Magazine article Sunset

Our Newest National Park, Nevada's Great Basin

Magazine article Sunset

Our Newest National Park, Nevada's Great Basin

Article excerpt

Our newest national park, Nevada's Great Basin

Bristlecone pines make a 4,000-year standon quartzite ridges. In more temperate canyons, curtains of aspen scatter the sunlight, and the air smells of sage. Toward dusk, mountain shadows draw across the desert floor for a county or two until the sun drops below the horizon and the stars are revealed, so numerous in these clear night skies that landmark constellations dissolve in general dazzle. This is some of what you'll see at America's newest national park, Great Basin, in eastern Nevada. It's the first national park to be established in the conterminous United States in 15 years, the first ever for Nevada.

The park occupies 76,000 acres near Baker,close to the Utah border. That's not in many back yards, but if you're traveling the West this summer, Great Basin is well worth a day or two, or more. Spring lingers in the canyons this month; higher elevations open up in June.

After 60 years, park status for "a really neat place'

Great Basin National Park comprises theformer Lehman Caves National Monument, Wheeler Peak Scenic Area, and additional lands of Humboldt National Forest. Its designation was not an overnight occurrence--the idea was first broached some 60 years ago. Nor was it without controversy this time around.

Supporters saw desert-to-alpine sceneryeasily deserving of national park status, and visitor dollars benefiting the region. Opponents saw the park as a threat to mining and ranching, two traditional mainstays of eastern Nevada's economy.

A third group supported the park butfeared it was being established in lieu of wildernesses on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. (Nevada is the only Western state still without a wilderness law. One bill has been introduced in this session of Congress, but environmentalists believe it sets aside far too little land.)

As the park bill advanced, the 75 citizensof Baker became media celebrities, entertaining reporters with strong opinions pro and con. But even those most vehemently opposed to the park admitted that their land of desert and mountains was indeed something special. One resident who collared a Sunset editor to express opposition ended up rhapsodizing: "It's really neat here. People who take the Interstate across Nevada never see this. But this place is really neat.'

In the end a compromise park was created,with some lands of interest to miners left out, and grazing permitted.

Caves, peaks, and canyons

The park lies 70 miles east of Ely off U.S.Highway 50, and 290 miles north of Las Vegas (via U.S. 93). From U.S. 50, you turn south on State 487 and drive 5 miles to Baker, then turn west on State 488 and drive 5 miles to park headquarters. You'll see as you climb that the park's name is slightly misleading. Relatively little occupies the Great Basin floor; it straddles the South Snake Range, one of the Basin's north-south mountain chains.

Park headquarters, open from 8 to 5 daily,offers maps, guidebooks, exhibits, films, and a restaurant. Beneath the slope behind the headquarters stretch Lehman Caves. Pioneer Absalom Lehman discovered them in 1885 and led visitors on candlelight tours that could last 8 hours. Today's tours boast electric lights and a considerably faster pace: 1 1/2 hours.

After opening an entrance door thatcreaks as portentously as did the one on radio's Inner Sanctum, rangers lead you into the first of many rooms, the Gothic Palace. It and the others came into being 2 to 5 million years ago. Faulting fractured layers of limestone and marble; then rainwater-more plentiful in Nevada then than now--seeped into the fractures, enlarging them. Water is also responsible for the extravagance of the interior formations --stalactites and stalagmites, draperies, and shields that extend from the cave walls like dripping plates.

Cave tours run every day of the year from9 to 4; cost is $2 adults. …

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