Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Wheeler Peak

Wheeler Peak rises at the heart of the Great Basin
8.6 miles round trip, 3000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Towering, 13063-foot Wheeler Peak is the highest peak in the Snake Range, the highest peak wholy within the state of Nevada, and the center of attention in the remote Great Basin National Park. The views from atop Wheeler Peak are astounding, encompassing the endless landscape of the Basin and Range as it stretches into Utah to the east and through Nevada to the west. Wheeler Peak itself is a dramatic peak, a lofty and rocky pyramid with a deep cirque cut into its northeast face that holds the remnants of Nevada's last surviving glacier. The hike to the summit, while not terrible considering the mountain's great height, is still quite difficult as it climbs through steep, rocky talus slopes into thin air and enormous views. Despite the remoteness of Great Basin National Park, this hike still sees plenty of traffic; it is one of the most popular trails in the park.

Boundary Peak in the White Mountains, on the opposite side of the state, is technically the highest point in the state of Nevada. However, Boundary Peak isn't much of a peak at all, being a subpeak of Montgomery Peak, a taller summit in California. Wheeler Peak is about 80 feet lower than the high point on Boundary Peak but it is an independent peak within the state of Nevada.

I hiked Wheeler Peak during a weeklong autumn road trip through Nevada to see the fall colors. Great Basin National Park is literally in the middle of nowhere- the Wheeler Peak Trailhead is 4 hours from Salt Lake City and 5 hours from Las Vegas. The hamlet of Baker- population 68- is near the entrance of the park, while the closest town with full services is Ely, an hour away. I'll thus skip describing the route from any major city and instead just describe the route in from Baker; Nevada Highway 488 leads from Baker to the entrance of the park. Upon entering the park, I turned right onto the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and followed it uphill for 12 miles to the Wheeler Peak Summit Trailhead, which is on the right side of the road at the high point of the road. There's parking for about 20 cars here; if it's full, you can also start the hike from the Bristlecone Trailhead near Wheeler Peak Campground, which actually shortens the hike by a half mile round trip but adds 200 feet of elevation gain. On the drive up to the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, I stopped at the Mather Overlook for beautiful views of Wheeler Peak, Doso Doyabi, and the colorful fall aspens mixed into the forested slopes of the Snake Range.

Wheeler Peak from Mather Overlook at sunrise
The hike up Wheeler Peak has a gentle initial phase with easy grades leading from the trailhead to a saddle between Wheeler Peak and Bald Mountain; from there, the trail becomes steep and rocky as it makes an aggressive push to the summit.

Leaving from the trailhead, the trail started out with a gentle ascent through aspen forests. During the last week of September and the first days of October each year, the aspen forests of the Snake Range explode with bright autumn colors as the trees prepare to shed their leaves for the winter. 

Aspens on the first mile of the Wheeler Peak Trail
As I hiked along this easy initial stretch of the trail, the aspen forests soon opened up for views of Wheeler Peak, the high and rocky mountain monarch of the park that was my destination for the day. The great cliffs of Wheeler Peak above its northeast cirque looked particularly impressive, especially coupled with the sheer cliffs of Doso Doyabi and a small, sharp peak between the two bigger summits.

Aspens displaying fall colors on the way to Wheeler Peak
A mile of easy and flat hiking brought me to a junction with the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, which departs from the Bristlecone Trailhead. Hikers who start from that trailhead can join the main hike to Wheeler Peak here. At the junction, I took the right fork, which led me towards Stella Lake and Wheeler Peak. After just a tenth of a mile along the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, I emerged into an open meadow and came to another trail junction. Here, I stumbled upon a herd of deer grazing their breakfast; having started hiking very early in the day, I got to see the deer before the hordes of hikers coming later in the day would scare them off.

Deer browsing meadows near Stella Lake
The junction in the meadow was the split between the Alpine Lakes Loop and the Wheeler Peak Trail. While ultimately you'll want to continue on the Wheeler Peak Trail, it is only 150 meters from this junction to Stella Lake, the prettiest of the lakes in the upper Lehman Creek drainage around Wheeler Peak. It's a pretty detour that adds just a few minutes to the hike and is an easy way to combine some of the best scenery from the Alpine Lakes Loop with the hike up Wheeler Peak. I stopped by Stella Lake on my way down from Wheeler Peak but it can be nice as a brief diversion whether you're going up or coming down.

