Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hike beneath Nevada’s second highest peak

Wheeler Peak with alpine flowers.
Photo courtesy Grand Basin NPS.
Alpine Lakes Loop, courtesy Great Basin NPS.

Alpine Lakes Loop passes two tarns beneath ridge

Families can hike a mountainous landscape almost two miles above sea level on the Alpine Lakes Loop at Nevada’s Great Basin National Park.

The 2.3-mile trail sits in a national park so remote that its night skies ranks as among the country’s darkest. It’s roughly midway between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, and there’s no freeway nearby…and there’s no entrance fee to the park either.

Because of the high elevation, July through September mark the best time to visit the visit. In fact, snow typically closes the road the rest of the year.

To reach the trailhead, from U.S. Hwy. 50 turn south onto Nevada Hwy. 487. In Baker, Nevada, turn west onto Nevada Hwy. 488. After entering the park, turn right/north onto Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Park in the Bristlecone Trail lot. The trailhead starts along the scenic drive south of the lot. Head right/west on the trail.

You’ll find yourself in a pine and aspen forest with the dramatic sawtooth ridges of the South Snake Range rising about you. Dominating the skyline directly to the south is Wheeler Peak.

The trail starts at just below 10,000 feet above sea level, so don’t be surprised if those first few steps wind you. There truly is less oxygen at higher elevations, so you’ll want to pace yourself and watch for signs of altitude sickness.

Stella Lake and Wheeler Peak
The trail steadily gains elevation gain during the first mile. As doing so, in spots the trees give way to alpine meadows of fairly barren ground.

In just under a mile, the trail reaches Stella Lake. Technically called a tarn, it was created when a glacier scooped out a depression, and as retreating left melted ice trapped in the hole. The lake is no more than 10 feet deep, and during winter it freezes solid.

As the trail heads around the lake’s western side, look on the aspen trunks for dendroglyphs. These are artistic carvings made by sheepherders during the 1800s.

From Stella Lake are excellent views of Wheeler Peak, which at 13,605 feet is the highest point in the park and the second highest in Nevada. It features an active rock glacier. Also visible to the east is Jeff Davis Peak; at 12,777 feet, it’s the park’s second highest and Nevada’s third highest mountain.

Immediately southeast of Stella Lake, the trail reaches its highest point, just shy of 10,440 feet. Two miles above sea level is 10,560 feet.

Lehman Creek wildflowers
The trail gradually slopes downward from there, coming to Teresa Lake at about 1.6 miles from the starting point. The spring-fed Lehman Creek flows into the lake and supports a variety of summer wildflowers, including Parry’s primrose, penstemon, and phlox, all set against vibrant green grass. Butterflies are abundant here as well.

Heading northeast, the trail crosses and then briefly parallels Lehman Creek. About 0.2 miles from the lake, the path forks. The spur to the right heads to bristlecone cones and the Wheeler Peak Glacier; the additional mile of walking gains 600 feet in elevation. To complete the loop, however, go left.

As heading closer to and below the 10,000 feet mark, Engelmann spruce and limber pines grow thicker. In about a half-mile from the spur, the trail crosses a branch of Lehman Creek and then reaches the road you drove in on.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.