BAKER, Nev. — During visits to our national parks, I've slogged through the watery narrows of the Virgin River in Zion, crossed Yosemite's back country on skis and hiked the Highline Trail in Montana's Glacier National Park. None of these outings prepared me for slithering through the "Birth Canal" under America's newest national park, Great Basin, in eastern Nevada.
With only 68,000 annual visitors (compared to Zion's 2,300,000), Great Basin is one of the park system's least-crowded, and one of its best-kept secrets--despite being a day's drive from Los Angeles and only four hours from Salt Lake City. The 77,000-acre park lies 13 miles from the Utah border in Nevada's Snake Mountain Range.
The National Park Service hasn't even built an entrance kiosk at the 5-year-old park, so there isn't the typical $5 national park entrance fee. Since the park is thus far without a lodge, visitors have their choice of camping or roughing it in the Silver Jack motel in Baker or the Border Inn truck-stop motel on the Utah-Nevada border.
Established in 1986, Great Basin is America's first upstairs/downstairs national park. With limestone-etched caves that burrow 100 feet below the earth's surface, and soaring, 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak towering over the landscape, the park offers visitors the chance to explore both subterranean and alpine worlds. A real plus for Los Angelenos is that it boasts the clearest air in the country, according to a 1989 national park study. Great Basin's average summer visibility of 116 miles is tops among the national parks, with Utah's Bryce Canyon second-best at 104 miles.
Views from 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, of sagebrush-covered valleys split by narrow mountain ranges, define the sweeping plains known as the Great Basin--an area stretching east from the Sierras in California to the Wasatch Range in Utah. Water from these mountains doesn't drain into the sea, but collects in shallow salt lakes and mud flats in this arid ecosystem.
The park's water is as clean as the air. Lakes Stella and Teresa, on the Wheeler Peak Trail, register a perfect PH balance of 7. Another trail leads to a grove of bristlecone pine trees, the oldest living things on earth. These trees can live for 5,000 years, but Great Basin's are a mere 3,500 years old.
The park's free Wheeler Peak Campground is one of the most spectacular car-camping spots in America. Mule deer graze in an aspen-ringed meadow with Wheeler Peak towering above. In the fall--usually late September to mid-October--golden aspen emblazon the scene. The bristlecones are an easy hourlong hike from the campground, as are lakes Stella and Teresa. Hiking to the top of Wheeler Peak via the excellent trail is a five-hour trudge, but the scenery and views are worth the 3,000-foot climb.
The area was first established as a national monument, called Lehman Caves, in 1922. As with most such decisions, a combination of merit and behind-the-scenes politics led to its designation as a national park. The politicking produced a compromise that allowed local cattlemen to continue grazing their stock on parklands. The cows are controversial, with many park rangers critical of the "walking hamburgers." In June, cows decimated a trail in the Baker Creek area, prompting visitors to suggest that the bovines be removed. On my visit in mid-July, I saw a few cows during three days in the park, but saw many more mule deer and mountain bluebirds.
Great Basin's underground dimension piqued my curiosity. Spelunking, or caving, was not part of my outdoor resume nor that of my adventurous traveling buddy, Lee Rosenthal, a college professor at New Jersey's Farleigh Dickinson University. Spelunking tours are offered every weekend, with advance reservations by phone needed to secure the six spots. Arriving at the park midweek, we found the young, innovative ranger staff eager to show us the terrain, both above and below the ground.
We both observed a noticeable difference between Park Service employees here and at the more established popular parks such as Utah's Zion and Bryce. Without the pressure of huge crowds, Great Basin's rangers have time to dispense information personably and humorously.
Ranger Alan Young, a descendant of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young, turned out to be our spelunking guide. After a 20-person, 90-minute walking tour of the main Lehman cave, we were eager to try spelunking. Young volunteered to show us the cave known as Little Muddy if we could work things out with his supervisor, ranger Nancy Hadlock. She asked us to pay for Young's time and sign a waiver, and pointed out that such arrangements are not always possible.
We also had to fit through an 18x18-inch cylinder block sitting on the ground outside the visitor center. People with wide shoulders can't maneuver through Little Muddy's claustrophobic confines, and it's better to get stuck above ground in the light than 100 feet down in the dark.