Great Basin National Park is in large part a high-alpine park, but it sits in one of America’s driest, least populated, and most isolated deserts. That contrast is one facet of the diversity that characterizes this region. Within and outside the park are phenomenal landscape features, biotic wonders, unique environments, varied historic sites, and the local colors of isolated towns and ranches. Vast Snake and Spring Valleys, bracketing the national park, are also subjects of one of the West's most divisive environment contests, over what on the surface seems most absent but underground is abundant enough for sprawling Las Vegas to covet itwater.
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Great Basin National ParkA Guide to the Park and Surrounding Area
By Gretchen M. Baker
Utah State University PressCopyright © 2012 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroduction and Description
Just the name "Great Basin" evokes images of broad, empty places, barren of vegetation. Although the Great Basin region covers a huge area, including most of Nevada and portions of Utah, California, and Idaho, most people know little about it. In 1986, Congress did something to change that, passing the Great Basin National Park Act, which included the following: "In order to preserve for the benefit and inspiration of the people a representative segment of the Great Basin of the Western United States possessing outstanding resources and significant geological and scenic values, there is hereby established the Great Basin National Park."
Many would say that this national park, located hours from the nearest shopping mall and interstate highway (figure 1-1), preserves not so much representative features but rather superlative features of the Great Basin. Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet (3,982 m), is the second-highest peak in Nevada and towers over the surrounding landscape. Ancient bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), some over three thousand years old, reside in patches near mountaintops and rock glaciers. Subalpine lakes reflect the high peaks around them while preserving records of past climatic conditions in the layers of silt beneath them. Scenic campgrounds allow visitors to enjoy the park with basic amenities, while those who travel into the backcountry find the peace and serenity that some of the early explorers experienced. Those who venture underground into Lehman Caves are surprised to find such a wide array of cave formations packed so closely together. Many who vacation in Great Basin National Park say that it is what a national park should be: unspoiled vistas, abundant wildlife, clean air, and uncrowded attractions.
Those who take the time to visit agree that Great Basin National Park is one of the nation's best-kept secrets. One of the purposes of the park is to provide interpretive information about the entire Great Basin region. Thus, it is fitting for a guidebook to the park to extend beyond the park boundaries.
Beyond the 120 square miles (310 km2) that are protected and encompassed by the park, Snake Valley lies to the east and Spring Valley to the west (figure 1-2). Covering more than 1,500 square miles (3,880 km2), Snake Valley is over 100 miles (160 km) long and contains massive mountains, deep canyons, rolling foothills, flat playas, spectacular caves, and even marshes in the middle of the Great Basin Desert. Today Snake Valley, with about one thousand residents, has about the same population as when white settlers first reached the valley in the 1860s (Warner 1951, 530; Read 1965, 134), although the characteristics of its inhabitants have changed greatly. Very few Shoshone and Goshute Indians inhabit Snake Valley today; now it is a place of ranchers, miners, government workers, artists, retirees, entrepreneurs, polygamists, communes, and free thinkers. Snake Valley is located in two states, Utah and Nevada. Within the valley and surrounding mountains, one can find a national park, national forest, national wildlife refuge, wilderness areas, and important bird areas. Old-fashioned ranching towns are here, along with ghost towns and some newer communities.
Spring Valley is just as impressive, and so named because of the many springs on the valley floor. Settlers made their homes near some of these springs, which stretch along the length of the valley. No public services are available; thus few people stop to explore. Nevertheless, the valley has its own amazing features, like swamp cedars, or Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopulorum), which normally grow higher on the mountains; a cave providing an important resting spot to over a million migrating bats each year; and numerous old mining areas, some well preserved.
