Monday, July 31, 2017

Great Basin National Park’s Cave, Glacier, and Bristlecone Pines: National Park Odyssey Day 30

Want to listen to a podcast about this park instead?  Click here. 
What a surprisingly great park this one was!
We had scheduled our hot breakfast at Hidden Canyon Ranch for 7:30 and scarfed down scrambled eggs, sausage, hashbrowns, and toast before packing a lunch and heading for the Lehman Caves Visitors’ Center which was 30 minutes away.  A couple of weeks earlier, we had bought tickets online for the 9:00 tour, so we checked in and picked up Junior Ranger booklets for the kids. 

Just like at Carlsbad, we were asked if we had visited any other cave in the last nine years.  When we said that we had, the ranger asked if we were wearing or carrying any of the items we wore or carried into our last cave.  We were all wearing the hiking boots we had worn in Carlsbad, and, of course, our camera was the same.  We wiped the camera down with a Clorox wipe, but they had us take off our boots and soak the soles in some sort of cleaning solution for five minutes to avoid spreading white nose syndrome to the cave’s bats.  I guess they think their bats are more fragile than Carlsbad’s bats or something.
The Cypress Room at Lehman Cave
During our 90-minute tour we saw cave formations including stalactites, stalagmites, columns, soda straws, cave popcorn, cave bacon, draperies, and shields.  This cave began as many others in the national park system did, as a privately owned tourist attraction.  From the 1890s to the 1920s, visitors were told, “If you can break it, you can take it,” and from the looks of the many damaged and broken formations, the guests took the challenge seriously. 
Evidence of broken soda straw formations and other broken stalactites
During prohibition, the cave was used as a speakeasy.  Later it was used for meetings of the local chapter of the Elks club, and even later the Boy Scouts had campouts inside.  The low ceiling of The Inscription Room is covered with turn-of-the-century graffiti – names and initials inscribed using smoke and charcoal.  The guide told us that the NPS requires parks to protect anything in the parks that is at least 50 years old, so the graffiti stays.  Never mind that some rangers tried to scrub huge swaths of it off the ceiling at some point, leaving strange illegible black smudges as permanent scars on the rock.
These formations are called parachute shields.  The shield part is the flat disk at the top, and the parachute part is the draping extending off of the shield.

After our cave tour, we drive up to Mather Point to have a picnic lunch, and then we drove to Wheeler Peak Campground to hike the Bristlecone and Glacier Trails.  This would lead to a grove of bristlecone pine trees and then up to the southernmost glacier in the US.  (The idea that there is a glacier in Nevada seems ridiculous, but it’s there nonetheless.)  We ended up adding on the Alpine Lakes Trail as well on our way back down, but that meant that we ended up at the wrong trailhead 0.7 miles from our car at the end.  Josh hiked back on the road to our car and came and picked us up at the end.  He’s a good egg.
Our lunch at Mather Point may not have included a picnic table, but the view made up for that.
The Glacier Trail is an extension of the Bristlecone Trail, and together the elevation gain is 1,100 feet.  I don’t love hiking uphill, but I still really liked this trail.  Being able to see 3200 year old trees, a glacier, alpine lakes, and a grove of Aspens all in one hike (even if we did end up at the wrong place) is extraordinarily interesting and diverse, in my opinion.
Here we are at the beginning of the trail, ready for a hike!
The signs along the Bristlecone Trail loop were very helpful since those trees look very similar to limberpine trees.  Learning the difference helped us not only at Great Basin but at Bryce Canyon as well.  Bristlecones have the ability to “turn off” parts of themselves to conserve resources, so one way to notice the difference is to look for dead plant material.  And it’s not just that these trees live a long time; they also take a long time to decay.  We saw one still-standing tree that had been dead for 600 years! 
Can you see the bristle-like little tips on the end of the cones?
This tree is still standing even though its' been dead for 600 years.
The signage at this park was excellent.
You may be wondering how experts can know when a tree died if there weren’t any tree experts around making notes about dead trees 600 years ago.  Well, as we learned on the interpretive signs, they look at the growth rings of a living tree and compare them to the rings of a dead tree.  All off the trees in an area will have similar growth rings for a given year.  For example, the ring for 1972 looks the same on all the trees in an area.  They just look for rings that are the same to figure out when the tree died!  Science is so cool.  (NOTE:  I am not even close to a botanist, so if I interpreted this all wrong, just tell me below in comments so that future readers can be set straight by someone who knows what they’re talking about.)
The tree over Knox's left shoulder, which appears to be mostly dead, has actually been living for the last 3200 years.  You can see some remaining green above my head.
The placard at the base of the tree
You can learn so much just from reading the signs!

