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GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK

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"Look out from the mountain's edge once more. A dusk is gathering on the desert's face, and over the eastern horizon the purple shadow of the world is reaching up to the sky." - John C. Van Dyke, "The Desert."

Along the crest of the Snake Range, the splintered peaks of Great Basin National Park rise above a chaos of broken rock, scraping the sky at 11,000 to 13,000 feet, while roundabout and a mile below lay the parched valleys of east-central Nevada.At the northern end of the range, the uppermost crags of Wheeler Peak tower above the rest - 13,063, the highest peak in the Great Basin. The mountain holds to its breast renowned bristlecone stands, and its cirque basin cradles the southernmost glacier in the United States.

The remaining peaks line up like sentinels behind Wheeler: Baker, Pyramid, Mt. Washington, Lincoln and Granite. All well over 11,000 feet and, with the exception of Pyramid (it being representative of pre-glacial times), all carved by Pliocene ice.

On previous visits, I'd heard of an abandoned mining road leading to Mt. Washington from the west side of the range. A grandmotherly barkeeper at Baker, Nev., said she'd been on it once but never again. "Scared me to death."

A park ranger told me it was the toughest mountain road he'd driven, the razor-sharp, hair-pin turns climbing an incredible 6,000 feet in eight miles.

In due time I convinced Dr. Robert Starr Waite, geographer, teacher and advocate of national parks, to show me the way. An unlikely pedagogue with a shock of unruly hair, Dr. Waite is the acknowledged father of Great Basin National Park, for it was his eight-year study of the Snake Range that was the catalyst for the park idea.

On a sun-drenched day in late summer, we picked our way through a patchwork of country roads east of Ely, angling toward Pole Canyon. Dust boiled behind our four-wheel outfit, eventually overtaking us, while through the grit I eyed the mountain wall. From a distance it seemed impossible for any road to ascend that defile.

"The entire range is tilted fault block," said Waite. "It rises nearly vertically above Spring Valley, where we are, with a somewhat gentler slope on the Snake Valley side."

He said in 1973 he'd been drawn to the Snake Range as a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"It had it all. An active glacier, a unique rock glacier, the highest peak in the Great Basin, 4,000 to 5,000 year-old bristlecone pines - the oldest trees in the world, a limestone and marble cave, even a limestone arch. It was one place where the entire story of the Great Basin could be told in microcosm."

Of the four North American deserts, the Great Basin is the largest - 200,000 square miles of island mountains standing above scrub-covered valleys, and dry lake beds bereft of any vegetation whatsoever.

It was the pathfinder, John C. Fremont, who recognized it as an enclosed basin, without an outlet to the sea, giving it its name.

In 1824, British fur trapper Peter Skene Ogden wrote that this harsh forbiding land " . . . was deprived of every comfort that can tend to make existence desirable; if I can escape this year I trust I shall not be doomed to endure another."

Absalome Lehman was of different mettle. He deserted the rich farm country of Pennsylvania for a dust-blown ranch in the Snake Valley where he sold food to local miners.

In 1885, so the story goes, his horse stepped into a sinkhole and he discovered the cave that now bears his name.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Lehman led the first candlelit tours that same year, at a dollar a head, clearing the way through a forest of stalactites and stalagmites with a sledgehammer.

In 1922, Warren G. Harding declared a narrow patch encircling Lehman Caves a national monument, and thereafter and for some time to come, the caves were the setting for tours, weddings and dances.

I'd heard the Knights of Pythias also used Lehman Caves for their bizarre initiation rites, cavorting in costume amid clouds of sulphurous smoke. "It's true," Waite remarked. "You can still see soot marks where the ceremonies were held."

Dr. Waite declares unabashedly: "It is at least five million years old, part in Pole Canyon limestone, and part marble, metamorphosed by even more ancient volcanic stocks."

During the four-hour cave tour, I'd marveled at the saber-like clusters of stalactites and the delicate finger-like helictites, deposited at the ends of narrow passages. Its hallmarks are its fan-shaped shields of which the Parachute is noteworthy.

