The Snake Range is one of the alpine jewels of Nevada. People could argue whether the Snake Range or the Ruby Mountains are Nevada’s finest alpine range, but I prefer the Snake Range because it is higher, more remote, more pristine, and home to bristlecone pines, the world’s oldest living things (see the separate section below). Much of the Snake Range lies within beautiful Great Basin National Park, which seems like a displaced piece of the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada somehow thrown into the vastness and seeming emptiness of Nevada’s basin-and-range topography. Nevada itself is an underappreciated gem of the mountainous West, and though its mountain ranges are not as high or as rugged or as deep as many of the West’s other great ranges are, Nevada’s mountains offer outstanding scenery and, with only a few exceptions, wonderful solitude. And Great Basin National Park, which boasts, as noted already, Rockies- and Sierra-like scenery, is one of the least-visited national parks in the country. No, the Snake Range does not have the thick, deep wilderness that I laud on my Bob Marshall and Yellowstone Ecosystem pages, but it is high, remote, beautiful, and uncrowded.
Also among the many things this island alpine wilderness has going for it is Wheeler Peak, at 13,063’ the highest mountain that lies entirely within Nevada. Boundary Peak, on the other side of the state, is higher, but it is really an arm of a higher mountain that lies within California. Boundary Peak is still the highest point in Nevada, and that cannot be disputed, but many Nevadans consider Wheeler to be the spiritual and symbolic highpoint of the state, and most of them think it is a prettier mountain than Boundary, too. There is a good trail all the way to Wheeler’s summit, and the trail features spectacular views of the Snake Range and the surrounding Great Basin almost every step of the way. During the short forested stretch at the beginning, look for colorful wildflowers. And at the summit itself, you will find, in summer, alpine wildflowers whose vibrancy and very existence defy the austerity of their surroundings. It is an amazing place, and only the expansive views of the Great Basin will remind you that you are in the middle of the desert.
Great Basin National Park is also famous for the Lehman Caves, fascinating caverns that were once a national monument but later became part of the national park after it was created in 1980. Guided tours (fee required) of the caves are available year-round, but access to the rest of the park is difficult between November and May; these high mountains get a lot of snow. A popular off-the-beaten path destination is Lexington Arch, the southernmost well-known attraction in the park. To get there, the Park Service recommends a 4WD vehicle, but just high clearance should be suitable in dry conditions. The hike is short with one moderately steep stretch, and the arch is pretty, but it also bears the scars of litter and graffiti from careless hikers.
Because the rock is typically rotten, there is not much known good technical climbing in the Snake Range, but adventuresome climbers might want to try finding a route up Wheeler’s sheer east face. A classic climb/hike of the area would be to hike up Wheeler, traverse to Jeff Davis Peak, the second-highest peak in the park, and then drop down into the Wheeler Peak basin, where one can pick up a trail going back to the parking area. This route will involve some Class 3 maneuvers and will give a bit of everything great the park has aboveground—high peaks, alpine wildflowers and lakes, a “glacier,” and bristlecone pines.
The Snake Range is not limited just to Great Basin National Park. It continues for a bit north of U.S. 6/50, its most notable feature being Mount Moriah and the wilderness area of the same name. Although Mount Moriah is not in the national park, it is included on this page as a Child since it is a part of the Snake Range.
What is the most spectacular tree in the country? Is it the live oak or the bald cypress or the sycamore of the Southeast? The paper birch so common in New England and the Great Lakes? The elegant quaking aspen that graces much of the West but grows elsewhere, too? The stately western red cedar, coast redwood, or giant sequoia?
It would be hard to argue that bristlecone pines are the most beautiful trees in America, but it would be easy, if not absolute, to argue that they are the most amazing and most spectacular. If ancient is not the adjective most commonly used to describe them, then gnarled probably is. Sometimes called “living driftwood,” they are almost nightmarishly twisted, and they live where no other trees can. The higher they are, the more gnarled and polished and rock-like they are. And, interestingly, the highest ones tend to be the oldest. They often look like weathered dead trees, and sometimes a thin strip of bark is all that actually lives. They are, in my opinion, the most admirable, speech-defying example of life in the world. Exactly how does something survive so long and grow so large in such harsh conditions?
Bristlecone pines are, I understand, the oldest living things on the planet. I recall once reading about some kind of bacteria or fungus believed to be older, but until I have confirmation, the bristlecones will reign for me as the true old men of the mountains. So how old are they? The oldest known specimen, the Methuselah tree (named for the oldest Biblical figure) in the Schulman Grove of California’s White Mountains (wisely, the rangers protect this tree by refusing to reveal its exact location), is close to 6000 years old. 6000. I did not mistakenly add an extra zero. Previously, the oldest living specimen was in the Snake Range, but it was cut down. No, it was not some heartless logging company or greedy collector who ordered this pillaging but a scientist who wanted to know the age of the tree. The first assigned cutter refused to do as he was told, but he was “replaced.” Now, there are ways to determine a tree’s age without engaging in the bitterly ironic act of killing it to find out.
An interpretive trail through a grove in the Snake Range includes a sobering sign in front of a mature, living bristlecone that looks somewhat dead. The sign notes that the tree was a sapling when the great pyramids of Egypt were built. Have a little of that for some perspective. And think of that the next time you wonder why some seemingly worthless parcel of land or little bug is the object of someone’s push to protect it. The world is much older, more complex, and bigger than we are.
Great Basin’s well-known grove is accessible by a moderately steep 2-mile (RT) trail from Wheeler Peak Campground. Maps show other groves that are inaccessible by trail. Who knows what wonders await the intrepid hiker in those places?
Other excellent places to see and admire bristlecone pines are in California’s White Mountains (Schulman and Patriarch Groves—the former has the world’s oldest and the latter the largest), Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park (CA)—seeing bristlecones on the summit ridge framing the sprawling salt pan 11,000’ below is an unforgettable experience, Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park (UT), the House Range (UT), and Windy Ridge in Colorado’s Mosquito Range.
Getting ThereThe closest town with a wide range of services is Ely, Nevada, about 60 miles west of the park. From Ely, follow U.S. 6/50 east through increasingly beautiful mountain scenery and almost entirely undeveloped country until you see signs directing you to Baker. Baker is then about a ten-minute drive south, and a well-marked road departs Baker for the park’s headquarters and Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, the principal means of access to the high country. The roads to Baker Creek and Snake Creek also provide access to trailheads that climb high into the mountains; these roads branch off from near the visitor center and south of Baker, respectively.
From the east, Great Basin National Park is about a two-hour drive from Delta, Utah through empty, often-beautiful country along U.S. 6/50. Some of the highlights along this drive include views of usually dry Sevier Lake and the spectacular House Range (see the SP pages for Notch and Swasey Peaks).
Baker has gas, a small grocery store, a restaurant, and a nice little motel called the Silver Jack Motel. The remoteness of the area means that commodity prices aren’t cheap (the motel has very reasonable rates, though), but the local people are very friendly.
Red TapeNo entry fees are required. There are fees for the developed campgrounds and for cave tours. Backpacking and climbing permits are not required, either, but voluntary registration with the rangers is advised.
CampingThere are three campgrounds along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. All are first-come, first-served and are only open seasonally. The highest, Wheeler Peak Campground, is at the end of the winding 12-mile drive and often fills on summer weekends. Nevertheless, it is not hard to avoid crowds in this park.
There are also campgrounds at Baker Creek and Snake Creek, both primitive (no flush toilets).
Backcountry camping out here is a wonderful, mostly quiet experience, and permits are not required at this time. U.S. 6/50 also passes through a lot of BLM land, and dispersed camping is widely available.