Hiking Wheeler Peak

Wheeler Peak is the highest point in the Snake Range and the second highest summit in the Great Basin. At 13,063 feet, it soars over 8,000 feet above the surrounding desert. Wheeler is a famous mountain, and deservedly so. It is a place of great cliffs, lush timberline forests, rugged canyons, emerald lakes and ancient bristlecone pine groves. Below its sheer northeastern face, at the head of Lehman Creek, lies a small, crevassed ice field-possibly the Great Basin's only true glacier. Until a few years ago, Wheeler's rarified air supported Prometheus, the world's oldest known bristlecone pine tree-at 4,900 years, perhaps the oldest living thing to ever grace this earth.

In 1986, after an interval of 60 years (the first proposals to protect the area were made in the 1920s), the mountain's unique and rugged beauty was finally recognized with the establishment of Great Basin National Park, the first of its kind in the Basin and Range Province. The park protects much of the southern Snake Range and its accompanying drainages; Wheeler Peak and the extensive Lehman Caves are the region's crown jewels. The park is located in Nevada, near the Utah border, west of Delta, Utah.

In spite of its height, the hike to Wheeler Peak is relatively easy compared to most 13,000-footers, as the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive takes care of the first 10,000 feet for you. The drive terminates at the Wheeler Peak Campground. From the campground, well-signed, well-traveled trails lead to a cluster of lakes, to the afore-mentioned ice field in the glacier-hollowed cirque, to the bristlecone pine groves, and to Wheeler Peak. The through-hike to Wheeler is five miles long and ascends over 3,000 vertical feet; plan on at least four hours one way. Before hitting the trail, be sure to purchase the necessary maps, most of which are available at the park visitor center. A good place to start is the Great Basin National Park map published by Earthwalk Press.

From the Wheeler Peak Campground, follow the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail about a quarter-mile to a junction; the fork to the left accesses the Bristlecone Interpretive Site, Wheeler Glacier, and Teresa and Stella Lakes; the right fork goes to Wheeler Peak. Crossing the western head of Lehman Creek, the trail contours up a gentle slope through the forest. Most of the trees here are Engelmann spruce, a species that thrives in the Snakes but is found nowhere to the west. Presently, the Summit Trail adjoins on the right; this route runs back to an alternate trailhead below Bald Mountain. Stay to the left. A little later, keep right at a third junction not far from the shore of Stella Lake. The right fork beyond this third junction switches back north up a forested wall, swings west through a broad meadow, and turns south to timberline.

Soon, you've emerged atop a wind-blown ridge that looks down on the azure expanse of Stella and up at Wheeler's massive northern ridge. Krummholz limber pine, scrubby aspens, and low-to-the-ground spruce tremble in the mountain gusts. After a time, you reach a broad, rocky, almost barren saddle: the crest of the Snake Range. Views opening up to the west encompass aspen-lined drainages dropping away to Spring Valley. Climbing south up the steep, endless-looking, red-brown slope, the trail becomes vague and easy to lose; cairns help you find your way. The rust-colored rock is quartzite, which is actually a sandstone that has been transformed by tremendous heat and pressure into a very dissimilar kind of rock. Don't slip here-the quartzite will tear you to shreds (wear sturdy boots!).

The climb becomes a long and unvarying pull, though the views are constantly expanding-birds-eye perspectives of the three lakes or moraines open up to the northeast, and then far below, the vast length of Snake Valley comes into view. A little more huffing and puffing brings you to the summit, which is rubbled with a brown slaty rock. Looking to the west you can see hints of the mountain's ancient dome-like structure: the big northeast and southeast drop-offs show where glaciers in the Lehman and Baker Creek drainages gnawed the dome away. The easternmost brink offers acrophobia-inducing views of the Wheeler cirque and its resident glacier, a dizzying 1,700 feet below.

Winter ascent

Truly hardy adventurers might be interested in climbing Wheeler Peak during the snow-bound winter or early spring months. A good first step is purchasing the United States Geologic Survey 7.5 "Wheeler Peak, Nevada" and "Windy Peak, Nevada" quadrangle maps, which are available through the USGS, the Great Basin Natural History Association ( 775-234-7270), and the park visitor center. The route begins at Lehman Creek Campground. Most parties will require at least two days to make the ascent: the first day encompassing a hike/ski/snowshoe to Wheeler Peak Campground; the next, a snowshoe/ski/alpine-style climb to the summit and descent back to LCC. The most direct route to WPC is up Lehman Creek. An alternate route would be the 10-mile trek up the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.

From Wheeler Peak Campground, route-find your way through snow-bound forest to the vicinity of Stella Lake, ascend the western wall to the saddle between Wheeler and Bald Mountain, then climb up the ridge to the peak.

Depending on the season, the lower elevations could be snow-free; Wheeler Peak Campground and the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail are buried under three to six feet of snow well into May. Above timberline, Wheeler can be windswept and fairly clean along its north ridge. The climb is not technically difficult mountaineering-wise, but the skiing can be dangerous in places-in low visibility conditions it would be easy to get off route. Expect severe weather even on clear days: cold temperatures, high winds and wind chill factors, sudden storms, and avalanche danger. Stop at the visitor center before your climb to purchase the appropriate maps, check the weather forecast and current avalanche conditions, and complete a voluntary backcountry registration form for your party.