Great Basin National Park
This trip was a little bit of a fluke. The original plans for this trip was to meet up with Tor's aunt and uncle north of Las Vegas to do some fossil hunting, something we've talked about for a couple of years now. However, plans fell through and we were stuck with tickets to Vegas for a short visit. Since we already visited the Mojave desert earlier in the year and the fact that the desert was now in the 90s, we decided to go to the Great Basin National Park instead. We had always wanted to go there and since it was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to visit the park.
Wednesday May 13th
Anyway, after leaving the rental car place I realized we were leaving at approximately the same time we had during our previous trip through Vegas when our flight was 1 hour late. I'll never rent with Dollar in Vegas again! We made a stop in North Las Vegas for groceries. I had printed directions to an Albertsons that had gone out of business somewhere between the time it was listed on Google Maps and when we visited. Luckily there was a Von's across the street - a sad little grocery store trapped in a big box building's body. We picked up our rations and headed northward toward the Great Basin National Park. I knew it would be a long drive (about 5 hours) so I was anxious to make it there before dusk.
As we made our way out of the Las Vegas, I began to relax, shake off the rough start, and realize that I was on vacation. Along the way to the park, we stopped at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, a set of ponds, riparian area, and wetlands in the middle of the hot desert. We didn't stay for long, just enough to have some lunch and have a glance around. It would have been more interesting if it weren't so hot during our brief visit. Many American Coots scooted along the surface of the ponds. A pair of Yellow-headed Blackbirds called and a Common Yellowthroat sang from the reeds along the shore. We continued our drive northward through the creosote and occasional small Joshua tree. As the elevation of the road climbed, more Joshua trees appeared. Soon we were driving through a forest of Joshua trees, cholla, yucca, creosote, and a few sagebrush. Eventually the Joshua trees and cholla gave way to predominately sagebrush with a few junipers mixed in. Cliff roses bloomed among the scrubs. We were leaving the Mojave behind and entering the Great Basin desert.
It was a long drive to the Great Basin NP and we only passed through three or four small towns along the long stretch of deserted desert road. Finally, we glimpsed the snow-capped Wheeler Peak rising above the flat land of sagebrush. We drove around the northern foothills of the Snake Mountains and entered the park from Baker. From Baker, we followed the road along Lehman creek as it ascended up the mountain. The creek was surrounded by lush green grass, quaking aspens, Utah junipers, sagebrush, and mountain mahogany. It was a surprisingly short drive up to the Lower and Upper Lehman campgrounds. We settled at the Upper Lehman campground. It was higher and colder, but the set up of the campground was more conducive toward tent campers, so we were happy to have neighbors without generators. We were lucky enough to have a campsite with our own small bridge over the creek. Our site was located on an island caused by the branching of the creek.
We set up camp and took a stroll around the campground. The evening air quickly lost all the heat of the day and we were soon bundling up in our warmest gear. Being 7,500 feet in elevation, we knew it would be a chilly night.
Thursday May 14th
I awoke to the early rising sun and to the song of a Mountain Chickadee nearby. We arose and prepared to hike for the day up the Lehman Creek Trail. By the time we were ready the chorus of birds was all around us. A House Wren sang and watched us closely. A pair of Warbling Vireos were chattering loudly and settling some sort of dispute in the bushes. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings called from the aspen trees, and a Western Tanager sang constantly as the rising sunlight made his head look like it was glowing red.
From the previous entries in the trail sign-in sheet, there was still snow on the trail about half way up to Wheeler campground. We set out, not really expecting to hike all the way up, but just to see how far we would go. The trail continued up the mountain, paralleling Davis Peak to the west of us. As the trail climbed upward, we began to notice difference in the flora in the elevations. Below our campground the green leaves of the aspen trees shook and swayed in the wind. At our campground, small brown buds were showing on the branches and spears of grass reached toward the sky pushing old leaves out of the way. The trail neadered through thickets of mahogany and prickly pears spread along the ground. Miniaturized Oregon Grape were flowering and higher up on the trail there were carpets of flowering alpine buttercups. In small open grassy meadows a few clumps of bluebells were in bloom and higher up along the trail, the stark white aspen trees look like they were still tucked away for the winter and the ground was still matted with old brown aspen leaves, flatten by the recently melted snow. As we climbed the trail junipers gave way to the taller spruce trees. The trail met the creek every once and a while. The creek rushed strong, fed by the melting snow above. It looked icy cold - as evident by the ice formations around the blades of grass next to the creek. Yellow-rumped Warblers serenaded us as we hiked upward. Occasional flocks of Mountain Chickadees would flit in the pines. And surprising number of Red-naped Sapsucker pairs called and chased around the apens, drilling new wells to drink from later.
