Another goal for our roadtrip to Nevada to escape wildfire smoke in Southern Oregon was a visit to Great Basin National Park, which is located about 60 miles east of Ely, Nevada. We’d tried this twice before, only to be turned away by lingering snow in one instance and crowds from a car race in another. This late in the summer snow was not an issue and we were just plain lucky in avoiding conflicts with the car race, which was (yet again) running during our visit. Because the weather was not initially supportive of a Wheeler Peak hike (the park’s highest point and the second highest point in Nevada), we spent our first day in the park touring and visiting some of its other attractions, like the Lehman Caves and the Osceola Ditch.
While waiting for our ranger-guided tour of the Lehman Caves, we visited the nearby Rhodes Cabin. From the National Park Service website:
Next to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center sits the historic Rhodes Cabin. The cabin was built in the 1920s by Clarence and Bea Rhodes, who were Forest Service custodians of Lehman Caves at the time. It is one of several built to provide accommodations for visitors to Lehman Caves. Today it contains interpretive exhibits. The cabin measures 19 feet long and 11 feet wide with a front door, a side door, and four windows. It has been moved from its original location, restored, and placed on a concrete foundation. The logs, originally chinked with mud and concrete, are now chinked with cement made to simulate mud. The original roof was plank and sod supported by log beams, and the original floor was dirt.
The Lehman Caves are undoubtedly the most popular attraction in the Park. We hadn’t planned far enough ahead and were only able to get tickets for the shorter (1-hour) Lodge Room tour; the longer (Grand Palace) tour being booked for days ahead. So, if you plan to visit, make a reservation! This is a ranger-guided only tour and they are stringent (as they should be) about keeping White-Nose Syndrome from reaching the cave’s bats. Taking good (or better) photographs in caves is a speciality with which we have no skill whatsoever. That said, here are some snapshots taken with ambient tourist lighting and a total disregard for aesthetics.
After touring a dark cave, some sunshine seemed in order. One of the defining characteristics of gold mining in Southern Oregon was the almost exclusive use of hydraulic methods. The Sterling Mine (Sterling Mine Ditch), the longest lasting and most successful (it actually made a profit!) of the Southern Oregon mines was exclusively hydraulic, with water being brought to the working face via a miles-long ditch (the same was true for the Layton Ditch). Thus we were drawn to the Osceola Ditch, a 15.8-mile dirt trench and 2.2-mile wooden flume system that collected water from Lehman Creek and its tributaries on the east side of the Snake Range and delivered it to the mines at Osceola on the west side. Because of a recent wildfire, we could only follow the old ditch alignment as far as Mill Creek (about 2 miles round trip) but that was enough to once again impress upon us how much effort people were willing to expend to find a little gold (usually not enough to justify the effort). We started our hike from the Osceola Ditch Overlook on the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. From there, it’s 0.3 miles down to the ditch itself.
Upper Pictograph Cave
The LovedOne had found a mention of pictographs on the Park’s website, so we decided to finish off the day with a visit to them. The cave is not gated but the National Park Service does not want people tromping around inside it – to protect the pictographs, the bats, and other cave dwellers (like rattlesnakes). So we didn’t. The pictographs are visible from the outside anyway.
And with that, our really fun day in the Park ended. The weather report had become favorable, so on the ‘morrow we’d have a go at hiking to the summit of Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet the park’s highest point. The gigantic glacial cirque below Wheeler’s summit is perhaps the most spectacular single feature in the mountains of Nevada. Bearing a strong resemblance to the celebrated East Face of Colorado’s Longs Peak, it is deeper and more sheer-walled, and is one of the largest and most impressive glacial cirques in the United States. Steep cliffs rise on three sides and Wheeler Peak soars at the head in an almost perpendicular unbroken precipice some 1,800 feet high.