Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hike 80: Baker Creek to Baker Lake

Hiked Sunday, August 8. Great Basin National Park is located in east central Nevada, just south of U.S. 50, the so-called "Loneliest Highway in America." It's an extremely non-touristy area located in White Pine County. From US 50, you take NV487 south about three miles to Baker. Just before you reach the town, the main Great Basin National Park visitor center is on your right. Extensive displays, a small gift shop, and an educational resource center/classroom are down here.
On the other hand, if you continue south on 487 a few hundred yards, NV 486 veers to the west, right, into the park. The highway ends at the park boundary, but the road continues upward.

Almost immediately after the park entry, the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive splits off sharply to your right. But if you head straight ahead, the Lehman Caves visitor center is maybe a mile further. There are additional displays and another small gift shop there, as well as a coffee/ice cream shop. Used to be you could get sandwiches and what not for lunch, but now the menu is limited to breakfast, drinks, and ice cream. It's basically the waiting area for cave tours.

From the deck of the Lehman Caves visitor center, there's a great view to the east, overlooking the Snake Valley and on across the Utah border.

If you start driving back down the main park road (or just before you reached the Lehman Caves VC on the way up), a well-maintained (easy for passenger cars) dirt road enters from the south (signed and on your left if driving up; not signed and on your right if driving down).

It's about three miles long. On the way, you'll pass the Grey Cliffs group campsite, an RV dump facility, and the Baker Creek campground. At the end of the road is a small parking area. That's the trailhead for the Baker Creek and South Fork Baker Creek/Timber Creek trails. The elevation at the trailhead is 8,000 feet. Nonetheless, with a night's camping at over 7,000 feet, I was relatively acclimatized and had little difficulty with the altitude.

There's room for four cars in the wide area near the pit toilet; additional cars can squeeze in along the perimiter of the lot or in the approaches and exits to the parking lot. When I arrived, the four spaces near the toilet were occupied, so I parked near the "exit," at a wide spot of the road.

The NPS newsletter shows the Baker and South Fork Baker Creek trails as starting out as a single trail, but the signage at the trailhead indicates the trails start out separately, with the Baker Creek trailhead about 20 yards north of the South Fork trail. Both trailheads are on the western side of the parking lot. If you're hiking this area, spend a moment studying the map and signage at the trailhead, because it's not (as of summer 2010) the same as what your park handout indicates.

Another difference between the map at the trailhead and the NPS newsletter is the distance. The newsletter puts the roundtrip distance to Baker Lake at 12 miles, with a 2,620 foot altitude gain. The trailhead sign, meanwhile, gives the distance as 5.4 miles each way. That's a surprisingly large discrepency, and I don't know which source is giving the more accurate information.

Regardless, the trail begins paralleling Baker Creek. It occasionally wanders off somewhat to the north. About one mile in, there's a sign for the South Fork Baker Creek trail cutoff, which crosses Baker Creek. The Baker Creek trail continues on the north side of Baker Creek. A short time later, a wooden walkway crosses an area where runoff from a hill heads towards Baker Creek.

Wildflowers were common all along the creek. Most were unfamiliar to me, although the columbines were an old, familliar friend.

The creek thins as you go upstream, closer to its source. Nearing Baker Lake, there's a large bowl, full of downed trees. I assume the trees were growing higher up on the bowl face. When they die, they are eventually forced down the bowl by avalanches or simple gravity.

The approach to Baker Lake is from the southeast. Just before the final climb, there are few small "ducks" (rock piles). Heading right, between a pair of small pines, takes you to Baker Lake. Heading left would take you south, away from Baker Lake, and towards the pass that heads to Johnson Lake. One could make a 13.1 mile, 3,300 foot-gain loop of the day. However, because I planned to hike Wheeler Peak the next day, I opted to keep the day's hike at either 12 or 10.8 miles (depending on which NPS source was right) and 2,600 feet of altitude gain.

Baker Lake is another small, alpine lake. It looks so small that it seems impossible not to freeze solid during the winter. But, apparently, ice is a very good insulator, so the lake does not freeze solid. It's supposed to be home to brook and Lahontan cutthroat trout.

The north and east sides of the lake are shallow, with a talus shoreline. It's deeper to the west. A small, forested area occupies the north-west end.

Surrounding about half of the lake are high cliffs that look like the old headwalls of a glacier that no longer exists.

I returned the way I came.

I passed two people on the way in. They had been camping in the area for several days.

I passed one person on my way out. He was also taking a day hike.

When I got back to the parking lot, three other cars (besides my own) were still there. I assume the two other cars (besides mine and the dayhiker I passed on the way out) were for people who were backpacking or otherwise camping away from the Baker Creek trail.

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