Wheeler Peak Overlooks ~ Great Basin National Park

Wheeler Peak Overlooks ~ Great Basin National Park

When the hot summer temperatures set in, it makes sense to take a little vacation somewhere that offers relief from the heat.  In the Desert Southwest, this means pointing the car in a northerly direction or climbing up the mountains to a higher elevation.  The temperatures do cool off dramatically in the mountains that are just a one day drive north of Las Vegas, so some cool relief from the extreme heat of summer is not too far away!

A vacation destination in Nevada that is perfect for cooling off during the hot summer season is the Great Basin National Park.  The Great Basin Highway (Highway 93) runs right through Las Vegas, Kingman and Phoenix in the heart of the baking hot Desert Southwest. This long travel corridor goes north directly to the Great Basin National Park, so a tourist will not even need a map to navigate the way there!  The entire drive is 300 miles from Las Vegas and there is plenty of picturesque Great Basin Desert scenery to take in.  Cathedral Gorge State Park, Caliente, Pioche and several other scenic Nevada destinations are located along the way.  There are gas stations, restaurants, campgrounds and motels located at fairly regular intervals on Highway 93, but for the most part, this part of the Great Basin Desert is a wide open territory with uninterrupted panoramic views.  

The closest city to the Great Basin National Park is Ely, Nevada and this is where modern accommodations can be found. Ely is about 45 minutes away from the Great Basin National Park, so those who are less reliant on modern amenities may be better off choosing Baker, Nevada for a basecamp. Baker is located next to the park entrance and anything that an outdoorsman may need can be found in this small gateway town. Baker has dining options, limited lodging and a couple of trading posts, which is all that is needed to make the journey complete.

The Great Basin National Park definitely is one of the most beautiful places on earth and the views of Wheeler Peak are nothing less than majestic!  From the mountains in this park, the scenic views extend through the vast Great Basin Desert to the horizon.  The mountains in the park are so high that they are draped with clouds on any given day, which is quite a sight to see!  

This region of the Great Basin Desert does draw a fair share of rainfall during the spring and early summer seasons, especially in the high elevations, so most of the vast open stretches of desert in this region are lush with fresh plant growth.  It is amazing how beautiful a green desert landscape looks, because this is not often thought of as being a characteristic of deserts in general. Where there is rainfall and green growth, there is plenty of wildlife and the most often seen animal in this region is a variety of rabbits, which are quite abundant at times. During early summer the Great Basin National Park certainly is a great destination for wildlife observers, so be sure to bring a camera along for the ride!  

The elevation of the Great Basin National Park is well over a mile high, so the temperatures are comfortable in the summertime.  If cooling off is a high priority, then I highly suggest doing the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive in this National Park.  This scenic drive winds up the mountain to over 10,000 feet above sea level and the air can be 30ºF cooler than down below in the desert basin. The best part about doing this scenic drive is that Wheeler Peak is so tall, that snow sticks to the ground year round in many places near the top.  In fact, the only glacier in Nevada is located way up on top of Wheeler Peak, which is a rare sight indeed!  Just above the roadside 10,000 foot elevation marker, there is a hiking trail that goes to the glacier.  If one can imagine sitting on a beach chair that is parked on an ice cold glacier in the month of July, then one can easily see that going to the Mt Wheeler Glacier is the ultimate way to beat the summertime heat!

Unfortunately there is a downside to the Wheeler Peak Glacier. Because of many years of severe drought and global warming, the glacier has nearly melted away. On last reports that I heard a few years ago, not much was left of the big chunk of ice, but all it takes is a few hard winters for the glacier to return.     

As can be imagined, touring Wheeler Peak is nearly a requirement when visiting the Great Basin National Park. One solitary road goes up to the top of this tall mountain and the entire round trip tour is about 23 miles long. There are several good scenic overlooks on the way uphill that provide great views of the pine forests, the desert valley below and the mountain peak. Some of the featured scenic overlooks actually are wooden deck platforms that high up on a canyon ridge, so the views are nothing less than spectacular! There are even a few telescopes mounted on the viewing platforms, so taking a closer look at Wheeler Peak is easy to do!

Another good place to cool down in the summertime at the Great Basin National Park is Lehman Caves.  The temperature inside Lehman Caves is a constant 50ºF year round!  Tours of Lehman Caves haves have to be reserved ahead of time and the tour is well worth the price of admission. More about the Great Basin National Park Lehman Caves destination will be featured in an upcoming article.  

The Great Basin National Park definitely is a cool comfortable place to be during the summertime! The weather can change with little warning in this mountainous region, so it is best to prepare for the worst, especially when camping. As can be seen in the photos, breaking out the rain fly for the tent will likely be necessary in this Great Basin Desert high elevation micro climate. The campgrounds are rarely full in this park, but making campsite reservations is always a good idea for holiday weekends.

The trip to the Great Basin National Park is well worth the drive and the scenery in these wide open spaces certainly is captivating.  A lot of strange weather phenomena happens in this part of the Great Basin Desert and when a rainbow occurs the colors are guaranteed to be vivid, as can be seen in the photos. The Great Basin National Park certainly is a great place to be during the summer season and the scenic drive getting there will ensure that the pleasant memories will last a lifetime!