Another goal for our visit to Great Basin National Park was a hike to the summit of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak. This is the highest peak in the Park and the second highest in Nevada, the first being 13,147-foot Boundary Peak [climbed in 1985] near the California border. State boosters are quick to point out that, since part of Boundary Peak slops into California, Wheeler Peak is the tallest peak entirely within Nevada (so there!). There is also some glowering when the uninformed confuse Nevada’s number two Wheeler Peak with New Mexico’s highest point [climbed in 1993] which is – wait for it – also named Wheeler Peak (good old George M. Wheeler sure got around). Anyway, the climb of Nevada’s Wheeler Peak is a straightforward hike on a clear and easily followed trail, the only tricks being the weather and the altitude (the hike is all above 10,000 feet). Fortunately, we were able to wait for good weather and we’d also spent a couple of days acclimating elsewhere in Nevada.
The climb starts at the 10,161-foot high Summit Trailhead, which is along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive Road. The trailhead is clearly signed on the road but is not nearly so evident on maps of the Park. As suggested by the National Park Service, we’d gotten an early start and ours was one of only six cars at the trailhead first thing in the morning (this being Saturday, the parking area was almost full when we returned).
With that brave smile in place, we signed the register and headed out along the almost level Wheeler Peak Trail through a stand of aspens, which were just starting to think about donning fall colors.
After a short while in the aspens, we passed into a meadow,
and got our first full view of Wheeler’s rocky, treeless, and wind-swept north ridge, which we would be following to the summit.
But first, another cathedral of aspens,
and then another meadow at the junction with the trail to Stella, Teresa, and Brown Lakes. This is also where we were passed by two young whipper-snappers zooming toward the summit. Ah, youth…
Then more meadows as the Wheeler Peak Trail made a huge horseshoe turn to climb gently toward a saddle at 10,874 feet.
As we approached the saddle, the aspens gave way to pines,
and Wheeler’s north ridge continued to taunt us.
When we reached the saddle, we’d gone 2.5 miles to gain only 800 vertical feet, leaving us to gain the remaining 2,200 feet in just two miles. And so here we started climbing in earnest, first up a boulder field,
then up the steeper first bulge or step in the north ridge,
to an almost level section – at around 12,000 feet – between the first step and the final steep climb to the summit – which loomed provocatively above us. The weather was a little windy and cold but otherwise excellent for climbing.
The final push to the top was through a light dusting of snow that had been brought in by the front that had delayed our summit bid by a day. In the distance we could see a layer of smoke drifting down from the ~13,000 acre Cottonwood Fire then burning near Elko (it’s now fully contained).
And then we were on top! Sadly, some douche bag had chopped and stolen the summit benchmark; we had to make do with the remaining witness marks.
It had been windy and a little cold on the way up but, paradoxically, it was calm and warmer on the actual summit. From the true summit (where the benchmark used to be) we could look southeast down the ridge along a line of windbreaks to a slightly lower pile of rocks. It’s our understanding that some of these windbreaks date back to the late 1800s, when Wheeler Peak was used as a triangulation station for a survey extending from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. Wheeler Peak was a central point in this survey (commanded by Lt. George M. Wheeler) and John Muir (of Sierra Nevada fame) acted as a guide for the expedition to Wheeler’s summit.
After chatting with some of the other folks who reached the summit about when we did, and a light snack (the altitude wasn’t doing much for our appetites), we started back down.
Both here, and in the Ruby Mountains Wilderness to the north, we were just about 1-2 weeks shy of seeing the aspens in their full Fall colors. Fortunately a few aspens along the trail just below the saddle took pity on us and threw some Fall colors our way.
And then we were back at the trailhead with its nearly full parking lot. Thanks to a good trail, excellent weather, and massively BIG views, this was a wonderful hike for us! But at 8.7 miles roundtrip with 3,000 feet of elevation gain (all above 10,000 feet), we’d have to call this one strenuous. And not one you’d want to do in bad weather or if thunderstorms were forecast or without the proper gear or, well, you know, common sense, etc.