Wheeler Peak rises above Stella Lake
To continue towards Wheeler Peak, I took the right fork at the junction in the meadow, which made a sharp turn to head north. The grade of this trail remained perplexingly gentle as it wandered north through increasingly open slopes, delivering nice views down the Lehman Creek watershed and out into the desert basins below. The trail made a gradual turn to the south again after its northward meander and continued with the very gentle uphill as it approached the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Bald Mountain. Views improved progressively, encompassing the colorful aspen forests below, Notch Peak rising in the middle of Utah's portion of the Great Basin, Stella Lake below the trail, and Wheeler Peak rising above it all.

Fall colors in the Snake Range, with Notch Peak rising over Utah's Great Basin in the distance
Wheeler Peak and Doso Doyabi over Stella Lake
After about 1.1 miles of hiking from the last junction near Stella Lake, the Wheeler Peak trail came to the broad saddle between Bald Mountain and Wheeler Peak. At this point, I was now about 2.4 miles from the trailhead, but due to the extremely mild grade of the trail I had ascended only about 700 feet. The final 1.8 miles of trail from here to the summit had to cover the remaining 2200 feet of uphill.

Upon leaving the saddle, the trail immediately switched gears, embarking on a steep climb up the North Ridge of Wheeler Peak. I passed the last few trees just a few minutes above the saddle and soon I was out in the open, rocky world of the upper mountain. Wheeler Peak was no longer visible from here but I made a steady trek upwards along the steep and rocky trail towards a false summit. At times, the trail utilized switchbacks for the ascent; some of these switchbacks approached the east end of the North Ridge, where there were views of stark, rocky upper reaches of Wheeler Peak and Doso Doyabi .

Wheeler Peak and Doso Doyabi
This rapid elevation gain into open, rocky slopes also delivered new and wide-ranging views to the west, north, and east. To the west, the Schell Creek Range rose across Spring Valley and its wind farm; a bit of Steptoe Valley was visible at the foot of the Egan Range and Currant Mountain and the White Pine Range was visible beyond the Egans. Unfortunately, a layer of haze hovered above these mountains, a sign that the smoke from the California wildfires had begun to make its way deep into the Great Basin. To the north and east were more sweeping views of the Great Basin and some of its tallest peaks, including North Schell Peak, Mount Moriah, and Ibapah Peak in Utah.

View east to the Egan Range
After a thousand foot ascent from the saddle, the trail flattened out briefly on a shoulder of Wheeler Peak's North Ridge. Wheeler Peak- which had a humped summit from this angle- came back into view and was visible ahead of me for the remainder of the climb. At this point in the ascent, the wind had become relentless, with a sustained gale sweeping Wheeler Peak's upper slopes. A number of wind shelters had been built along the shoulder, a testament to the frequency of brutal gusts at this elevation.

Summit of Wheeler Peak rises ahead
After passing through the shoulder on the ridge, the trail reverted to a steep grade as it began the final thousand-foot ascent. The trail was very steep in parts here, directly cutting uphill through steep talus slopes in parts as it climbed just over a thousand feet in 0.7 miles. Footing was sometimes loose and unstable due to the rockiness of the trail here. After a long and sustained push, I finally found myself walking onto the summit ridge and to the highest point of Wheeler Peak, which is surrounded by rocky wind shelters to offer hikers refuge from the ripping winds that blast this exposed, lofty summit, the highest peak in a 230-mile radius.

The 360-degree panorama from the summit of Wheeler Peak was incredible. Central to this view were the high, rocky peaks of the Snake Range that extended to the south. Wheeler Peak was separated from the great cliffs of Baker Peak by another deep cirque; although the glacier here had long vanished, there were small patches of permanent snow hanging onto the steep north face of Baker Peak. The symmetrical form of Pyramid Peak lay beyond Baker Peak and Johnson Peak connected the crest of the Snake Range to the limestone massif of Mount Washington. Eagle Peak was an outlier from the range, rising at the eastern edge of the mountains. If you travel widely through the Great Basin, you'll note that the Snake Range is perhaps the most heavily forested range of the many mountain ranges in Nevada. While many of the other ranges in the Great Basin have no arboreal vegetation or can only muster a few aspen and bristlecone pine groves, the slopes of the Snake Range are coated in forests of spruce and fir, pinyon and ponderosa pines, and juniper. The interspersed aspen groves were showing off spectacular fall color.

