Thursday, April 23, 2020

Backpacking Great Basin National Park: Yearning for the outlaw

I unzipped my tent to an early, dim sky. 

We agreed to an “alpine start,” waking up right at sunrise. I didn’t sleep too well last night. The winds were terribly loud. You could hear strong gusts ready at the top of Pyramid Peak, then barrel their way down, across the surface of Johnson Lake, and then crash into our tent. It was somewhat fascinating to hear the entire process. Crawling out of my tent, daylight had yet to emerge upon our campsite near Johnson Lake. I threw my arms up high and slowly stretched.

It was a pretty cold at 6:30am, standing below Pyramid Peak and embracing the pure silence. The others soon were rising, and I put on a few layers, being that temperatures were probably in the low twenties. A crazy thing I’ve been aware of while backpacking through Great Basin National Park, was the swing in temperatures. Atop the saddle yesterday, temperatures were hot and not necessitating my down jacket or beanie. But once we descended to Johnson Lake to set up camp for our second night, as soon as the late afternoon sun fell behind the mountains, temperatures plummeted.

Rolling up my sleeping bag, I decompressed my sleeping pad and piled everything inside my Gregory Baltoro pack. On the other side of the shrubbery, Chadd and Ben had begun the same. While boiling water for breakfast, we hung up our tents on a clothesline Ben had strung, to let them dry from last night’s rain. I poured a mug of coffee and walked around to bask in that gorgeous morning’s serenity. Warm sunlight started to fall on my hands and face, as well as on the steep north walls leading up to the Snake Range. Johnson Lake’s surface was sparkling too. I wished I could repeat a morning like this every day.

Our plan today was to hike at a relaxed pace, the remaining six miles down to the trailhead at 8,000ft. Sipping from my mug, I studied the guidebook and topo map to take a look over our route. Once we were all ready, I grabbed my camera and positioned it on a boulder for a group photo, with Johnson Lake and a flawless blue sky beyond. I took one last look at the place we gratefully called home for an evening.

As we made our way along the Johnson Lake Trail, we passed remains of the old Johnson Mine settlement that (like I mentioned in my earlier blog post) had been abandoned after avalanches in the 1930s. The settlement was built in the early 1900s and consisted of a bunkhouse, cook-house, and other cabins for residents. but what was left of the settlement, shielded by pines, were dilapidated cabins that looked like giant Lincoln Log sets with thin, rusty tin roofs. 
Most of the cabins’ structures had fallen victim to 90 years of harsh weathering, but we were still able to explore the interiors of some of them. I found an empty window frame and stared out it at Pyramid Peak, trying to imagine what this would have felt like before the settlement cleared out in 1935. Inside one of the cabins, we found a ragged pair of shoes likely worn by a tungsten miner, nails, a few rusted pots, pieces of shattered China, and broken glass. One of the shadowy enclosed food storage closets was still sort of intact. Per the National Park Service, after tungsten was hauled down from the source mine, it was transported some 70 miles east to Frisco, Utah, where it was then sent by rail.
We followed the somewhat faint Johnson Lake trail, guided by small red blazes, as it made its way lower and lower in elevation. While the descent was gradual, much of the hike was rocky, giving my boots quite the flex. It was getting warmer too, the sun above beating down in between the open gaps in the dense pines. We paused to shed a layer near a creek that was overflowing across the trail. I dipped my hands into the crystal-clear water and splashed my face and arms. There was a lot of deadfall too, I guessed either from avalanches or recent storms, blocking parts of the trail which had become steeper.
Right around the 10,000ft mark, more ruins from the tungsten mining era were found on the right of the trail. These buildings were again constructed in the same stacked log style, yet much bigger. The guidebook I had been trusting throughout the course of our trip stated this was the mill for the tungsten mine's operations. The trail made a sharp, almost 90-degree bend north momentarily, and we had some stellar panoramic views looking east through clearings in the forest top.
Unfortunately, despite assistive hiking poles, the amount of pain I was experiencing in my right knee (stemmed from a prior car accident that resulted in permanent bone damage) was atrociously bad anytime we were putting our bodyweight downhill. The trail rising and falling in elevation for three miles straight likely fueled this aggravation. Thankfully, I had made it through the trip without much issue until now. We dropped our packs at a fork in the trail for a water break. I gave my knee a rest and Chadd threw me a bag of Ibuprofen. I took a handful and glanced over our topo map before veering left on the Timber Creek Trail. The next portion of return hike was a steep climb, meandering its way through quivering aspen with bark that looked like leather to an exposed ridgeline.
As soon as we exited the clump of aspen, vast horizons let our eyes drift far over unknown peaks. It was an exhausting push, our last real increase in elevation before a constant gradual decline. We skirted along the Snake-Baker Pass, greeted by sagebrush that filled the air with such a quintessential western aroma that I'd surely miss as soon as we get back to Wisconsin tomorrow night.
The Timber Creek trail eventually flattened once all four of us were standing atop the Snake Creek Divide, at 9,871ft. Continuing on, we were able to see Pyramid Peak from a unique southwestern vantage point. Next, the trail began to descend from the pass, entering into another dense forest with pines and more dreamy aspen of grand size. 
After days of calling jagged alpine terrain, thick forest, and cool lakes home, the next landscape on the docket ahead was a stunning, open meadow.  I was surprised. We paused to appreciate our surroundings and grab a few pictures. More patches of sagebrush, and the crowns of stumpy aspens glowing...all with Wheeler Peak and Doso Doyabi in the distance. Speaking of the latter, 12,775ft Doso Doyabi used to be called Jefferson Davis, until it was recently restored to its Shoshone roots in June. 
The final three or so miles took us through this blissful, colorful meadow as the trail traced the bubbling South Fork Baker Creek, which transitioned into more woods. The trail crossed South Fork Baker Creek and again emerged into a tranquil meadow. We dropped our packs, rehydrated, and stripped off our boots and socks to let our feet breathe. The last moments of our hike, I stayed at the rear, silently reflecting on how spectacular of an adventure this had been. It really is remarkable how meaningful places in the great outdoors can be. An hour later we had crossed three primitive footbridges over the creek, strolled by cacti, and were arriving at the trailhead. 
As we each exited the trail into the parking lot at 8,000ft, we let out expressions of congratulatory excitement, smiles, and gave each other high-fives. I dropped my pack alongside the other Gregory Baltoro, Chadd's classic external frame Kelty, and Ben's olive REI Traverse, then marked us "out" at the backcountry registration box. Another adventure complete, and another national park to cross-off my bucket list. We piled into Drew's Toyota Highlander Hybrid and headed to the nearest cafe we could find to dive into lunch and celebratory beers.
So, it turned out that the Great Basin Cafe in the park's Lehman Caves Visitor Center (a privately-run joint) had delicious food and local craft beer on-hand. Their menu had plenty of eats, most $10 and under, that I had been craving after three days of dehydrated meals. I opted for a fantastic chili dog and homemade slaw. I ordered a Great Basin Brewing Outlaw too, hence the title of this blog post. We held up our beers and cheered. I learned a lot on this backpacking trip, both about myself and this unfathomable corner of wilderness in Nevada.

Cheers,
Robby