Monday, December 17, 2012

A very short trip to the Great Basin

Evening view from the Confusions -- the sun is just north of Wheeler Peak in the Snake Range.
Here's another short, photo-laden post.  Semi-retirement was supposed to do away with the misery of concurrent deadlines, but somehow I’m in the throes of it anyway.  This suffering has been compounded by Silver Fox’s recent posts with beautiful Nevada scenery, making me feel distinctly “homesick” for the open road.

So let’s take a short virtual trip to the Great Basin -- a land of extension, which for at least 30 million years has been stretching roughly east-west, creating a multitude of basins and ranges in the process.  In contrast with the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin generally lacks charismatic colorful rocks.  Rather it is a land of expansive dramatic landscapes, which I love very much.  Several days in this setting are enough to make the rest of the world fade, leaving me with a sense of freedom of sorts.
Great Basin landscapes make clear our humble role in the Universe -- we’re not so special after all!
(whew, what a relief)

Wheeler Peak, posing just left of the setting sun in the first photo, is the high point of the Snake Range on the east edge of Nevada, and is considered the highest “independent” mountain in the state (more explanation here).  On a road trip in the 1970s, we stumbled upon the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area on Humboldt National Forest, one of many cool places off of what was then a lonely highway -- US 50.  We hiked up a lonely trail through rocky habitat with amazing gnarled old bristlecone pines to the cirque at the base of Wheeler Peak.  But things have changed.  The scenic area now is a managed destination, Great Basin National Park, with fees for the various inconveniences. Dogs must resign themselves to hanging out in the vehicle while their human friends have fun.  So I haven’t been back.  But maybe there are benefits -- like the off-the-beaten-path treasures of the Great Basin I've stumbled upon instead.
West flank of the southern Confusion Range.
Looking southwest across the Snake Valley, with the Crow's Nest in mid-distance (Guilmette Formation).
Driving home on US 50 last October, I passed by Wheeler Peak and continued east into Utah.  It was near the end of the day and time to find a place for the night.  About 19 miles from the state line, I headed into the “foothills” of the Confusion Range on a sandy road through piñon - juniper woodland, and soon found a camping spot with wonderful views across Utah’s West Desert to the Snake Range and Wheeler Peak, which were waiting for the sun to join them.  In the meantime, I wandered uphill among outcrops of Paleozoic carbonate rocks of the Guilmette Formation.
 GoogleEarth view of camp “site” in piñon - juniper woodland and Devonian outcrops.
The Devonian Guilmette Formation includes “chertless, gray dolomite and limestone that forms resistant ledges and cliffs; stromatoporoids abundant in some beds” (Utah’s Online Interactive Geologic Maps, Utah Geological Survey).  Stromatoporoids were common reef-forming creatures of the Paleozoic, but that's all I know about them.  Did I see any? Maybe.  There certainly were lots of interesting crystalline structures in the rocks:
Oh yeah ... indication of scale needed:
It was the second week of October, but some plants were still in bloom -- like this wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.).  Flower clusters are on the order of 1 cm across.
I got back from my wanderings in time to set up camp before dark and take in the sun's fiery performance above Wheeler Peak -- the end of another great day in the Great Basin.

“He was alone.  He was unheeded, happy, alone, and near to the wild heart of life ... alone amidst a waste of wild air ...”  James Joyce by way of Jerry and Renny Russell, On the Loose.

How to get there:
West to east:  Snake Range with Wheeler Peak, Snake Valley, Confusion Range.
Click photo to view (from ArcGIS online).


  1. Yes, scale was definitely needed.

    I find this very difficult when taking pictures. Objects make everything very much clearer and comprehensible - but they also tend to spoil the artistry. I set out with a clear ruler when I was taking photos for a recent fungi post but it kept falling off logs and I ended up forgetting it and lost it in the woods.

    Thank you for this blog. Sometimes it goes over my head but I always value it. It's specially interesting for me because I live right by fossils and soft rocks from which ancient structures (mostly bivalves and the remains of Portland Screws) are always emerging. Rarely do I know what they are - and rarely can tell the difference between a prehistoric 'worm' or its burrow or a bit of hard rock. But, despite your knowledge and my lack of it, I always feel a sense of 'home' when I visit, despite being in places right across the world.

    Best wishes for Christmas and 2013.


    1. Thanks, Lucy! I totally agree about adding objects for scale -- they definitely take away from the beauty of the scenes, subjects. I suppose two shots, without and with, would be best but it's hard to remember, I get distracted by what's around me :)