Cliff notes for Great Basin National Park, the loneliest drive, and the busiest lake

After crossing into Nevada, I stopped at the gas station/hotel/restaurant just over the border. I had about a quarter of a tank of gas left, but the distances around these parts are awfully long. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stranded in the desert over the next two days. While I was filling up, a bicyclist rolled into the station. I asked where he was coming from and he stated that he was finishing up a 35 mile ride around Baker, his home town. I said that I thought he might be going across the country, although he didn’t have much cargo. He said no way that he would ride on route 50 to Delta (the direction I had just come from). He said that the climbs are long and the ride to Delta is flat and grueling for 40 miles. He had ridden to El Paso before. I’m assuming he did take route 50 to start (it’s basically the only way out of town). It’s funny because once again, this was the route I planned to take via bike. And after the following day driving through Nevada, I can’t imagine biking it.

Welcome, no entry fee is necessary!

I arrived at Great Basin National Park just before the visitor center closed for the day, which allowed me to pick up a park map and determine a campsite for the night. I got to the entry sign and realized that there is no entry fee for the park. Woohoo! I’ve never seen that in a national park before. I then drove to the highest drivable point in the park which allows you to hike to the top of Wheeler Peak, or see a Grove of Bristlecone Pines, an ultra-rare tree that only grows at high elevations. I started down the trail for the bristlecones, but the sun was setting and I wasn’t sure if I could make it 3 miles before dark. There is a campsite right at the trailhead (perfect!), which unfortunately was closed due to the elements over the winter. I would soon learn that there was a high level of snow pack this year in the west and it is taking a long time to melt. The campground appeared to be in need of repair, I assume due to flooding. Despite it being 55 degrees at the trailhead, there was still a ton of snow on the trail (which would also slow down my hike).

The trail to the Bristlecones: snowy and slushy
Snow melt at the trailhead

I have a friend that will be very disappointed that I was unable to make it to the Bristlecone Forest, but I will return someday to see it. Great Basin National Park surprised me in what it had to offer. It’s probably not on a lot of people’s radar, but I think if you go there, you will not be disappointed. Now that I have seen it, I am determined to make it back.

I retreated down the mountain and headed for Baker Creek campground which sits at about 7,500 feet. The park has a few camping locations, and all of them were remarkably crowded. I found the last walk-up site available in Baker Creek and set up my tent as the sun set behind Wheeler Peak. Being on a mountainside this big, the sun sets behind the mountains, but then the view to the east remains under the sun for almost an hour. I recommend staying at Baker Creek campground as you get an up close view of the mountain; then you turn around for a sweet view of the desert. Also there is a nice creek running through the campground. It was hard to believe the park is surrounded by desert with the lush green trees and steady water flow.

Wheeler Peak just after sunset
The desert to the east after the sun is down over Wheeler Peak

The loneliest road in America

I woke up early, skipped breakfast and hit the road before sunrise. I could see the sun hitting the top of Wheeler Peak though. Driving across Nevada is about 300 miles on route 50, and you only pass through 4 towns before Carson City. The signs along Route 50 remind you that you are indeed on the “loneliest road”, I suppose to make it a tourist attraction. Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose? Anyway, I filled up on gas in Ely (town #1) and continued over endless ridges. I eventually got hungry and stopped to make pancakes for breakfast at the top of one of the ridges. Little did I know the next ridge I would drive over about 20 minutes later was called Pancake Summit. How perfect would that have been?

Pancakes at the summit. As dorky as this is, breakfast at the top of a mountain is satisfying. Also this was the first-time use of this little griddle, and it’s awesome!

The following hours were a blur. The scenery is great, but it gets old fast. The roads through the valleys are straight and long. The route does have some turns as it is routed to cross the ridges with minimal elevation changes. Other cars were very infrequent. It is indeed a lonely road. I can’t believe this was the main crossing of Nevada before the interstate was built. I saw historic signs for the Pony Express which used this route back in the day. In Nevada I saw zero wildlife besides an occasional bird. The western end of Nevada (at least along route 50) is very arid. The sparse vegetation that straddled the highway throughout most of the state virtually disappeared as I approached Carson City, and the landscape turned into sand and soda lakes.

