Sunday, April 18, 2021

Tips for Visiting Great Basin National Park in Late Spring/Early Summer


Late spring and early summer can be a great time to visit Great Basin National Park, as long as you don't expect to go up into the high country. The snow stays up there in large amounts usually until mid-May to mid-June. In other words, don't expect to see the bristlecones, sub-alpine lakes, or climb Wheeler Peak unless you're willing to do a substantial amount of snowshoeing at high elevation. Fortunately, there are other fun things to do, but they might not be apparent at first. Here are some suggestions.

1. Lehman Caves Visitor Center -- Check out the new exhibits focused on Discover the Dark, about the cave and night skies. While you're there, you can see a lone bristlecone tree in the island between parking lots (transplanted there in 1976). The nearby Mountain View Nature Trail is 1/4 mile long and goes through pinyon-juniper woodland and next to the natural entrance of Lehman Caves. (Very) limited Lehman Caves tours (only 6 tours per day with 20 people on a tour) start May 26. Reservations only, available one month ahead of time. You can see this cool Virtual Cave Tour that takes you through extra parts of the cave. (The Great Basin Visitor Center in Baker will be closed all year due to staffing shortages.)

2. Easy hikes - In addition to the Mountain View Nature Trail, here are a few other easy hikes:

Baker Creek area: Pole Canyon hike is an out and back with nice spring wildflowers and is great for kids. If you want something longer, you can make a 7-mile loop with Timber Creek, but be prepared for snow at the pass. There's a lovely 1/2-mile trail between Grey Cliffs Loop C and Baker Creek Campground (part of the longer 7-mile loop). Most people miss this one. It goes through a variety of habitats and has fantastic birding opportunities. As snow melts off, the South Fork Baker-Baker Creek loop (3.5 miles) is lovely, but early in the season you will get wet feet.

Lehman Creek area: The Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive follows along Lehman Creek. At Upper Lehman Campground, you can hike the 3.4 mile-trail up to Wheeler Peak campground. It will be snow-covered at the higher elevations into June. At the Osceola Ditch pulloff is the lovely Osceola Ditch trail that goes down into the ponderosa pines and then follows the rather flat ditch route to Strawberry Creek. There is often a lot of water running across the first part of the trail, and then snow drifts later on, but this is one of the better early season trails. 

3. Interesting Drives

Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive - the drive opens in stages as the snow melts. During the winter it's closed at Upper Lehman Campground. Then the road opens to Osceola Ditch, then to Mather Overlook, then to the Summit Trailhead, and then finally to the Bristlecone Trailhead. You get great views, but beware that there aren't guardrails for most of it and be sure to put your vehicle in low gear on the way down so you don't burn up your brakes.

Baker Creek Road - look for marmots and drive slowly, as they aren't the brightest creatures around! But they are cute! And the custom-made marmot crossing signs are fun to see.

Strawberry Creek - check out how the watershed is doing after a 4,500 acre wildfire in 2016. At the end of the road is a lovely 1.5 mile loop trail up through a meadow and back through a burned area.

Snake Creek - located south of Baker, the road follows the creek closely. The Serviceberry Trail makes for a good hike, although will have snow on it probably until June. Trails at the end of the road lead up into the high country, and will be snow covered at higher elevations. The Spring Creek Rearing Station is outside the park and allows visitors. There's not much to see, but if you've never seen where trout are raised to stock streams and lakes, it's worth a short visit. 

Lexington Canyon -  the road towards Lexington Arch is currently in decent shape. It's gravel and dirt (like most roads around here) and if it's been dry for awhile, it will be dusty. On the way to the new trailhead area for the arch you pass some beautiful wildflowers and see another area recovering from a big wildfire, this one in 2013. The Arch is a nice spring/early summer hike. There's very little shade, so it can get hot when the temperatures rise. The trailhead has been washed out by post-fire floods, so you'll have to park when the road gets bad and hike from there. It adds about a mile each way.

