Peak to the east

Let me begin with “A Nevada Mountain Ditty.”

  The Granites are a groove,
  The Rubies oh so righteous,
  The Toiyabes are terrific,
  And the Monitors most mighteous.
  But for the mountains of Nevada,
  The ranges you be placin’,
  Number One must be the Snakes,
  The Greatest of the Basin.

Such slaphappy doggerel nearly bursts from the soul upon first viewing the towering backside of mighty Wheeler Peak. It’s the second highest peak in our state, at 13,063 feet, which makes it 77 feet shorter than Boundary Peak in the White Mountains. When it comes to overall presence and sheer montanic charisma, though, it’s not close. Wheeler is to Boundary what a Tahoe condo is to a Sani-Hut. When you get that first shot of Wheeler as you approach Major’s Place at the intersection of highways 50 and 93, you see, in its full, massive glory, what is undoubtedly Nevada’s greatest bump. It’s almost Shasta-like in its looming largeness.

I just returned from eastern Nevada, and I can report that our only national park, Great Basin, of which Wheeler Peak is the apex, is still under-appreciated, under-publicized and under-visited.

Fantastic. Perfect. Bravo.

If you’ve ever wanted to visit GBNP, one of the least visited of all national parks (barely 100,000 folks dropped on by last year; compare that to the incredible Y brothers, Yosemite and Yellowstone, both of which now average 4 million visitors a year), this is an excellent year to do so. Mainly because the place is positively gushing with water. I asked one of the rangers what kind of snow year the park had in this past winter, and her reply was “300 percent.” That means that the creeks are still flowing nicely and the plants, birds, animals and bugs are breeding and eating each other like mad.

Things you have to do on your first visit to GBNP: (1) Drive up to the Wheeler Peak campground. At 10,000 feet, it’s one of the highest campgrounds in the entire national park system. Nearby are aspens, sparkling alpine ponds and bristlecone pines. (2) Do the Lehman Caves tour. It’s way cool, both figuratively and literally. And don’t wimp out. Take the 90-minute tour, not the 60. That gives you time to savor the utter surreality of the place, plus you visit two spectacular chambers that you miss on the hour tour. (3) If you want to not see anybody, and you want to camp for free in some of the finest country of our finest mountain range, two words: Snake Creek.

The park just finished building a new visitor center in the shady little town of Baker. It’s loaded up with all the exhibits, maps and field guides you’ll need to have a full and fulfilling time at GBNP. And no way, unfortunately, is this place suitable for a weekend trip. It’s just too damn far and gone out there, almost 400 miles one way from Reno. So don’t even think about a trip to Our Park unless you’re looking at a five-day run, minimum.