An Alpine Foray Along US 50

Highway 50 heading east
Highway 50 heading east

Now I grew up most of my life in Nevada, and I deeply love my state.  Nevada also happens to be home to one of the least visited National Parks in the contiguous United States–Great Basin National Park–an unofficial starting point for the east-west journey along the Loneliest Highway in America, Highway 50.  Highway 50 is a great way to take in a large part of what Nevada has to offer–cloud scraping mountain ranges, empty basins and emptier asphalt, sagebrush, big sky, and the odd hanging-on mining town.  The route vaguely traces that of the old Pony Express, enjoyed in the collective conscious not for its longevity, but for the spirit of the West it conjures.  Brave riders audaciously racing across hostile territory to deliver mail to an expanding America’s western coast–America’s re-invented past could feature no greater, yet ephemeral, institution than the Pony Express.

Storms across Nevada
Storms across Nevada

I wanted Hana to fall in love with my state the way I had with her.  We had just come north and west from her home state of New Mexico, which was a wonderful exposure to the Land of Enchantment, and now my state was being put to the test.  It was very late when we finally pulled across the state line and started the long climb into Great Basin NP.  We made for Upper Lehman Creek Campground, and found the sites mostly deserted.  A complete departure from the packed campground in Mesa Verde we had left that morning, GBNP matches the moniker of the Loneliest Highway perfectly–the Loneliest National Park.  We found an epic site where two small creeks came together, and the burbuling lulled us while I enjoyed a pipe and Hana watched the stars.

We had planned on hiking Wheeler Peak, but timing turned into an issue since we needed to be in Reno by late afternoon, so we instead opted for the Alpine Lakes Loop–a short loop that meanders through gorgeous high mountain wilderness past two glacial lakes below Wheeler, with epic views up the sheer face.  We set off early, packing up our campsite in the near frosty air (this being only early September!) and finishing the climb up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.  If you don’t have time for hiking the peak, the drive itself is stunning–vast vistas of Utah and the Humboldt mountains to the north, and of course, stunning views of Wheeler Peak.

Wheeler Peak above Stella Lake
Wheeler Peak above Stella Lake

The Alpine Lakes Loop starts in aspens and pines at 10,000 feet, and in the morning chill, we set off counterclockwise towards Stella Lake.  A few deer grazed in the small alpine meadows as we passed, and eventually met up with the Wheeler Peak trail.  The draw of climbing the peak was intense, but we fought it–we just didn’t have enough time!  This turned out lucky for us in the end, but I’ll get to that later.  Stella Lake is a gorgeous tarn lake below the Wheeler Peak escarpment, replete with groves of aspen and twisted bristlecones.  We sat for a spell on its shore–the day was very quickly becoming overcast, so the water was not the typical azure of tarn lakes.  We enjoyed the serene quiet that comes from early morning hiking, and then set out for Teresa Lake.  It was just as beautiful as its sister, and we had a hiker’s breakfast of energy bars along the shore.  Then it was back to the car to set off on our long journey across Nevada.

As we reached the Wheeler Peak Campground, we could see an early September storm rolling over Wheeler’s ridge.  Think, white clouds engulfed the summit and ridgeline, which made us happy that we had not chosen the Wheeler Peak hike, as the coming storm would have likely turned us around–that exposed ridge is nowhere to be during a lightning storm!  As we headed off the mountain, the storm curled around the peaks, giving a perfect dramatic backdrop as we headed west across Highway 50.

Murray the Moose heads along Highway 50
Murray the Moose heads along Highway 50

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