Great Basin National Park – Alpine Lakes, Bristlecone and Rock Glacier Trails
Location: Nevada, Great Basin National Park
Distance & Gain: 6.5 Miles, 1,500 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to easy
Type: Combined loop and out-and-back trip
Season: Summer, Fall
Date Hiked: November 4, 2018
Permits and Fees: Free
Description: A loop out to a couple alpine lakes, plus a side trip to a beautiful bristlecone grove and small glacial rock moraine.
I spent an afternoon exploring a few of the trails in the Wheeler Peak area of Great Basin National Park, including a couple of alpine lakes, a grove of ancient bristlecones, and a small glacier. These trails are high up on in the park, at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Road. The trails begin at the Wheeler Peak Campground and pass through the cirques below Wheeler Peak. I combined the Alpine Lakes Loop with the Bristlecone and Rock Glacier Trail to make a nice 6.5 mile hike through the area.
I spent the night at Lower Lehman Campground, getting up around sunrise to make the short drive up the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Road. The Wheeler Peak Campground was closed for the season, so I parked at the nearby Wheeler Peak Trailhead, and geared up while I made coffee. I had been contemplating climbing Wheeler Peak that day, but on this particular morning a fair amount of wind seemed to be blowing up on the ridgelines and a thick layer of cloud was obscuring the summit. This wasn’t ideal climbing weather, so I opted to poke around the trails out of Wheeler Peak Campground. To get down to those trails, I just walked the last half mile stretch of road into the campground.
I jumped on the Alpine Lakes Loop, hanging a right at the first junction. After another mile or so, I arrived at Lake Stella. It was quiet here, and winter was already starting to creep in, with snow on the ground, ice on the lake, and brush going into dormancy. The exposed shoulders of Wheeler were just above me, with a swath of cloud still hiding the peak.
I continued on, passing by Teresa Lake after another 20 minutes or so. The season here was late and the water was low, but the lake was quiet and pretty. A few hundred feet beyond Teresa Lake the loop trail meets up with the Bristlecone and Rock Glacier Trail. I hung a left here, heading toward the bristlecone grove.
The Bristlecone and Rock Glacier Trail wraps around a large slope, opening into a beautiful grove of bristlecone pines after 20 minutes or so. This grove is really nice, with many beautiful examples of these ancient trees. There is a short interpretive loop through a few of the best specimens, with information about bristlecone pines, and ages of a few of the trees.
Bristlecones are some of the heartiest trees in the world. Some of these trees are over 4,000 years old, and their wood is extremely tough. After they die, their stumps can last for another 5,000 years, making some of the stump close to 10,000 years old. There is some old wood here!
Parts of the bristlecone pines will continue to live even after parts of the tree dies, and the dead wood will begin to weather while the rest of the tree continues to grow, twisting the tree into its gnarled shape. It’s a slightly tragic, but nevertheless beautiful, process.
Beyond the bristlecones, the trail continues on to the Rock Glacier, a large moraine of boulders brought down by over many thousands of years by a glacier. Supposedly the glacier can be reached in the summertime, but at this time of year, the trail was cover in snow and crossing the boulder field would have been a pain, so I enjoyed the view from the foot of the moraine, and headed back after a snack and a few pics. Still the area was pretty with nice views of the moraine and surrounding cirque.
This was a nice hike, with fairly easy trails and nice views of the lake and bristlecone pines. Different variations can be done for shorter hikes, and the Alpine Lakes Loop can be combined with the Wheeler Peak Trail for a longer adventure. My personal favorite section was the bristlecone grove, and recommend at least seeing that, if you are looking for a short hike in the area. If you have more time, the lakes and the glacier are great too.
More information for Great Basin National Park is available on the National Park Service Website.