Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Photo: Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you keep returning to the same spots year after year during foliage season? The Berkshires and the Catskills in the Northeast. The Great Smoky Mountains and the Ozarks down South. While the Columbia River Gorge is your go-to destination on the West Coast. It’s time to mix things up and see another part of the country. Don’t worry, a beautiful scenic drive is still included, of course.

Great Basin National Park sits in east-central Nevada near the Utah border. The park, which was established in 1986, is home to groves of bristlecone pines, some of the oldest trees in the country. The southernmost glacier in the United States, Wheeler Peak Glacier, lies on the tallest mountain in the Snake Range. While the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive winds its way from the Great Basin Desert to more than 10,000 feet above sea level in just 12 miles.

After visiting the Lehman Caves—marble caves filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites—begin driving through sagebrush. If it recently stopped raining, the air will be filled with the aromatic scent of sage. The low shrubs are soon replaced by pinyon pine and juniper trees. Edible nuts grow on the pinyons, which have sharp, round needles. The junipers, which have scale-like leaves, produce berries. Marmots collect berries under the trees, and mule deer graze between them. The pine forest turns into a scrappy looking mahogany wilderness in the next section. Its rough-looking trees have small waxy leaves, and sections of this area were long ago cleared by miners.

The road is getting steeper. The mild, almost warm, weather is changing quickly. The blue sky is now obscured with dense white clouds, and a breeze cools you off. You can smell vanilla from reddish ponderosa pines as you move into a pine forest that’s also full of flat-needled white firs and droopy Douglas firs. While the brilliant colors that lured you to the area are on full display around the 11th mile, where white-barked aspen trees are topped with bright gold and yellow leaves. A coyote watches both you and a jackrabbit with equal interest.

When you finally reach the summit, you’re rewarded with stunning views of the colorful Snake Valley and the Great Basin Desert. The imposing glacier is above you, should you feel ready for a strenuous hike. You’re tempted to follow the trail by subalpine lakes—Stella, Teresa, and Brown—until raindrops start to fall. The drive is enough for today. The foliage will pop more on a sunny day, hopefully tomorrow, anyway.

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