"In Pursuit of Wildness: Great Basin National Park" by Robert Griego was originally published on the "RoadRUNNER Touring & Travel" magazine website on 6/3/20.
“On the path that leads to Nowhere I have sometimes found my soul.” – Corinne Roosevelt Robinson
Rarely do I ride 1,800 miles just because a stranger suggests an awesome ride, but I had just met a fellow rider, Scott, in Springerville, AZ, and he was already persuading me to take a ride near his home in Utah. He called it the Nebo Loop, but it’s also known as the Mount Nebo Scenic Byway. It’s near Spanish Fork, UT. I had never heard of it.
Honestly, I thought I’d never see him again, but fate has its own ways of correcting our misjudgments. So, 900 miles later, I was looking for Scott’s Fly Shoppe, where we had agreed to meet. Scott is a professional fly fisherman and is known for his quality, hand-tied flies. It was a treat to follow him as our motorcycles climbed higher into the surrounding mountains.
Toward the end of our mountain ride, we stopped for our final pictures and farewells. He pulled out a map and led me west. “On your way back to California, travel on US 50 along America’s loneliest highway and camp at Great Basin National Park [in Nevada],” he said. And with his fading words, this story begins.
MILES FROM NOWHERE
I stop for fuel early, not knowing how far the next gas station is along this sparsely traveled road between Lynndyl and Delta, UT. I’m sleepy, so I buy a cup of coffee at the gas station. “I’m heading for Great Basin National Park,” I tell the woman behind the counter. “Can you tell me how many more miles?” She replies instantly: “I don’t know. There is nothing out that way anyway.” What she describes as “nothing” is low-level desert along sage-covered foothills that touch the mountains with patches of snow. I don’t see many cars on this road, but I feel so connected to nature.
Not far from the Utah–Nevada state line is a comforting road sign: Great Basin National Park, 6 miles ahead. At the small grocery store in Baker, NV, I buy one ear of white corn and a rib-eye steak. Tonight, I plan to camp at either Lower Lehman Creek or Upper Lehman Creek campground. However, both are full. In another hour, it will be dark.
The park map shows that Baker Creek Campground is located about 3 miles away on a dirt road. Surely, a site will be there. As I circle the campground for the second time, hoping to spot an empty site, a young biker flags me down. “All of the sites are full,” he says. “You’re welcome to camp here at my site.” Tired, and thinking that it could be miles before I found a suitable campsite in the dark, I thank him. I had forgotten it was Friday.
“My name is Jim, and I’m coming down from Oregon, heading for Florida,” he says. In his mid-20s, Jim is riding a cool-looking Harley-Davidson; I call him “Easy Rider.” Apparently, he doesn’t enjoy camping alone. I’m glad I took up his offer. We share tales and a few beers.
He turns in early as he is planning an extensive 15-mile hike to Baker and Johnson lakes the next day. As I lie in my sleeping bag, the stars are brilliant. The night sky is dark and alive. The Big Dipper is my compass, pointing to the North Star. In the morning, I leave Jim a note thanking him for sharing his campsite.
I fire up my motorcycle to experience the diversity of the Great Basin along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. This 12-mile paved road hugs the mountains of the South Snake Range and provides sweeping views of the Great Basin Desert. By 8,000 feet, I begin to see pinyon and juniper trees. At 9,000 feet, there are groves of white fir, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine. At an elevation of some 9,000 feet, with patches of snow, the Mather Overlook provides panoramas of Nevada’s 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak. The road snakes higher to about 10,000 feet, where you enter a subalpine forest dominated by the white-bark aspen tree. There are ample pullouts along the way for pictures. The Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is a must-do ride. The views take your breath away.
The rain clouds are forming and thunder rolls across the sky. A flash of lightning persuades me to leave. It is impossible to outrun the rain, so I brace for the worst. The scent of rain is imminent. In seconds, the storm turns south and is behind me. Relieved, I continue west along lonely US 50 toward Ely, NV. My camera tries to capture the moments while my mind simply repeats: Adventure. Gratitude. Alive.
I begin to hum a favorite song by Dwight Yoakam, “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” and I ponder the lyrics:
I’m a thousand miles from nowhere / Time don’t matter to me / ’Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere / And there’s no place I want to be.
Planning a Visit
Great Basin National Park, established in 1986, is located in eastern Nevada. This 77,100-acre park contains rugged peaks and underground caverns and supports a vast array of plant and animal life. The Great Basin bristlecone pine grows in the craggy mountain slopes near the tree line, where it can survive for about 4,000 years under extremely harsh conditions. A unique feature in the park is Lehman Caves, which extend a quarter-mile into limestone and marble and are most famous for abundant shields, relatively rare disc-shaped mineral formations, with graceful stalactites and other mineral deposits hanging from them. Weather can change quickly at any elevation; it is important to be prepared for rain or snow storms at any time of the year. GPS devices sometimes give inaccurate directions in this area, so keep a park map handy and pay attention to signs. Some roads are inaccessible in winter.
Options include day hiking, ranger-led activities, visitors centers, Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, fishing, stargazing, camping, birding, wildflower viewing, and more.
Lehman Caves can be visited only on a guided tour. Tours regularly sell out; reservations though www.recreation.gov are strongly recommended.
Great Basin National Park is open year-round. The Lehman Caves Visitor Center and Great Basin Visitor Center are open daily except for major holidays. Hours vary by season.
Admission to the park is free.