4. Camping

1. Park campgrounds-This year Upper Lehman, Lower Lehman, and Grey Cliffs Campgrounds went to a reservation system (, with reservations allowed up to 6 months in advance. Summer weekends are mostly booked already. Wheeler Peak campground is closed for the summer due to renovations. Baker Creek Campground is first-come, first-served and will probably fill by 1 or 2 pm all summer long. Checkout is at 12 pm. 

2. Snake Creek has free campsites, first-come, first-served.

2. Private campgrounds/RV sites are available at the Whispering Elms, Baker Fuel and RV (run by Stargazer Inn), Hidden Canyon Ranch, and the Border Inn. Whispering Elms and Hidden Canyon Ranch have the most shade and books out far in advance. See Where To Stay in Great Basin | Baker, Nevada — Discover Great Basin (

3. Sacramento Pass Recreation Area is a free campground run by the BLM. It is about 10 minutes from Baker on Highway 6 & 50. It is the main overflow for the Park and also fills quickly. You can find other places to camp outside the park.

4. Dispersed camping is allowed on BLM land. Some of the basics: 14-day limit, try to use an area that's already disturbed, don't make new fire rings (there are some nifty portable fire rings available), haul out human waste or bury at least 6 inches deep, and overall leave no trace

5. Lodging and Food

There are a variety of Motels/hotels/AirBnBs in the area. They are already booking far ahead this summer. Find more at Where To Stay in Great Basin | Baker, Nevada — Discover Great Basin (

For Food, 2021 may be the best Food year for the area! It's looking like more options! The Border Inn is open 7 days a week, with the kitchen from 6 am to 10 pm and convenience store 24 hours. Highway 487 grill is open 6 days a week (closed Wednesdays) for lunch and dinner. The Great Basin Cafe is open 7 days a week for brunch, lunch, and early dinner. Sugar, Salt, and Malt is expecting to open in early May for all three meals. Kerouac's opens May 21 with special drinks and small plates. And there may be a Mexican food truck option also. Plus Hidden Canyon does special dinners for their guests. Find out more at Where to Eat and Drink In Great Basin — Discover Great Basin (

Crystal Ball Cave with its amazing crystals

6. Worthwhile Options Outside the Park

Baker Archaeological Site - this is a short stop, but interesting to learn about how the Fremont people had a small village near Baker hundreds of years ago, with buildings aligned with the sun and stars. Use the booklet as you take the self-guided trail to learn more. Nice covered picnic area and pit toilet. Day use only. 

Pruess Lake - located south of Garrison, Utah, this is where we go to swim, kayak, paddleboard, fish, and sail (and ice skate in the winter). Lake levels drop throughout the summer, so early to mid summer is the best time for swimming. 

Crystal Ball Cave - this BLM cave is managed by site stewards with cave tours. The cave is very cool, like going into a giant geode! Cave tours are Monday-Saturday, reservations required (this cave tour is amazing, recommended donation $12-$15/person). You might like to combine it with a trip to nearby Devils Gate Slot Canyon, a short but fun canyon.

Sacramento Pass Trails - along with free camping, the Sacramento Pass Recreation Area has single track mountain bike, equestrian, and hiking trails. These are great early in the season or early in the day. There's also a pond with good fishing.

North Snake Range Hikes - The North Snake Range is a rugged wilderness filled with surprises. There's great hiking at Hendry's Creek and Smith Creek. Hampton Creek takes more effort, but you can find some garnets and an old mining area. Silver Creek is fun for mountain biking. The Table and Mt. Moriah top the range and are an all-day effort (or more) to visit and should be saved for later summer and autumn.

Crystal Peak  - Volcanic rock sparkles like crystal in the late afternoon sun. Check out they pygmy ponderosa pines. Along the edges is a fossil-bearing rock, the same as found at nearby Fossil Mountain.

Ibex/Tule Valley - Located 45 minutes east of Baker towards Delta, we like to go to Ibex and Tule Valley for rock climbing at Ibex Cliffs and bike riding on the dry playa. This is also a good place to camp.