Spring Valley and Snake Valley have long witnessed a variety of travelers. Both valleys are crossed by the Pony Express Trail, the Overland Stage Trail, the Lincoln Highway, the "Loneliest Road in America" (Highway 50), and the American Discovery Trail. Activities abound, including mountain biking, off-highway vehicle riding, hiking, rock climbing, sailing, swimming, canyoneering, and rock hounding. Plants and wildlife are diverse, because the elevations in the area range from 4,300 feet (1,310 m) to 13,063 feet (3,982 m). Animals that make their home here include mountain lions (Puma concolor), elk (Cervus elaphus), bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), Bonneville cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki utah), least chub (Iotichthys phlegethontis), greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), and Great Basin rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus lutosus), to name a few.
After the introductory chapters in part 1, which give an overview of the natural and cultural history of the area, part 2 focuses on the most-visited attraction, Great Basin National Park and its environs. Part 3 describes other places to visit in the area.
Several communities are sprinkled throughout Snake Valley. At the north end, tucked away in the mountains, lies Gold Hill, Utahalmost a ghost town, with a few lingering inhabitants. Moving southward, Callao, Utah, is a collection of ranches centered on the old Lincoln Highway and Pony Express Trail, an oasis of green just before the salt flats that extend north to the Great Salt Lake. Trout Creek, Utah, is in a sea of Russian olive trees (Elaeagnus angustifolia), recent invaders of the last forty years, and most of the homes are tucked away out of sight. Partoun, Utah, has scattered homesteads, with the centerpiece of the West Desert High School and its regulation-size gymnasium along the main road. Gandy, Utah, can be missed in the blink of an eye, since there is no gathering of buildings that designate it; rather, it is considered to be a group of ranches that are within a 10-mile (16 km) radius of each other. EskDale, Utah, is a planned community, with the houses arranged in a semicircle around a community center, landscaped flowers, and an outdoor arena. South of US Highway 6/50 is Baker, Nevadawhat might be called the most booming part of the valley, with a few restaurants, bars, and gas stations. It is the gateway to Great Basin National Park. Garrison, Utah, is a community centered along the highway, with the green, manicured lawn at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) church standing out. Garrison and Baker have the only post offices in either Snake or Spring Valleys at present. Burbank, Utah, consists mostly of abandoned homesteads, but about fifteen people live on scattered ranches within the old boundaries. In total, these communities and the people in Snake Valley have a population density of about two people per square mile. The population density of Spring Valley is even lower.
A few things have changed since the early days. A network of roads now crisscrosses the valleys and extends into the mountain ranges. The federal government now manages over 95 percent of the land, which is administered by a variety of agencies. Among these are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the US Forest Service (USFS), the National Park Service (NPS), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Department of Defense. Contact information for these agencies is in appendix A. Private land is scattered throughout the valley floors, generally where water is available. Many of the early settlers are commemorated by places named after them (appendix B). Along with names, fortunately some other things have stayed the same over the centuries, including clean air, beautiful night skies, and lots of quiet places.
The Great Basin National Park area is a place of extremes. Years with virtually no moisture may follow each otheras they did from 1896 to 1898, or more recently, from 2001 to 2004and then be followed by years of abundant rain and snow. The valley floors generally receive the least precipitation, with about 9.6 inches (24 cm) on average at Shoshone in Spring Valley, about 6 inches (15 cm) on average near EskDale, and less than 6 inches (15 cm) on average in Callao (table 1-1), while the high peaks in the Snake and Deep Creek Ranges can be buried by 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 m) of total snow over the winter. Temperatures also vary greatly. During the summer, daytime temperatures can exceed 100°F (38°C) on the valley floors, although the mountains are usually substantially cooler. At night, the temperature often drops 20 to 40°F (10 to 20°C) due to the low humidity. Temperature swings in the winter are also common, with the coldest temperatures reaching -40°F (-40°C). The low humidity also makes the air exceptionally clear, allowing one to see distant mountain ranges, and at night, distant galaxies.
The average year-round temperature is about 5258°F (1114°C) for elevations at 4,3006,500 feet (1,3101,980 m). This, by the way, is also the temperature of the many caves at these elevations, because caves reflect the average annual temperature of an area. Caves above 10,000 feet (3,048 m) are generally about 34°F (1°C).
