At the end of The Loneliest Road in America is the Loneliest National Park in the country. Great Basin National Park receives fewer visitors than any of America’s parks. I can attest to that. The park was so empty, when I took the scenic Wheeler Peak drive, I was able to stop frequently in the middle of the road to take pictures. I think I counted five cars at the Visitor’s Center — three of which belonged to park officials. Which is a shame as Great Basin National Park is well worth a visit, especially since it lets you climb up through thousands of feet of changing semi-arid forests in one loop drive through the park.

My terrier co-pilot and I came to see the rare Bristlecone Pine — reputed to be the oldest single living thing on earth. The Bristlecones of Great Basin are supposed to be over 4000 years old. Apparently, there was one here in the park that was 4,844 years old. But a grad student who was taking core samples in 1964 broke his coring tool and was given permission to cut down the tree. Only then was it discovered that the tree, “Prometheus” was the oldest living thing on Earth. Ooops.

So up we wound 10,000 feet to the trailhead, which looked on the map to be just off the parking lot. Turns out it was a three mile hike to get to the treeline where Bristlecones grow and the steep trail went up another 600 feet. By the time Lucy and I reached the parking lot, we were both feeling the effects of the altitude. We’re definitely sea level gals. Worse yet, dogs aren’t allowed on backcountry trails and this qualified as one. I could have left her in the car in her crate as the temperature up on the mountain was only 64 degrees. But I was wondering how fast I’d be able to hike a steep trail in this altitude — or even if I’d be able to at all.

Lucy at Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park

Here’s Lucy panting at 10,000 feet. The Bristlecones grow up on that even higher mountain near the top of the tree line.

One of the guiding rules of traveling with dogs is: Be prepared to change plans if you suddenly hit a no-dog zone or if your dog isn’t up for it. So we moved to Plan B. I’ll save Bristlecones for another day as there are some closer to home in Bishop, CA. Instead we decided to take a leisurely drive around the park, admire the view and get ourselves back down to a comfortable altitude in time for a late lunch.

Taking our time on the drive allowed me to make frequent stops at rest areas and pull-outs and read up on all the literature I’d picked up at the Visitor’s Center. The first thing I learned is that Great Basin National Park isn’t really the Great Basin. The Great Basin, as the guide informed me, is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds in North America. What that means is that it’s a closed drainage basin, surrounded by mountains, where the rainfall and snowmelt flows into that “bowl” without flowing outside the basin to an external body of water such as a river or a sea. Apparently there are more of these endorheic watersheds than you would think with Central Asia being a huge one. But our very own Great Basin is the largest in North America and the park is just a tiny corner of it. Basically, the Great Basin covers just about all of Nevada, half of Utah, a huge chunk of Oregon and a long strip of California’s eastern border.

View from Wheeler Peak, Great Basin National Park

See that Great Basin down below. That’s actually only a fraction of the real Great Basin.

Armed with more knowledge about endorheic watersheds than we ever thought we’d gather, we headed back down to the Lehman Caves Visitor’s Center. Oh, did I mention there are caves? Apparently they are spectacular. I’m not much of a cave fan, so I didn’t mind that they wouldn’t let Lucy in (to protect the resident bats who are at risk from various fungal diseases ). We had a different goal. A ranger we’d met told us there was a baby, pampered Bristlecone Pine down at the Visitor’s Center. Because despite moving to Plan B, we still felt we needed to see one — even if it was a hothouse tomato version.

flowers in Great Basin National Park

So we didn’t see an ancient Bristlecone. We did see a wide variety of semi-arid plant life that changed completely with every 1000 feet higher that we climbed.

Next we headed out of the park into the tiny “blink and you’ll miss it” town of Baker. There we found the wonderful and extremely dog-friendly Lectrolux Cafe at the Silver Jack Inn. We’ve found nice but unimaginative eateries in Nevada, but the Lectrolux, by contrast, would be very comfortable in Sonoma. Think funky artwork, eclectic decor (including the namesake vacuum cleaner invented by a former owner), homemade meals and desserts and an extensive bar, wine and microbrew menu. And unlike most dog-friendly restaurants, the best seats were actually the outdoor ones where a deeply shaded porch stayed cool even in the 90 degree heat. I took the best lunch I’ve had in Nevada and a nice Sonoma Pinot and joined Lucy to watch the world roll by. Well, we saw one car and one large piece of farm machinery, observed a hummingbird flitting around the hanging baskets and watched a mother barn swallow feeding her babies. Lucy detoxed from altitude sickness as the friendly proprietress constantly refreshed her water bowl.

Lectrolux Cafe at Silver Jack Inn

That’s my Pinot on the porch and the very nice proprietress scurrying to get Lucy another bowl of water.

Okay, so we didn’t really “do” Great Basin. We just sort of hit a few of the highlights. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a wonderful Plan B experience. For instance, we had more time on the hour drive back to Ely to admire Nevadans’ penchant for making art statements with found objects.

Nevada fence art

Like this one. Which gives me an idea for a great coffee table book: “Nevada Found Object Fence Art”.

Clouds over Great Basin

Under Plan B, we had more time to meander off on side trips and admire the changing weather patterns.

Ward Charcoal Ovens

And see these huge abandoned charcoal ovens in the ruins of the old mining town of Ward.

So Plan B turned out to be a very satisfying day. Tomorrow, it’s on to another state as we continue our Road Less Traveled themed road trip.

Bristlecone Pine picture by Marla Todd from the Earth Science Picture of the Day site.