Thursday, January 7, 2021

Baker Archaeological Site

Baker Village
0.3 miles round trip, 20 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no entrance fee

Baker Archaeological Site- or as its also known, Baker Village- is the former site of a village of people of the Fremont Culture, who built adobe houses here when they farmed the desert landscape of eastern Nevada around 1200. While there's not a lot to see at this site- just the traces of the foundations of the former adobe buildings here- a short walk through this landscape gives beautiful views of the surrounding mountain and desert and yields insight into the conditions in which human beings have been able to make a living. The site is just outside Great Basin National Park- Nevada's only national park- making it an easy add-on for visitors already in the area to see Wheeler Peak and the bristlecone pines. The hike is nearly entirely flat.

I visited the Baker Archaeological Site, which is run by the Bureau of Land Management, during my week-long trip through Nevada. Baker Village is only about 2 miles from the contemporary village of Baker, which is the only place with services directly next to Great Basin National Park. Ely- the nearest town and the biggest population center in this part of eastern Nevada- is an hour's drive away. I approached the site from Baker: starting from the Great Basin Visitor Center, I headed north on Nevada Route 487 for a mile until I saw a sign for the Baker Archaeological Site; following the sign, I made a right turn onto the paved Cut Off Road and followed it for a half mile before turning right again at a signed intersection for the Baker Archaeological Site. I then followed this unpaved road the final half mile to a parking lot on the left side of the road with a vault toilet and a picnic shelter.

A interpretive sign at the trailhead discussed the site and there were brochures at the site discussing various aspects of Fremont Culture. From the trailhead, it was an almost entirely flat 200 meter walk through the saltbrush desert to reach a set of footprints of the adobe buildings that once made up the village. There was a central, large, square structure that opened up to a small plaza space: the Big House. Surrounding the Big House were the footprints of multiple smaller pithouses and granaries. There are no visible structures left here, just the outline of the foundations: don't expect Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde when you arrive. The structures here, having been adobe rather than masonry, have not survived the test of time.

The Fremont Culture is an umbrella term describing peoples who lived and developed villages and agriculture in the Utah Great Basin and on the edges of the Colorado Plateau contemporaneously with the more organized Ancestral Puebloan civilization that developed near the Four Corners and the Rio Grande Valley. The people who lived here at the foot of the Snake Range likely subsisted off growing corn and hunting; in addition to building adobe houses, people of the Fremont Culture also created pottery. The village was settled in the early 1200s and abandoned by the end of that century at a time when Fremont villages across the Great Basin were collapsing. The cause is not immediately clear- perhaps changing climate made agriculture less permissive (these desert flats are certainly not arable without irrigation in our current times) or the arrival of other peoples such as the Paiutes or Shoshone forced a change in how the people of Baker Village lived.

The Baker Village site was excavated in the 1990s by a team from Brigham Young University. Following the excavation, the true foundations of the buildings were buried to prevent erosion. The footprints that I saw at the site cover the foundations are a modern attempt to stabilize the underlying structures and prevent erosion.

Footprints of the prehistoric Fremont village
Having arrived early in the morning, I watched the sun rise over this desert landscape, popping out from behind the mountain ranges of the Utah Great Basin to the east. The saltbrush plains stretched far to both the north and the south, although the nearby landscape to the south was punctuated by the irrigated fields of farms near Baker, where humans have once again learned to harness water from the desert to support agriculture.

Looking back to the west, there were beautiful views of the Snake Range illuminated by the morning sun. While Wheeler Peak- the crowning glory of the Snake Range- was not visible from this perspective, Doso Doyabi, Baker Peak, and Pyramid Peak were bathed in dawn alpenglow.

View of Doso Doyabi and Baker Peak from the Baker Village site
The ruins at Baker Village are not visually spectacular, yet visitors here can have meaningful time by learning about the history of the site and reflecting on the difficulty of building a community in this desert. This is a worthwhile though not spectacular stop if you're visiting Great Basin National Park.

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