The prevailing weather patterns come from the southwest and west. In winter, Pacific storms can bring in moisture unless a large high-pressure system sits in the middle of the Great Basin, which commonly happens for weeks at a time. In early spring, the Tonopah Low pushes the high-pressure system away; this is the period of greatest precipitation. In July and August, monsoons can develop. Monsoon moisture is generally pushed up from Arizona and circulates in a large clockwise motion over several southwestern states. The day can start out sunny, but clouds build up quickly, and by early afternoon thunderheads may produce lightning over the mountains. Sometimes precipitation falls, but often the rain evaporates before reaching the ground, a phenomenon called virga. Without the rain, the dry lightning from the storms can easily ignite wildfires. As the afternoon progresses, some of the clouds may drift into the valleys. The first winter snow is unpredictable, sometimes coming as early as mid-September and sometimes as late as late November.
The Great Basin National Park area is generally far from what is considered unsafe in urban areas. The greatest dangers to people visiting the area include falling asleep while driving (which has caused many fatalities), running out of gas out in the middle of nowhere, running into a cow or wildlife on the highway, and suffering from heat stroke or dehydration.
There are a few potentially dangerous animals. The Great Basin rattlesnake makes its home here, although if you spot one you can count yourself lucky, because few people see them. Like other rattlesnakes, it would rather avoid people and generally rattles its tail if you are within its comfort zone. Always give the rattlesnake plenty of room and you will avoid getting bitten. If you do happen to get bitten by a rattlesnake (which most often happens when a person unwisely picks one up), go to the hospital emergency room in Delta, Utah; Wendover, Utah; or Ely, Nevada, as soon as possible to get the anti-venom. Do not panicGreat Basin rattlesnakes often fail to inject venom when biting, and their venom, even if injected, is the least toxic of the American rattlesnake venoms. However, you will still need medical attention. Mountain lions are also in the area, although they are rarely seen. If you happen to encounter one, look big, make a lot of noise, and it will most likely leave. If you have small children with you, pick them up. No mountain lion attacks on humans have been recorded in the area. There is very little pressure from human developments in Snake and Spring Valleys, so the mountain lions have plenty of space.
The peaks in the area reach elevations of up to 13,063 feet (3,982 m), so some people are affected by altitude sickness. This generally takes the form of a bad headache, sometimes accompanied by nausea and fatigue. Drink plenty of water, eat a little food, and if you do not feel better, go to a lower elevation to recover. If you are trying to climb one of the higher peaks, give yourself a couple of days to acclimate before your attempt, especially if you are coming from sea level. Even experienced mountaineers can be caught off guard. In the 1990s, one gentleman who had summited Mount Everest died on the shoulder of Wheeler Peak.
Both hyperthermia (getting too hot) and hypothermia (getting too cold) can be problems. In the summer be sure to drink plenty of water, at least a gallon (4 L) a day for regular activities, and more if you are exercising. Along with that water, you will need some salt to keep your electrolytes in balance. A sports drink or salty snacks are good to consume regularly. In the winter, dress in layers and avoid cotton next to your skin because it increases the risk of hypothermia if it gets wet. Above all, use common sense.
Other Necessary Information
Gas is often a long way off. The two gas stations in the area are at the Border Inn on Highway 6/50 and the Sinclair station in Baker on Nevada Highway 487. Outside Snake Valley, gas is available 90 miles (145 km) north of Baker in Wendover; 85 miles (137 km) to the east in Hinckley, Utah; 82 miles (132 km) to the south in Milford, Utah; and 65 miles (105 km) to the west in Ely, Nevada. Always be sure to fill up when you can.
