Wheeler Peak (Nevada) 16-Sep-2017

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

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).

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

A good hike always starts with a brave smile…

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.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

The trail starts out among the aspens

After a short while in the aspens, we passed into a meadow,

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

A meadow along the Wheeler Peak Trail

and got our first full view of Wheeler’s rocky, treeless, and wind-swept north ridge, which we would be following to the summit.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

The north ridge of Wheeler Peak

But first, another cathedral of aspens,

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Once more amongst the 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…

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

At the junction with the Stella Lake Trail

Then more meadows as the Wheeler Peak Trail made a huge horseshoe turn to climb gently toward a saddle at 10,874 feet.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Another meadow along the Wheeler Peak Trail

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Another look at the north ridge from a meadow along the Wheeler Peak Trail

As we approached the saddle, the aspens gave way to pines,

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Now among the pines

and Wheeler’s north ridge continued to taunt us.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Another look at the north ridge from the Wheeler Peak Trail

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,

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Starting the climb up from the saddle

then up the steeper first bulge or step in the north ridge,

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Climbing the first step on 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.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Crossing the level section toward the steep section below the summit

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Just keep going up…breath if possible

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).

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Looking east from just below the summit ridge, with smoke obscuring the horizon

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Just a little further, with Bald Mountain in the middle distance

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.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

One of the two witness marks on the summit

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

No more up!!

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Summit shot {Note to self: Always wear a hat}

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.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Looking southeast along the summit ridge

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Looking south toward the huge cirque below Baker Peak

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Looking north toward Bald Mountain (B)

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Looking east toward Silver Creek Baldy; the mailbox in the left foreground is the summit register

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.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Starting down; the green circles are formed by center pivot irrigation in the Spring Valley

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Back to the first step; Bald Mountain on the left

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.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Colorful aspens along the trail on the way down

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.

Wheeler Peak Great Basin National Park Nevada

Our track to and from Wheeler’s summit

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