The shields, which project from the walls, are thought to be extensions of cracks in the bedrock. Lehman Caves also have a unique occupant, a pseudo scorpian found only here and certain other caves in China.

Lehman Caves lie on the edge of Snake Valley at the foot of Wheeler Peak and are the destination of the more than 75,000 people who come here annually. And those numbers are expected to increase as the word of a new national park gets around.

The nearest town, Baker, has few ammenities. It is, in fact, Ely, 70 miles southwest of the park on U.S. Highway 6 that has benefited most.

"When I came here 15 years ago, Ely was on the skids," Bob Waite. "The mines had closed down, and its only hotel had folded. Now things have completely turned around. The Ely Daily Times recently ran a headline, `Tourism too successful.' They didn't have the facilities to handle the numbers."

The National Park Service is remodeling its visitors center at Lehman Caves, updating existing exhibits. There are also proposals in the offing for a visitors center on Baker Ridge that offers a 180-degree view of the Snake Valley. Such a center would interpret the entire Great Basin story.

Incredibly, the previous landlord, the U.S. Forest Service, didn't acquire water rights for existing campgrounds and few improvements can be expected until those problems can be ironed out. Despite their rudimentary nature, camp sites are hard to come by during peak travel months.

The only paved road snakes its way to the 10,000-foot level, offering superb views of Wheeler Peak. It also provides access to the Wheeler Peak Campground and to maintained trails leading to a bristlecone forest, the glacier, and for those with the stamina, the summit of the mountain.

In addition to developed areas around Wheeler Peak, it is estimated there are 65 miles of back-country trail inside the park, criss-crossing the range. The abandoned mining road in Pole Canyon, where we found ourselves, lived up to its daunting reputation, most switchbacks requiring two, sometimes three attempts to maneuver around. "In this country, if the name of the canyon hasn't the word creek attached to it means there is little or no water," Waite said.

Leaving the desert behind, we climbed rapidly, first through dense thickets of pinyon pine and mountain mahogany that then gave way to open stands of ponderosa pine and alpine fir.

At 10,000 feet we encountered the first bristlecones, young trees in their first blush, no more than a thousand years old. On the crest, 11,760 feet above sea level, there were only skeletal trunks, burnished by the elements over two millenia.

"During the Althathermal, 2,500 years ago the climate was warmer," Waite explained. "And the trees grew 300 feet higher." When the weather grew colder the stands retreated, leaving behind a fossil forest with wood so hard it won't rot.

The crest of Mt. Washington is a worthy viewing platform _ a wall of grey limestone laid down in primal seas 500 million years ago. It juts above the pleated foothills and hidden canyons of the Snake Range.

During the last Ice Age, five glaciers wound down from these mountains to merge with prehistoric Lake Bonneville. On this day, the sun low on the horizon, the dry valleys were bathed in ocher, fading to purple. "Desert air," wrote John C. Van Dyke, "is colored air."

It was not the view as much as the bristlecones we had driven the formidable back road to see. Mt. Washington has the largest of three bristlecone forests hereabouts, and although somewhat younger than the renowned Wheeler stand, the trees nonetheless are an artistic expression of nature's handiwork.

We wandered among the stands, twisted by the ravages of time. Younger trees, say 1,000 to 2,000 years old, were fully clothed in bark and blue-green needles. The truly ancient ones exhibited a single strip of bark through which life-giving juices flowed.

At last we stood before a dead tree that soared like a monument above the rest. "I call this one Moses," said Waite. "It's anyone's guess how old it was when it died."

The park service may eventually close ecologically sensitive parts of Mt. Washington to vehicular traffic, as it should. A survey of existing trails and mining roads is being made and recommendations for wilderness use incorporated into a master plan.

Frank Jensen lives in Salt Lake City.

Winter hours for the Great Basin National Park Visitors Center are 8 a.m to 5 p.m. Lower Lehman Campground is open year-round. Water is available at the visitors center. For information call (702) 234-7331.