The trail hit a few patches of snow, nothing too concerning. Soon it opened up to the sagebrush meadow with a grand view of the snow-capped Davis and Wheeler Peaks. We trekked past the meadow and soon the trail grew muddier and more snow covered. We were soon climbing through a snow field and occasionally punching through the surface of the snow to sink in up to our knees. It was slower hiking through the snow - trying not to sink into a couple of feet into the melting snow. Pretty soon the melting snow had seeped into my boots and I felt the discomfort of wet socks. But we kept trekking forth, partly spurred on when an group of older people who look determined to reach Wheeler campground and passed us on the trail. Their tracks, however, made it considerably easier to find the harder patches of snow.
Along one of the switchbacks, we stopped to watch a group of Williamson's Sapsuckers call and drum on a snag. There was one male and two females. Interestingly, the male didn't seem to call that often, instead one of the females was very vocal and drummed loudly at the end of their snag. She even was aggressive enough to chase the other male and female around the snag.
We finally reached Wheeler campground where we were treated to a the peaks towering above. We stopped for a snack at the campground and watched many Cassin's Finches warble their songs from the tree tops.
We headed back down the trail, passing the Williamson's Sapsuckers who were still drumming and calling away. My feet were increasingly wet going through to snow the second time around. I tried not to think about it by soaking in the alpine scenery instead.
The Wheeler Scenic Drive, which goes all the way up to the Wheeler Campground, was still closed off just after the Mather viewpoint. After lunch at our site, we drove the car up to the Mather viewpoint. At the viewpoint, we took in the higher view of Wheeler Peak as well as Snake Valley below the national park. We decided to hike up the road past the road closed sign. I hoped the snow still didn't cover the road too close to the closure. I wasn't looking forward to walking through snow anytime soon.
As we hiked up the road, there were many Townsend's Solitaries in the trees silently watching over us. One of them finally decided to serenade us with its warbley song. The Cassin's Finches and Pine Siskins were numerous along side the road as well. After three miles, we reached the Wheeler viewpoint and turned around shortly after that. After descending 1000 ft, we reached the car and drove down to stop at the Osceola Ditch pullout. The ditch was created during the early 1900s as an attempt to draw water from Lehman Creek to Osceola, a mining town, in order to help gold digging. By the time they finished the ditch (took them about 20 years), the gold and the town dried up and the project was a bust. Osceola still exists, but is pretty much a ghost town.
Back at camp, we dined next to the campfire and I tried to get my feet and shoes dried. As the night grew darker, the temperature dropped and we were bundled up once again. We tried to stay up to watch the stars, but I was too tired and cold to stay out.
Friday May 15th
A MacGillivary's Warbler was singing from a juniper and a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher mewed from the sagebrush. In the distant foothills, we could hear the distinctive gobbling of a turkey. A Broad-tailed Hummingbird displayed for us with his dives and song. And even at the lower elevation the Cassin's Finches persisted.
As we headed toward Baker Creek, a bird caught my eye and we pulled over. It was a Pinyon Jay in the junipers, but where were the others? Slowly they appeared traveling through the sagebrush and junipers and calling along the way. It was difficult to count how many there were, but they kept seeming to fly out of the scrub, one after another. Then just as they'd appear, they'd disappear in the desert brush. It was fun seeing a flock of Pinyon Jays again.
We stopped at the Gray Cliffs campground, where a large colony Violet Green Swallows had taken up residences in the cracks and crevices. We also made a brief stop near the Baker Creek Campground, where a Cooper's Hawk floated by and a Green-tailed Towhee was trilling his heart out.
