The Great Basin is a vast, sagebrush-covered region that’s centered in Nevada and stretches from California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range to Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Moisture that drains here stays here. Water collects in shallow salt lakes, marshes, and mud flats, eventually evaporating in the dry desert air.
At first glance, this area looks monotonous—a pale-green sea of sagebrush scattered over thirsty, brown ground. Appearances are deceiving!
In 1986, the United States Congress created Great Basin National Park. Later, in 2006, the Great Basin National Heritage Area was added to preserve, promote, and interpret heritage resources — historic ranches and railroads, archeological sites, tribal communities, and mines.
Great Basin National Park, among the darkest regions in the country, is unsurpassed for pristine stargazing. Stars pulsate like laser lights against a black-velvet sky.
Into the Park
We camped with our 10-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Cowboy and Nate, for several nights at the Sacramento Pass Bureau of Land Management Campground off of Highway 50, about 30 miles fromGreat Basin National Park.
There’s an upper and lower campsite loop; the equestrian campsites are on the upper loop. This camp has no water or garbage service. We discovered that horse campers can get water from the visitor’s center, as well as a recreational-vehicle park in the nearby town of Baker.
Bill Wager, a retired ranger from the 12-million-acre Ely BLM district, offered to take us on a ride on a trail he helped create. Wager patrolled the backcountry on horseback when he worked for the BLM. When he offered to take us on a ride, we happily accepted.
“I like riding here because there are very few designated trails,” Wager explained about riding in the Great Basin. “You can ride cross-country and see few, if any, people.”
Wager added that April and October are prime times for riding, because the weather is most temperate during these months.
Wager and his former BLM horse, Willie, led us from camp onto the nonmotorized WeaverCreek Basin Equestrian Trail. This 6.5-mile, one-way trail extends into Weaver Creek Basin, then into Great Basin National Park. The old two-track trail was an easy, level ride. Thanks to Wager, it’s also well-marked.
We followed the trail down to Weaver Creek. Wager pointed out the unusual conglomerate rock clumps unique to this area. As we rode along, we enjoyed wildflowers, and distant views of Mount Mariah to the north and Wheeler Peak to the south.
Finally, we came to a gate with a sign indicating the entrance to Great Basin National Park. We went through the gate and headed up a hill to an open area ringed with old-growth mountain mahogany. After enjoying lunch and good conversation, we returned the way we came.
Right from the Sacramento Pass BLM Campground, a good ride is the Sacramento Pass/Mining Shaft Loop. Before you head out, pick up a Sacramento Pass Recreation Area trail map from the Ely BLM District.
When leaving camp, take the first, immediate indistinct trail to your left. Initially, it’ll seem incorrect, but will quickly become recognizable as the Sacramento Pass Loop. Most trails on this loop are well-marked, and the map is easy to follow.
This trail is rocky, so protect your horse’s hooves with proper shoeing or trail-ready hoof boots. This is a fun trail, with meandering ups and downs as it snakes its way around a rock-studded knob. Portions of trail are shaded by large growths of mountain mahogany and edged with fragrant juniper bushes.
Before completing the Sacramento Pass Loop, we crossed over on the Lucky Boy Trail to the Mine Shaft Loop. The Mine Shaft Loop took us down into a canyon, switch-backed up the canyon, then followed clockwise around a hilltop. About three quarters of the way around, we cut cross-country and worked our way back to camp.
Our most adventurous ride on the trip was the Pole Canyon/Timber Creek/South Fork of Baker Creek Loop.
To find the trailheadfor this loop, take the main entrance into the park. Stop at the visitor center to learn about park history and geology. After the visitor center, drive toward the Grey Cliffs Group area, then left to the Pole Canyon trailhead. Notice the pictographs in the small cave on the left side of the road before arriving at the trailhead.
We started up the Pole Canyon Trail and soon came to a tree blocking our path. It took some work, but we were able to get the horses around it. Little did we know this obstacle would foreshadow events to come.
The trail led to an open, scenic basin at the head of Pole Canyon. It was a short climb to the saddle between Pole Canyon and Timber Creek, where we enjoyed views to the distant mountains and the ever-present Wheeler Peak. Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet above sea level, is as high as the Grand Tetons.
From this point, we dropped into Timber Creek and started the last push to the high point between Timber Creek and the South Fork of Baker Creek. Here, a jumble of uprooted trees, broken trees, and crushed limbs blocked our trail. There was no way to go around them, and it looked impossible to go through them.
Kent spent nearly an hour cutting a way through the deadfall. We worked our way through it and emerged near the top only to find snow! The snow was fairly deep, but as we emerged from the ridge’s shadowed side, the snow disappeared. Our elevation was 9,650 feet at the high point of the ride, 2,530 feet higher than the trailhead.
The high pass was a perfect spot for lunch. Lush mountain meadows and jagged peaks provided food for the soul, while we feasted on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
The bushy trees at the top of the ridge to the east are bristlecone pines, the oldest living organisms on the planet. They grow at above 9,500 feet in elevation and can be 5,000 years old. The oldest bristlecone pines in this park are around 3,000 years old. The oldest bristlecone pines in the world are in the California Sierras.
To return to the trailhead, we rode the trail down the South Fork of Baker Creek to a parking area. Here, we took a trail to the right, which continues through a campground. Ride through the right side of the campground to the last loop, and take the trail leaving the campground for the Grey Cliffs group camp.
After this camp, take the road to the right. Go past the pictographs to the starting point. You’ll have completed an 11.2-mile loop to the high country and back.
Hidden Canyon Retreat
If there’s gold in the Great Basin, then we struck it for sure when we arrived at Hidden Canyon Retreat, an amazing bed & barn owned and managed by Ron and Robin Crouch. Think comfort, good food, tranquility, and serenity wrapped and packaged by competent, caring people.
Hidden Canyon is southeast of Baker and less than a mile south of Garrison. From Garrison, turn right on Hidden Canyon Ranch Rd., a well-maintained gravel road, and stay on it for six miles. Be careful — the last portion of the road is steep!
Ron and Robin are friendly and interesting, and have an infectious enthusiasm for the Great Basin. There’s a quiet, spiritual quality about Hidden Canyon. Birds sing, coyotes serenade, and deer fade in and out of view along a creek that winds its way in the canyon.
Room rentals come with breakfast. There are 11 two-bedroom suites, each with a different décor. To stargaze in style, head for the outdoor hot tub above the creek.
Nate and Cowboy were treated to large, covered stalls. We parked our living-quarters trailer near shade trees that were teeming with bird life. Horse water is nearby.
From Hidden Canyon, you can ride up behind the canyon on trails that lead into Great Basin National Park. Out of the saddle, you can simply relax and enjoy the incredible surroundings.