Notch Peak  - Notch Peak is an obvious peak to the east, with the highest limestone cliff in North America. Base jumpers frequent it. I find hiking to the top plenty of excitement for me. Snow may be hanging out in shady spots into late May. Bristlecone pines are found to the north.

Cleve Creek - Found in Spring Valley, about 9 miles north of Highway 6 & 50, designated campground and beautiful area in the Schell Creek Range.

Ely, NV: 

Delta, UT: 

Milford, UT: 

All over: look at the amazing night skies Tips for Milky Way Photography

These are just a few suggestions, click on the links to see additional information. If you'd like more, read my book! It is full of natural and cultural history of the area, places to visit, and more.

I hope this gives you a little better idea of what to expect. There are lots of things to do in the area, but they might not always be apparent and they might require a little more work than other places. I find that's part of the charm. 

Things change slowly out here, and that's rare in the world these days. It's nice to find a place where you can get out of cell range (or put your phone in airplane mode and pretend you are), see the amazing Milky Way galaxy at night stretching across the sky, and listen to the sounds of nature. 

Time seems to move at a different speed out here, and if you come out, I encourage you to take a deep breath and settle in. This is a place that grows on you. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Spring Break in Death Valley National Park

The kids wanted to go somewhere warm for spring break, so we decided to head to Death Valley. I had taken them to Death Valley eight years ago, but they didn't really remember it. Maybe this time they will! We took off from Beatty and headed to Titus Canyon and got out a couple bikes so we could take turns riding down the fun canyon.

We had managed to reserve a site at Furnace Creek Campground for one night (spots are scarce!), and got in some sleep despite a massive wind storm that night. The next morning we headed off early to the lowest elevation spot in the western hemisphere, at Badwater Basin. Desert Girl tried to hold her breath at -282 feet below sea level. The mountains are a little hazy because of all the dust in the air.

Flashback: here they are eight years ago! 

Desert Boy liked Devil's Golf Course with the interesting salt formations.

We found an interesting arachnid in a canyon. Maybe a solfugid?

We explored an unnamed side canyon so we skipped Golden Canyon, which had a full parking lot and cars spilling out onto the highway. We continued north to Harmony Borax Works, where we learned about how borax was extracted and concentrated. It was quite interesting. I can't imagine the work, it sounded quite awful, with boiling cauldrons and terribly long transports.

Spring is a good time to visit Salt Creek to see the mating pupfish. The species that lives in this spring is endemic (only found) in Death Valley. We saw hundreds, maybe thousands, of them. In a couple months, the water will dry up near the boardwalk. Hopefully some of the pupfish we saw will make it closer to the headwaters to survive.

I enjoyed this exhibit about what the area would have looked like during Pleistocene times.

I had wanted to see Scotty's Castle area, as I worked there 24 years ago. I knew that it was closed due to flooding, but I didn't know that the road to it was closed three miles down, including closed to foot and bike traffic. Instead we went over to Ubehebe Crater. When I worked at the park, that was a five-minute stop for most people. We found a full parking lot and lots of people picnicking and hiking. 

The kids and I went around the crater, about 1.5 miles hike. We saw lots of people. And some googly eyes.

Little Hebe Crater was cool. Beyond it we could see the backcountry road we would soon be embarking on.

It led us to teakettle junction, which sports a plethora of teakettles.

Maybe because of the little sign in the corner: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but teakettles.

From there we headed to the Racetrack. I couldn't remember exactly where the moving rocks were on the dry lakebed, so we wandered a bit. We found this cool lizard.

And eventually we found rocks and trails. So cool!

We investigated a few.

Then it was on to our backcountry camp, the Homestake Dry Camp. I was surprised by how many people were there, 11 groups at the camp itself, plus another 1/4 mile down and another 1/4 mile up from the camp. 

We were higher elevation, so it was cold, in contrast to the balmy night at Furnace Creek. The next morning we got up and explored the nearby mine. The kids showed their dance moves on a big slab of concrete we found. (Wow, pouring concrete that far out!)

We had fun checking out an old car.