We had made reservations for the Lehman Cave Tour in the morning, so we went down to the visitor center. We had already been to Carlsbad Caverns, so I wasn't really expecting this cave to be very impressive. Though it was a considerably smaller cave than Carlsbad, it was still very stunning and beautiful. The best cave formations in the cave were the shields, which aren't very common, and the cave bacon, which are like curtains with marbling color to make it look just like bacon! The tour guide was a little cheesy, but I think if you have to give a tour 5 times a day then one has to create a little schtick to deal with what could be a monotonous job.
The cave had a lot of history. First used by Native Americans, then explored by Lehman. Then used as a resort in the early 1900s. The couple that made it into a resort would dress as cave people and take people into the caves. They turned one of the chambers into the party room - rentable to the public. Another of the chambers was labeled the "inscription room." Getting into the room was a challenge - through narrow long opening by crawling with only candle light. Those who made it would inscribe their names into the ceiling using their candles. Now in the room, there's a new bacteria that evolved to grow on the carbon left by the candles and it is not found anywhere else. That's evolution for you!
After our cave tour we walked around the visitor center a bit - watching the fence lizards and sagebrush lizards. Then we headed out of the park and stopped at the nearby Baker Archaeological Site, which was located right next to a cow field in the middle of the baking Snake Valley. The old Native American site was excavated and the structures were capped to protect the real foundations below the ground. So really we were just looking at a replicata on top of the real thing. Still it was interesting and we saw a Desert Horned Lizard, several Long-nosed Leopard Lizards, and Whiptails.
We decided it was time to head to our next destination - the Valley of Fire State Park about 40 miles outside of Las Vegas. I knew it would be hot there so I wasn't too concerned about getting there in the evening. But on the other hand, I was worried about getting a campsite since it seemed like a popular campground and it was Friday.
So we began our long drive back down the highway leaving the open sagebrush behind and entering the yucca and creosote. We hit a little snag getting back - about 20 miles from the main freeway to Vegas, there was a backup in both directions on the 2-lane highway. People were milling about on the road, some cars were driving on a parallel dirt road, and some cars were turning around. Nothing else seemed to be going anywhere. Luckily there was another road to the main freeway only 15 miles back, and we quickly made the decision to turn around rather than try to figure out when the mess was going to clear. The other road was smooth, having just been recently improved because of the PGA golf course that was being built by the highway in the middle of nowhere. But in less than an hour we were back on the freeway headed toward the Valley of Fire.
We arrived at the park not really knowing what to expect and were quickly in awe when we crested a hill and stared down at the red rock walls in the valley below. We were at the Altalt Rock campground in no time to set up camp at one of the vacant tent sites. Stepping out of the car, the heat immediately hit us. The red rock walls had captured the days heat and continued to radiate it adding to the heat of the sun. Knowing we only had the few more hours of sunlight to explore the state park, we headed out to see a few sights around the park. First, we made a brief stop at Beehive - mounds of rocks in the shape of those old fashion man made beehives. We then continued on to Mouse tank for a short hike through a small canyon.
The red rocks rose above us as we walked the sandy canyon floor. Many petroglyphs covered the rock surfaces. The warm air was sweetened by the powerfully rich honey mesquite. The young of a family of White-tailed Antelope Squirrels chased and played among the rocks. And a pair of Lucy's Warblers chipped away loudly from the sages. Above us on the canyon walls, the Say's Phoebe's made their presence known. Sagebrush lizards the same shade of red as the sand raced across the path in front of us. The sights and smell of the evening made up for the actual tank - a cesspool of stagnant algae filled water, which someone had tossed their water bottle into. The tank was tucked down between the smooth rock walls cutting off human access to the pool, so there was no retrieve the bottle without worrying about either taking a plunge into the shallow pool or falling off the other side of the wall into the canyon beyond. We returned on the trail, taking in the the canyon through all our senses.
By the time we reached our car, the sun had disappeared beyond the horizon (if we could see the horizon - being in a canyon it's hard to tell) so we would have to do a whirlwind tour of the rest of the park by twilight.
