Great Basin National Park is an off-the-radar mountainous park located 14 miles from the Utah and Nevada border in the expansive West Desert. While driving to the Great Basin, it is hard to imagine that an alpine paradise could exist in such a location—but it does. The 8,000 feet of relief from the valley floor to the summit of Wheeler Peak provide a range of environments and create an absolutely stunning landscape. Simply put, Great Basin National Park is awe inspiring.
Wheeler Peak (13,064 feet) is the tallest peak in the park, and it is one of the most impressive mountains in the Lower 48. Hiking Wheeler Peak can be done as a day hike starting from the Wheeler Peak Campground at 10,000 feet. To ski Wheeler, however, requires much more effort. The National Park Service closes the access road to the typical trailhead when snow is still abundant, making the winter hike up to Wheeler a serious adventure. Depending on snow levels, it makes sense to hike from the Upper Lehman Campground when possible. This depends on how high up the road you can drive. The elevation gain from Upper Lehman is about 6,000 feet, but the route is direct and beautiful.
A distinct gully below the base of Wheeler will lead you to the summit ridge. The gully is long but not very steep, which makes for an easy skin. Once on the ridge, the hiking gets tedious and slow. Wheeler Peak gets an immense amount of wind; it is the highest peak for hundreds of miles in all directions. The wind blows the snow off of the summit ridge all winter long, making this a boot pack on loose rock.
Once you begin hiking up the boulders, there will be a ridge jutting from the left side. This is a great ridge to ski off of, or there are good descents on both sides. From this ridge, it is an additional 1,000 vertical feet to the summit, and while there are no skiable lines from the summit of Wheeler, the views are panoramic and worth the extra climb.
From the ridge, the most appealing lines are on the south side, pointing you toward the cirque below Wheeler Peak and Jeff Davis Peak. There are three chutes on this side, all of which are absolutely stunning. Once in the cirque below Wheeler and Jeff Davis, you will actually be on the only glacier in the state of Nevada. The Wheeler Peak Glacier is no longer a year-round glacier, but there are distinct features that remind you that you are skiing on what was once a glacier. Take in the views of Wheeler and Jeff Davis from below. The ruggedness and sheer size of the cliffs are remarkable. This cirque is arguably the most impressive mountain cirque in the Mountain West.
Once past the glacier, bristlecone pine trees are abundant; the Great Basin has some of the largest concentration of these trees in the world. Bristlecone pine trees can live up to 5,000 years and are the oldest living species on the planet. Take in the views of these magnificent and weathered trees. There is no place on earth like Great Basin National Park.
The return to the campground can be very tedious, slow, and will depend on the amount of snow that is present. Keep descending through the thick forest until you reach Lehman Creek. Cross the creek and gain the summit trail, which you can hike back down to the campground.
Skiing Wheeler Peak is for the determined and adventurous. The approach is long and tedious, but the rewards are immense. Being up-close and personal with a mountain as big and rugged as Wheeler Peak is special, especially in winter when it is likely you will not see another party. Treat this tour with respect and rest up the day before. You will need the energy!
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.