This mine (Lippincott?) was quite well preserved.

Some idiots had cut through the protective netting and descended into the adits. I love caves, but know that exploring mines is much more dangerous. I like the mantra, Stay out, Stay alive. We found very crumbly rock near the entrances of the mines, and some had multiple rocks on the floor, so we stayed out.

A horizontal adit had also been breached. Sure, those tracks look inviting, but we stayed out.

Next came a road I had never been on, the Lippincott Road. It wasn't on the park newspaper map, but I knew it existed. There was a sign at the beginning warning that 4x4 high clearance was needed, no tow service, and use caution.

I wanted to do it on my bike and found a few sections so steep and rocky that I walked the bike. 

The road didn't look too bad from a distance.

But up close there were some really rocky parts that took full concentration. My husband did very well.

I found an old "Entering Death Valley National Monument" sign. The park boundaries were expanded when it became a national park in 1994. 

We weren't the only ones on the road. Four vehicles followed us at a distance. We passed one guy who was "just out exploring" and wondered what road this was and what it was like. He planned to go uphill in his 4WD pickup. Going downhill is enough adventure for me (and enough bumpiness). 

When we exited the canyon we were in Saline Valley. To the north are clothing optional hot springs. We headed south to get to pavement, which didn't look that far on the map, but took over two hours. We passed many more vehicles. That was the thing that has changed the most since I worked there--Death Valley is so popular now, even the remote backcountry places. It's gorgeous, but you really have to be prepared to go into the backcountry. We saw one vehicle changing a flat tire but fortunately avoided any ourselves. 

We headed to Stovepipe Wells and secured a tent camping site on the edge of the 195-site parking lot (the tent sites on the edge get a bit of sand). Across the road you can get a pool pass for $5/person, which we happily did, as it was over 80 degrees. A bit later we went up in Mosaic Canyon, ordered a take-out meal (no dining in permitted), and wandered into the sand near our campsite.

After another beautiful night (the night skies are amazing in Death Valley), we woke up to clouds with a bit of sunshine. It has been so dry that we only saw a handful of flowering plants. This was quite a change from my visit for 2016's Superbloom. Fortunately, one of our favorite Mojave Desert plants, desert creosote, was blooming.

It happened to be April 1 when we were in Death Valley. An owl magically found its way to us and dropped off Desert Girl's acceptance letter to Hogwarts. She was not amused. 

Our last stop before heading home was the sand dunes. The big parking lot is another change, and much safer than when people just parked along the side of the road.

We found some dunes that were tall enough for good rolling.
By 9 am, it was getting quite warm. If you visit much later than that, you probably will have to wear shoes. We really liked going barefoot!

It was a lovely trip, and we were grateful that everything went smoothly. Our only hiccup was a delay when tow trucks pulled up a Fed Ex trailer from the side of the road. 

Death Valley National Park is a great spot to visit in fall, winter, and spring. Do plan where you're going to stay at night, as it is getting very popular, and that may influence your itinerary.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Looking for Frog Eggs

Recently I had the opportunity to help the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources look for spotted frog eggs. The females lay their eggs in the spring, often when it seems unseasonably cold! Fortunately the snow had melted, but we were still wearing coats and hats.

I went to a spring I had never been to before. It was like many desert springs, isolated and surrounded by vegetation that can withstand the heat and dryness of the summer. Within the spring, it's so different. The water provides an opportunity for different creatures to survive.
It had been several years since I had looked for frog egg masses, but fortunately it didn't take long to regain my search image. Each female lays one cluster of eggs. We count the clusters and determine their age range.

How many clusters do you see in the photo below? I say at least 17. That means 17 spotted frogs laid egg clusters here!

Most of the egg clusters were relatively young, but we did find a few tadpoles. You might have to use your imagination a little, the photo isn't good.

The frogs were very quiet and I only saw one, which fortunately a colleague caught. The spotted frogs are not very large.

It is so cool seeing new life and spring starting. I appreciate the opportunity to look for the frog eggs. Have you seen any this spring?

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