Nevada History by John C. Evanoff is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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Wheeler Peak & Lehman Caves

The hole and the whole mountainside
by John C. Evanoff
November, 2005

A lot of people like to take a trip for a long weekend and I thought those of you who do would like to know a bit about other parts of Northern Nevada a bit further away from home in Reno.

East across the State on Highway 50 a little more than 300 miles away is the little town of Ely. I intend to write further on “The loneliest highway” and the many attractions along its length, but for this column, I’d like to spend some time on Wheeler Peak and Lehman Caves on the other side of the state in Northern Nevada.

Wheeler Peak is the second highest mountain in Nevada but the highest totally within the borders of the state. Boundary Peak southeast of Mono Lake is the highest but straddles the California-Nevada border. Traveling east on Highway 50 past Ely through Spring Valley, you come upon this impressive mountain and its awesome Snake Range. At 13,063 feet, it dominates your eastern view. The many peaks among the Snake Range are all just above 11,000 feet but Wheeler stands out majestically as the most imposing.

Historically, mining and agriculture are the heritage of the area, but the Goshute, Paiute and Shoshone Indians lived in the region for thousands of years and before that, an earlier culture lived along the shores of the great receding inland seas called Lahontan and Bonneville. The Snake Range, which Wheeler Peak sits dramatically in the center of and the Humboldt Forest surrounding it are covered with pinion pine, a staple of the Indian families living in the area for centuries.

From Highway 50 east just on the northwest side of the mountain, you take Route 73 into Baker and then Route 74 west up the hill. Spend some time at Lehman Caves National Monument, a large limestone cavern at the eastern base of Wheeler. Lehman Cave is the biggest limestone cave structure in the west. The tour is impressive and many people say the shield formations are some of the most beautiful in the world. Don’t be caught without a camera. This hole is much more and your visit will give you breathtaking views of the interior of the earth. The visitor center has an interpretive display, books and information about the geology, life zones and archaeology of the area.

Then the route takes you up the hill along Lehman Creek to Wheeler Peak Campground. Catch your breath along the way because your overnight stay at the campground is above 10,000 feet. By the way, fishing is good for brook trout and rainbow all along the creek. Of course, if you don’t want to camp, you can always stay in Baker or Ely, but the camping is spectacular here. Between the rustling leaves of the Mountain Mahogany and Quacking Aspen groves and the gurgle of the little Lehman Creek brook, you should sleep comfortably and the nights are filled with some of the best astronomical views in the entire state. These skies are by astronomer standards some of the darkest in the west. If you have a telescope or binoculars, bring them along and be prepared to spend hours looking at the clear star filled sky.

In the morning, after a nice sized breakfast, pack your backpack well and begin the trek up Solace Trail, which passes both Stella and Teresa Lakes. A short distance from Teresa Lake a trail winds three or so miles into the ancient bristlecone pine forest and the Wheeler Peak glacial icefield. If you take this route, expect to spend several hours taking pictures and discovering the feeling of being around natures oldest living things. Some of the trees in this small area are over 5,000 years old.

If you wish to climb Wheeler, just past Teresa Lake on the right, about a mile and a half from where you camped, you’ll find the Wheeler Peak Trail. You should be in pretty good shape to make the ascent to the summit from there. Winds can be strong and chilly, so be prepared to layer. The trail leads to the old heliograph station at the top. The heliograph was used by the US Calvary before the advent of the telegraph to send messages from mountain peak to mountain peak and then to forts across the countryside. The views of Utah and Nevada from the top are spectacular. You’ll want to eat a small lunch and take in this fantastic view before you head back down the trail.

There are several other hiking trails in the region including Baker Creek Trail, which leads from Baker Creek Campground seven miles up into Baker Lake. I’ve seen a couple elk, lots of deer, a few kit fox, bobcat and rabbit along the trail. Fly Fishing for trout at Baker Lake is excellent. West of Baker Lake is Mt. Washington, which has its own ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and if you have the time, it’s worth the journey to discover its beauty and serenity. Massive cliffs along the Big Wash Trail south of the Baker Lake trail are some of the most unusual in the world. The quartz and limestone give the cliffs an ethereal feel. At certain times of the day, the shadows and colors of the canyon walls will fill your mind with images you will remember for a lifetime. South of Mt. Washington along the Highland Ridge trail are Lincoln Peak and Granite Peak, both just over 11,000 feet in elevation. The southern most trail along Lexington Creek takes you up to Lexington Arch, a large limestone arch more than six stories high. Lexington Arch is one of the most highly sought after photographs in the area.

Wheeler Peak and Lehman Caves are the Great Basin National Parks centerpiece for all its diversity and recreation. Lehman Caves are open year around but remember that most of the roads are closed in the winter above 7,000 feet, so the best time to visit is June through October. Also, the road up to Wheeler Peak Campground is an extreme grade and you should have the vehicle that can take the extended climb. For you equestrians, there are horse loading facilities at Wheeler Peak Campground. Horseback is by far one of the best ways to see a lot of country in this scenic area in a short amount of time.

I’ve walked all over the Wheeler Peak area and can tell you from experience that you will find reasons to explore and discover the region more than once. The changes in colors of the seasons are dramatic and the fall colors are extraordinary. If you are an artist or photographer, bring your easel or camera. You will be back time and time again to capture those moments.

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