Right in the middle of the Lonliest Road between Eureka and Austin – not much to see here, just keep driving

California here we come

I stopped in Carson City for a late lunch and an electronics recharge (yes, Starbucks again). I finally had cell phone service! Sporadically on the Loneliest Road, I had service. Sometimes I had really good service despite being 30 miles from…anything. But being in a populated area has its perks. I utilized my now-functioning technology to research a place to stay for the evening. I had never been to Lake Tahoe, so it seemed like a suitable destination. Also I wanted to continue my streak of reaching a new state every day, and South Lake Tahoe, CA would put me right over the state line.

Lake Tahoe is busy! There are dozens of campground locations around the lake, and they were either booked solid, or the cost was unreasonable. I found a campsite that looked nice and it was $35/night. $30 is usually my limit for a campground. Unless they have some really nice amenities, I think anything over $30/night (in 2019 at least) is unreasonable. Not only was the one campsite I found $35/night, I was forced to book it online with a $10 “reservation fee” tacked on; and that didn’t include tax. My final bill came to just under $50. Frustrated, I searched instead for a hotel and I was able to find a hotel room in South Lake Tahoe for just over $50. The demand for campgrounds around Lake Tahoe is quite insane. How is it that I find a hotel room with a bed, air conditioning, shower, wifi, and free breakfast for just a few more bucks than sleeping on the ground? Granted, I wasn’t staying at a Marriott, but $50/night for a campsite is the equivalent of a Marriott Campground. At that point, why not get a hotel? I needed to do laundry (and shower) anyway and luckily there was a laundry place right down the street from the hotel.

Two guys walk into a laundromat…

While I was waiting for my laundry to finish in the dryer, a long-distance hiker walked into the laundromat and started unpacking his clothes to wash. How did I know he was a hiker? Only because he had a backpack, water bottle with a filter attached, and he carried a familiar “trail aroma” that comes with hiking for several days non-stop.

I thought this guy was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as I knew it was nearby. However there are tons of trails in the surrounding national forests and parks, so I wasn’t sure. Also this guy was carrying a backpack that wasn’t much larger than the backpack your average highschooler takes to class, and it didn’t even look full. Maybe he just finished a multi-day hike around the area (like I was preparing to do). How could someone be hiking thousands of miles with less stuff than what most people would take on a long weekend trip (and less stuff than I was planning to take on a 5 day trip)?

My laundry acquaintance was James, from British Columbia, and he was indeed thru-hiking the PCT from Mexico to Canada. He had been at it for about 2 months and I could have asked him questions about his trip all day. He definitely looked tired, but not exhausted. Humbled is a good word. I didn’t want to bug him too much as he was in town to do laundry, resupply, and get back on the trail. James was what most people would call an ultralight backpacker. He had just the essentials. No extra clothes, no extra gear, just the basics. The basics also appeared to be carefully considered for weight. I was fascinated to learn that he carried (for the most part) very little water throughout his hike. Except for the desert portion north of Los Angeles, James said that water is very easy to find along the PCT (I would see this for myself when hiking a portion of the PCT a few days later) so he didn’t want to add much weight unless he had to. He was carrying 20 pounds at best. I suppose you have to “trust the trail” to provide you with what you need water-wise. Also, you need less than you think when backpacking; a lesson I have yet to sufficiently learn. The less weight you have, the faster you go. Needless to say I was impressed with what he was doing.

PCT thru-hiker James with his backpack. Minimal gear required.

Back on the road

Lake Tahoe is quite beautiful, but the crowds are a bit of a turn off. I drove around the southern end of the lake to Emerald Bay. The road is very windy and rises high above the lake. You get excellent views driving along route 89, but again, it’s very crowded. People were double-parking in order to get pictures or take a quick hike. I pulled onto the shoulder a few times when I could to take pictures, but I quickly turned back and headed for my next destination for the day. It was early and I couldn’t imagine how the crowds would be swarming in a few hours. My route was reversing course a bit in order to make it to the next stop, the ghost town of Bodie, CA.

FYI: This post is based on events from June 30 – July 2. Unfortunately I had limited internet access and this post was proceeded by a 5 day backpacking trip in the wilderness, more on that later…

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe. Looks nice if you have a boat.

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