The Unites States contains 4 deserts. The least known is also by far its largest–Great Basin–50,000 square miles larger than the Chihuahuan. It stretches west from Utah’s Wasatch Mountains to California’s Sierra Nevadas, north into southeast Oregon and southwest Idaho, and south almost to Las Vegas. Most of Nevada is in Great Basin. It’s a vast region of sagebrush growing valleys interrupted by mostly parallel, north/south mountain ranges, some sporting unusual bristlecone pine trees, but also aspen, spruce, etc.
The Great Basin is almost devoid of people and has no interior cities. Boise, Salt Lake City, and Reno are on its fringes, but when you cross it you have to book reservations in places like Delta, Winnemucca, and Tonopah. It also has only anemic rivers that mostly flow off the mountains, pool in the valleys, and disappear in the hot, dry desert. Few, if any, leave Great Basin. The highway dubbed the Loneliest Road in America, US 50, stretches across its middle and is one of my favorites.
In this 190,000 square mile area there is only one National Park, appropriately named Great Basin. It was created fairly recently, 1986, and includes 2 outstanding attractions–13,000+ feet Wheeler Peak, Nevada’s highest elevation, and Lehman Caves. The later is actually misnamed since there is only one cavern with lots of rooms. Ruth & I spent a lot of time in it in mid-January, 2014. There’s a road up Wheeler to almost 10,000 feet, but it’s closed in winter from about the 7,500 feet level. There are more than a dozen other peaks in Great Basin National Park over 10,000 feet and a couple of reasons why it’s excellent to visit in deep winter that I’ll tell about tomorrow.
The people of Great Basin first moved in 10,000 years ago with Native American Fremonts, Paiutes, and Shoshone all having their time there before pioneers passed through on their way to California. According to one ranger at Great Basin National Park, some of them actually became disenchanted with what most considered perfection and returned to this haunting, empty land to establish ranches.