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Deep Breaths and 90 Minutes to Stunning Alpine Lakes

The Alpine Lakes trail is a moderate hike -- except for the 10,000 foot elevation which will take your breath away -- traverses a glacial cirque, broad meadows and meanders through aspen groves.
The Alpine Lakes trail is a moderate hike -- except for the 10,000 foot elevation which will take your breath away -- traverses a glacial cirque, broad meadows and meanders through aspen groves.
Eric Jay Toll

The smooth path off the parking lot diverged into the crunch of packed gravel under our boots. Sweet pine fragrance filled the air as a modest wind wove between the trees at the 9,500 foot elevation as we started our hike. We’re in the woods off the Alpine Lakes-Glacier trailhead in Great Basin National Park, Baker, Nevada.

Resting in a glacial cirque at the foot of Wheeler Peak, Stella Lake is Alpine beauty in the American West
Resting in a glacial cirque at the foot of Wheeler Peak, Stella Lake is Alpine beauty in the American West
Photo by Eric Jay Toll (c) 2014. All rights reserved

Going into the national forest backcountry is an experience that is both recharge and recreating--perhaps even re-creating--with reinvigorated energy at the end of the hike or expedition.

The trail’s gentle switchbacks pulled us upwards into the back country on the east side of Wheeler Peak. On the other side of the mountain is the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. At the fork in the trail, we crunch to the northwest (right) and head to the first of the Alpine Lakes, Stella Lake. The trail carries us alongside a glacier-fed stream and high into the glacial cirque below 13,065 foot tall Wheeler Peak, king of the Snake Range.

The cool air is crisp, and long sleeves are adequate for the exertion in the thinning, cool air as we cross the 10,000 foot mark. We’ll climb to over 10,500 feet on the GPS before dropping to lake level. As we break from the copse, a deer slowly crosses our path. She stops to look at us, and while fumbling to ready the camera, she bounds off into the aspen grove edging the meadow.

Across environmentally sensitive areas, streams and moist soils, the Park Service constructed boardwalks and plant trails.

The meadow is brilliantly green on this mid-June afternoon. A sprinkling of yellow and white wildflowers freckle the mountain vegetation. We plod on. Although this is a short hike—we’re pretty stiff from the previous day’s trek through the Queen’s Garden in Bryce Canyon National Park, Panguitch, Utah—it’s a little more taxing from the elevation. The Forest Service and Park Service both warn to be alert to symptoms of altitude sickness above 10,000 feet.

Gentle switchbacks continue to carry us upward. We reach the fork to Wheeler Peak, which seems to take hikers away from the summit, but in fact will wrap onto a saddle route. Our trail turns south and crosses the cirque, dipping, rising, and peaking at a welcoming lake overlook. Stella Lake is a tranquil, crystalline dip carved by the still-active glacier on Wheeler Peak.

The Park Service says that the quartet of Alpine lakes on the range are all around two acres of surface area and less than 20 feet deep. Stella was lapping close to its peak spread in the well-defined rock-strewn basin. Later in the summer, this snowmelt-fed lake will shrink back leaving a bathtub ring.

The glacier’s remnants are easily visible on Wheeler Peak and the sister peaks of the Snake Range. The changing global climate decreases the glacier size each year, and this is impacting the ecosystem at the high elevations in Great Basin and other national parks and forests.

After a rest on Stella’s shores, we decide to return to our campsite. Despite trail snacks, tummy time says the salmon is calling for dinner. We return across the cirque and see that our bounding doe is grazing on the greenery at the edge of the aspen grove. This time, the camera is ready for a quick zoom and photo.

The Upper Lehman campground, we were in Site 5, snuggles the drive-in campsites deep in the adjoining woods along Lehman Creek or the toe of the mountain. We had a creek side site. Campsites are separated so adjoining campers are mostly buffered by thick vegetation. There are a few exceptions, but from this site, we could not see the families on either side.

The next morning, we traipsed to the Grand Palace in the world-famous Lehman Caves. That, however, is a story for another day.

Great Basin National Park is one of the most beautiful national parks of which you’ve never heard. It’s located near the Utah-Nevada border, southeast of Ely, and just five miles up the road from Baker. Great Basin is about 8 minutes south of the U.S. 6-U.S. 50 junction with Nevada 471. There are motels and commercial campgrounds, better-suited for RVs, in Baker.