country, presenting vast opportunities for a peep at the universe. Look for park ranger–led stargazing programs offered at dusk in campground amphitheaters.

The park’s trail system is a hiker’s windfall. Alpine Lake Loop is a 2.7-mile trek meandering by pristine Stella and Teresa Lakes. Not to be overlooked is the Bristlecone/Glacier Trail, with a side interpretive loop through a stand of bristlecone pines that have witnessed an epoch or two. Some of the trees are more than 3,000 years old.

But before I can further play the rich hand dealt Great Basin by Mother Nature, the long weekend is over. This park is a winner. I’ll be back.

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