We drove by the Seven Sisters where some overpaid photographer posed the wedding couple in the middle of the road - perhaps taking the last photo of the happy couple alive before they were plastered over the pavement. The first stars were making their appearance as we pulled up to Elephant Rock. We trekked up the short hill and saw the silhouette of the elephant standing among the boulders. It was almost better this way, because maybe it wouldn't be as impressive in the daylight.
Returning to the campground, we saw many kangaroo rats scurry off the road at the approach of our headlights. We enjoyed a late dinner and watched the stars appear in the increasingly dark sky. We could see the lights from Vegas polluting the sky toward the south, but the lights from the bathroom across our campsite were even more blinding. We found refuge behind some rocks to shield us from the light. It was a warm night, so we stayed up late and laid on the rocks watching space junk and a few falling stars. When it finally cooled down enough, we turned in for the night.
Saturday May 16th
We made it to the airport with time to spare and were even treated to a little drama in the security check. As we were standing in the long line, a woman and her misbehaving child were behind us. When the child bumped into a young guy who wanted to give the kid a high five, the mom freaked out and started yelling at the guy for talking to her child. The guy was a row ahead of us in the snaking line, so whenever the line would snake around the mom and young guy would start yelling at each other. It didn't help of course that the guy was still drunk from the previous night in Vegas. However, it really didn't help when the mom told her child that he shouldn't talk to guys like that, because they are the ones who kidnap kids like him - which made the kid cry. Thankfully the line moved fairly quickly and even more luckily those two people weren't on our flight. And we were able to make it back home without anymore incidents.
Overall it was a great short trip that was a bit of a whirlwind tour. I didn't see the Black Rosy Finches as I had hoped, but I guess that will have to wait until we can make another trip out to the Great Basin National Park.
Ruddy Duck (P)
American Coot (P)
Turkey Vulture (R,V)
Red-tailed Hawk (G,V)
Northern Harrier (R)
Cooper's Hawk (G)
Golden Eagle (R)
Wild Turkey (h) (G)
Morning Dove (P,V)
Rock Pigeon (R)
Broad-tailed Hummingbird (G)
White-throated Swift (V)
Northern Flicker (G)
Hairy Woodpecker - interior west (G)
Red-naped Sapsucker (G)
Williamson's Sapsucker - 1 male 2 females on snag (G)
Ash-throated Flycatcher (V)
Say's Pheobe (V)
Warbling Vireo (G)
Northern Shrike (V)
Black-billed Magpie (R)
Stellar's Jay (G)
Pinyon Jay (G)
Clark's Nutcracker (G)
Common Raven (G,V)
Barn Swallow (G)
Violet Green Swallow (G,V)
Mountain Chickadee (G)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (G)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (G)Golden-crowned Kinglet (G)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (G)
Brown Creeper (h) (G)
House Wren (G)
Rock Wren (V)
Canyon Wren (h) (V)
Townsend's Solitare (G)
American Robin (G)
Hermit Thrush (G)
Northern Mockingbird (R)
Cedar Waxwing (G)
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Audubons (G)
Wilson's Warbler (V)
Lucy's Warbler (V)
Black-throated Gray Warbler (G)
MacGillavary's Warbler (G)
Common Yellowthroat (P)
Western Tanager (G)
Chipping Sparrow (G)
Brewer's Sparrow (R)
Spotted Towhee (G)
Green-tailed Towhee (G)
Dark-eyed Junco - gray-headed (G)
Great-tailed Grackle (P)
Brown-headed Cowbird (G)
Yellow-headed Blackbird (P)
Western Meadowlark (R)
House Finch (V)
Cassin's Finch (G)
Pine Siskin (G,V)
House Sparrow (V)
Other Critter List
Black-tailed Jackrabbit (G)
Desert Cottontail (G)
Rock Squirrel (G)
White-tailed Antelope Squirrel (V)
Merrium's Kangaroo Rat (V)
Uinta Chipmunk (G)
bat sp. (V)
Western Fence Lizard (G)
Sagebrush Lizard (G,V)
Side-blotched Lizard (V)
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard (B)
Desert Horned Lizard (B)
Flowers in Bloom