Many of the areas described in this book are remote (figure 1-3). Always travel with the thought that you could break down and not be found for daysor in the winter, for weeks. Tell someone where you are going and take enough food, water, and warm clothes to spend a night or two away. Remember that although cell phones work in many places in Spring Valley, they often do not work in Snake Valley. If you cannot get cell phone service, climb to a high peak and you will probably get reception. Help is a long way off in most cases.
Ambulance and fire services are provided in many communities but are run by volunteers who sometimes must travel long distances, so be prepared to wait. You can obtain these services by dialing 911.
Chapter TwoEcology and Natural History
The Great Basin National Park area is located in the Great Basin Desert, one of four deserts in North America. The Great Basin Desert is higher and cooler than the Mojave, Chihuahuan, and Sonoran Deserts. Because of its climate, the Great Basin Desert can be defined by the vegetation it supports, which consists of large amounts of sagebrush (Artemesia spp.), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus spp.), greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis), and shadscale (Atriplex confertifoliaa), with very few cacti.
The term "Great Basin" was coined by one of the first explorers to see the area, John C. Frémont. Frémont crossed the basin in 184344 and again in 1845 on his government-funded expeditions. He realized that all the water is contained in the basin; none of it flows out to the oceans. The Great Basin consists not of one basin but of 90 basins, separated by 160 mountain ranges, most of them trending north-south. The undulating topography is another characteristic of the Basin and range geologic province. The boundaries of this geologic province are larger than the boundaries of the hydrologic Great Basin, extending far down into Mexico. Early geographer C. E. Dutton described the mountain ranges on a map of the Great Basin as an "army of caterpillars crawling toward Mexico" (R. Elliott 1987, 3).
The complex geology of the area is best addressed in Frank DeCourten's excellent book The Broken Land: Adventures in Great Basin Geology (2003) and in John McPhee's Basin and Range (1982). Following is a much simplified version (tables 2-1 and 2-2).
Most of the rocks that make up what is now Great Basin National Park and the surrounding area formed when a large inland sea covered the area, fluctuating in depth over millions of years during the Paleozoic era, creating many layers. The sea dried up during the Mesozoic era, and massive windstorms deposited enormous coastal eolian (windblown) sand dunes that covered most of Utah. Navajo Sandstone, prominent in Zion National Park, was eroded from Snake and Spring Valleys during later uplifting. Granite intrusions during the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods occurred in several places in Snake Valley, including the band in the foothills of the South Snake Range west of Baker, Nevada, and the prominent outcroppings in the Kern Mountains and Deep Creek Range.
Excerpted from Great Basin National Park by Gretchen M. Baker Copyright © 2012 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 The Beginning
1 Introduction and Description 3
2 Ecology and Natural History 12
3 Human History 31
Part 2 Great Basin National Park
4 Lehman Caves and Great Basin National Park Overview 51
5 Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive 73
6 Northern Area: Baker and Strawberry Creeks 89
7 Southern Area: Snake Creek, Big Wash, and Lexington Arch 101
8 Gateway Town: Baker, Nevada 117
9 Getting to Great Basin National Park 133
Part 3 Other Destinations near Great Basin National Park
10 North Snake Range and Mount Moriah Wilderness 151
11 Gandy Warm Springs, Crystal Ball Cave, and Blue Mass Scenic Area 165
12 Deep Creek Range, Partoun, Gold Hill, and Goshute Indian Country 181
13 Pony Express Trail and Callao 199
14 Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge 211
15 Crystal Peak, Confusion Range, and EskDale 223
16 Burbank Hills and Garrison 241
17 Pruess Lake and Farther South 251
18 Osceola and Spring Valley 269
A Contact Information 282
B Snake Valley Place Names 284
C Mammal Species of Snake Valley 290
D Fish, Amphibian, and Reptile Species of Snake Valley 293
E Bird List 295
F Common Plant List 305
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is invaluable for finding the wonderful "off the beaten path" places that are not on regular maps. It is conveniently broken down into sections so you can find what is interesting in each area of the Great Basin. Thanks for giving our vacation a whole new dimension of knowledge and fun.