After we had spent adequate time in the awe-inspiring presence of these amazing trees, we proceeded to climb up to the glacier.  Soon, it began to drizzle.  We passed a few people on their way down who said that a storm was coming in.  We heard thunder and came to a sign warning of the dangers of lightning on the exposed mountain.  Neither bristlecones, timberpines, nor any of the other tree species in this area were tall varieties of trees, so Josh was the tallest thing in the area.  I was not crazy about the idea of my husband getting struck by lightning, so I began to get increasingly nervous and to hike as fast as I could stand up the steep slope.
The trail was rocky and gained 1100 feet in elevation.
Up we went!
Another pair of hikers advised us to just hike to the view of the glacier.  They thought that we could beat the storm (and still count the trail as pretty much done) if we stopped at the glacier sign and didn’t do the last ¾ mile to the actual glacier itself.  I was in favor of this, but I didn’t want to make Josh quit early on one of his top-priority hikes for this whole trip. 
Yay!  We made it to the sign!
But then the rain started.  We arrived at the sign (which was very well done and pointed to both the ice part of the glacier and the rock covered part of the glacier), took some pictures, heard more threatening thunder, and skedaddled back down the trail.  Josh was perfectly ok with it all, and we still think we get to say that we hiked to the glacier.  I mean, we could see it.  That counts, right?
The gray part in hte middle of the snowy area is the rock-covered glacier.  Under all that rocky scree, there is an ice core.
Once we were past the bristlecones on the way back down, the rain and thunder stopped.  Since we no longer felt in danger, we decided to take a left and check out the alpine lakes.  What a great choice that was.  They were strikingly beautiful, and the rain had kept most people away.  We first came to Teresa Lake where we sat for a few minutes enjoying the scenery.  We could hear the sound of a little creek emptying into the alpine lake, so we decided to walk around to the right to look for it.  Again, a great choice.
Oh yeah.  This was a seriously high area.  That made the increase in elevation as we hiked even harder.

Teresa Lake was lovely!

This little creek was one of the most scenic spots of our entire trip.  The sound of the tinkling water, the sight of the vibrant pink wildflowers growing along the bank as if they’d been plants by horticulturists at DisneyWorld, the smells of the evergreens and the rich creekside soil – all of these paired with the fact that we didn’t have any preconceived expectations for this part of the trail made the experience magical!
Doesn't this look like something at a botanical garden?!

These pink flowers lined the little creek.

We followed the trail on to Stella Lake and then on through the grove of Aspen trees whose leaves swished in the breeze as though they were trying to whisper a secret just for us.  Their white bark was a stark contrast to the green juniper underneath, and wildflowers dotted the trail’s edge meaning frequent stops for pictures.  What a marvelous setting for our day!
Beautiful Stella Lake

Wildflowers on the forest floor
Knox hikes through the Aspens in a funk.  You can see Kinley ahead of him.  We didn't try to catch them.

I’m sure there are other equally-diverse parks, but I’ve got to say that I can’t think of any where you can get caves, 3200 year old trees, a glacier, Alpine lakes, and Apsen groves, all in a relatively small land area.  I’d tell you to get yourself to this park, but then you might.  And the deserted nature of the park is one of its charms. 

In fact, it's so deserted that when both of our kids became irritated with each other and with us and took off ahead of us up the trail to hike separately on their own, we didn't even care.  We let them hike far ahead of us and just enjoyed the much-needed peace and quiet.  By the time we all caught up with each other a half hour later, nature had done the thing she's so good at.  She brought us all back to a sense of equilibrium, just by experiencing her in peace.

So don’t go.  Stay home.  Go somewhere else. 

And leave all this awesomeness just for us.

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