View of the Snake Range south of Wheeler Peak
To the north, the Snake Range died down as lower peaks like Bald Mountain dropped to the lower elevations of Sacramento Pass. The North Snake Range rose beyond Sacramento Pass, culminating in the high cone of Mount Moriah. Ibapah Peak, an ultraprominent peak just across the border in Utah, rose beyond Mount Moriah. Stella Lake and Teresa Lake were both visible below Wheeler Peak in the upper watershed of Lehman Creek; while Stella Lake still had a fair amount of water, Teresa Lake had dried up after an arid summer.

Schell Creek Range, Mount Moriah, and Ibapah Peak
From the top of Wheeler Peak, the immensity of the Great Basin was clear: in every direction, layer upon layer of desert basins and mountains stretched to the horizon. Looking far off into the distance, I could just make out the form of the Wasatch Range near Mount Nebo, almost 150 miles east from here and on the eastern boundary of the Great Basin. While some haze decreased visibility to the west, on a good day one should be able to see to the Toquima and Toiyabe Ranges about 150 miles west. Almost everything in sight lay within the vastness of the Great Basin.

If you are unfamiliar with the geography of Nevada, you might wonder: what is this Great Basin that has lent its name to this national park? The Great Basin is a contiguous set of endorheic watersheds in the desert between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada- this means its an area where rainfall and snowmelt never reaches the ocean, instead flowing down into desert basins and then evaporating. The Great Basin covers almost all of Nevada and about half of Utah, as well as sizeable portions of California and Oregon and a bit of Idaho and Wyoming. It's not a single basin but a collection of many basins; most of these basins, including all of those visible from Wheeler Peak, are dry, but some of these basins lie near the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Range and receive enough water and snowmelt to support permanent lakes in the desert like Pyramid Lake, Mono Lake, or the Great Salt Lake. 

The many basins characteristic of the Great Basin are part of the Basin and Range physiographic province, a region of parallel mountain ranges that covers all of Nevada but stretches far south into Arizona and northern Mexico. The Basin and Range is the result of extensional plate tectonics on the North American Plate. The Rocky Mountains formed during the Laramide Orogeny, a period tens of millions of years ago caused by the subduction of the Farallon Plate- part of the Pacific Ocean- beneath the North American Plate. After the Farallon Plate had been fully subducted beneath the North American Plate, the compression on the western edge of the North American Plate let up. As a result, the North American Plate began to extend between the Rockies and the Pacific; extension led to faulting, which caused faulted blocks to lift up relative to one another to compensate for the extending crust, creating many parallel mountain ranges. Erosion and sediment deposition filled the gaps between the ranges with the flat basins of today's Great Basin.

Eagle Peak and the many basins and ranges of Utah
After enjoying the views at the true summit, I followed the summit ridge to the dropoff on its eastern end. Here was the most dramatic scenery visible from the summit: the ridge ended with a cliff drop into the deep, rocky chasm between Wheeler Peak and Doso Doyabi. This gaping maw is the cirque carved by the mighty glacier that once must have flowed down the slopes of the Snake Range. Today, the last remnants of that glacier still fill the corners of the cirque as a permanent snowfield and a rock glacier- this is the last glacier remaining in the state of Nevada, if it is still really a glacier.

Doso Doyabi rises over the rock glacier with the Great Basin laid out in the distance
From the mid-19th century until 2019, Doso Doyabi was named Jeff Davis Peak. Colonel Edward Steptoe (the very same Steptoe of Eastern Washington's Steptoe Butte fame) scouted the area during his 1854 travels through Utah and the Great Basin while investigating the deaths of the Gunnison survey party and decided to name the most impressive peak in this part of the Great Basin after the serving Secretary of War at the time. The name fell out of favor upon the outbreak of the Civil War and after the Wheeler Survey reached the area in 1869, the second-tallest peak in Nevada was renamed Wheeler Peak. Somehow, the name Jeff Davis Peak was simply repurposed for the peak on the other side of the cirque from Wheeler Peak, the third highest point in the state of Nevada. This name remained until a recent decision by the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names to instead use the name Doso Doyabi, Shoshone for "white mountain."

While the deserts and mountains of Nevada are still largely far off the tourist beaten path, Wheeler Peak is an exception. As the crowning summit of Great Basin National Park, this mountain attracts a fair share of visitors- while I saw one and zero other hikers on Arc Dome and North Schell Peak, respectively, and only saw one other hiker on my trip to Magic Grove in Great Basin National Park, there were around 50 hikers on Wheeler Peak during my visit on an autumn weekday. Despite the relative popularity of this hike, Wheeler Peak is still an incredible destination and a highly recommended hike for visitors to the Great Basin.

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