Great Basin National Park offers a dramatic landscape lush with mystery and wonder (and that's just the sky)
The mountain ranges of Great Basin are only half the story — the dramatic clouds complete the picture.
If you’re coming from Las Vegas, I recommend that you drive into Great Basin National Park as the sun is setting. That way, you get the full effect of an unusual phenomenon. After a leisurely, six-hour cruise through the railroad toy towns, curio communities and pocket farms dotting US 93, you expect denouement in a wild place with few people. But the opposite occurs. Day’s end doesn’t creep into Great Basin National Park quietly; it enters with great and sustained drama. The Great Basin evening sky deepens and surges with an orchestral, momentous, even metropolitan energy. The lush dark is layered and sophisticated, and it’s as though it knows it. You have found yourself in a place that consciously proposes to be the inverse of Las Vegas.
What I mean is that in Las Vegas, we’ve washed out the night sky proper with our casino flash and flicker. We’ve essentially installed an artificial night sky on the ground. The Strip is an engineered constellation. By contrast, the Great Basin National Park is considered to have one of the darkest night skies in the lower 48 states — but that factoid is almost misleading. It is certainly dark. But there’s so much going on in this fertile dark. Framed by streaking, lens-shaped clouds and pine-dotted peaks, the sky plunges into opulent gradations of blue, violet and a purple that seems almost liquid. Many of us think of the sky as an absence of land, a cipher or a blank canvas; except for the occasional bird or plane up there, most of the interesting things happen on the ground. This will change that way of thinking. The Great Basin evening sky is a landscape unto itself.
We gazed for a good 20 minutes until a park cop roused us from our reverie, nudging us out of the picnic area as official hours ended. However, we found a nearby vantage point just outside the park, a gravel lot where astronomy buffs and nightside shutterbugs often set up telescopes and cameras that look achingly fragile, complex and expensive. But we had the area to ourselves; no car domelights or cell phone screens to poke holes in this inky, gathering scrim. We’d never been so excited to see the somethingness of so much nothing. There was a dare in it; we were giddy to see just how dark it would get.
The starlight emerges with a sense of aggression. Yes, we all mentally supply the word “twinkle” when it comes to stars, but there’s no temptation (or reason) to use that here. The stars flare in varying intensities, giving you a sense of space’s ferocious depths. Never mind constellations. There are so many stars that the constellations get crowded out of the visual field as laughable human constructs, quaint organizational schemes.
But what’s with that errant smear of fog muddying the view? It’s a mistlike ribbon that neatly spans the whole sky like a stripe on a beach ball. That’s the Milky Way.
I’ll get off the sky in a minute, but first let me point out how the clouds at Great Basin have this juicy, tufted quality like someone spooned dollops of cream on a painting. That’s what we saw on the drive into the park to hike the Alpine Loops trail. This moderate hike takes you through a forest of Ponderosas creaking in the breeze and elm trees — which, at this time, were starting to drop soft, leathery yellow leaves that look like gold coins. (And some of the plush glens with their meandering, stone-choked streams are so mythically green that you half-expect a leprechaun to startle you on the path.) The trail connects with a few small brook-fed lakes: Stella, a murmuring gray-green lake bordered by chocolate-brown boulders, lined with Ponderosas that look like they’ve stopped in mid-march to the edge of the water. Not far is Lake Teresa, a gravelly bowl fed by a crooked stream, where we saw two mule deer shyly step down for a drink.
On the way back, we ran into a park ranger on the trail, who stopped to offer advice on the area’s best photo ops. The park rangers are worth mentioning because they’re avatars of eerie near-perfection, looking like catalog models in their trim beige and green outfits, tucked and tailored, complete with the trademark broad-brimmed hat. They’re unflappably cheerful and indulgent as saints when being asked dumb questions. Some, in their more casual moments, talk about flora and fauna like surf bums, riffing on where to find “gorgeous b-cones” — that is, bristlecones — the noble and twisted ogre-kings that live quiet and mighty at the higher elevations. If you play your cards right, you might score an invitation to a park ranger’s house. In this world, their fancy telescopes have the equivalent cachet and appeal of a great wine cellar.
Great Basin National Park Superintendent Andy Ferguson says, “This is how national parks used to be. You feel like you have it to yourself. You’re not a number. You’re not crowded.” With only 90,000 people visiting a year, it can afford such boutique charms.
At night, townies often gather at the bar at the Border Inn, a nearby motel. There, you’ll find young hikers, old bikers, ranchers and water activists sipping wine and plotting the latest countermoves against Pat Mulroy’s pipeline plan, which aims to draw water from, among other places, Snake Valley and Spring Valley, which bookend the park on the east and west. Opponents say the pipeline would dry up the land and send dust into the air, clouding half their assets: the largely unspoiled night sky. It would be a shame, they say, especially now that there’s a movement to build an observatory in the park. The Great Basin National Park Foundation board recently voted to endorse the observatory proposal, and a fundraising campaign is ratcheting up.
Earlier this evening, a mandolin/guitar/cello trio called Trotta & Ronstadt performed a funk-inflected roots-rock set in the auditorium adjoining the Border Inn’s restaurant. It was a fundraiser to support the Great Basin Water Network’s fight against the pipeline plan, but you wouldn’t know such a grim issue loomed from the festivity of it; everyone from squealing toddlers to sun-baked bikers were tapping their feet. After Trotta & Ronstadt’s set — in which they dished out everything from ballads led by Michael Ronstadt’s sonorous cello to antic, sunny anthems fronted by Dave Trotta — the band invited anyone with an instrument on stage. Many locals raced home and returned with guitars and even some violins.
Trotta & Ronstadt are veteran road dogs who log countless miles a year — and, no doubt, log plenty of sights and parties, too. But after the show — exhausted but smiling, nerves keyed up from the musical buzz — where did they want to go? Outside. They walked out the back door of the Border Inn, beyond the lights, through the dirt lot, amid zipping bats and across the field, out, out — for a taste of that luxurious dark.
Thanks to Lynn Davis and David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association.