Bristlecone Pine & Glacier Trails, Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada is one of the least-visited parks in the country. But it holds two treasures not only worth seeing, but are also easy to get to. A grove of ancient bristlecone pines, and the southernmost glacier in the U.S.
- Trailhead: Top of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive – Open in Google Maps.
- Length: 4.6 miles round trip; 2-3 hours.
- Difficulty: Moderate. There’s a bit of elevation gain (1,000′) in a steady gain but the trail starts at 9,800′.
- Usage: Hikers. Great Basin National Park entry is free.
- Best Time for Photography: Very early morning, start right after sunrise.
- Trail Info Current: October 25, 2016
- Further Reading: Exploring Great Basin National Park
Bristlecone Pine & Glacier Trail Narrative
These are two trails that are really just one; the Bristlecone Pines start just over one mile from the trailhead, and instead of turning around, you should continue another mile for views of the only glacier in Nevada. I went 1.9 miles from the trailhead but you can continue for another half-mile.
The trail starts at the parking lot at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. There’s a gate for the campground; pull over into the parking lot area with restrooms. The trailhead is on your right as you enter turn into the parking lot. If you’re not acclimated to the altitude, take it slow!
The first part of the trail passes under pines and gradually climbs to an area with impressive views to the valley below. You’ll soon find yourself in the moraine (rock field) as the trees start to get more and more sparse above 10,000′. Continue past this rock field and up some switchbacks and you’ll see your first bristlecones. They can be identified by their smooth gnarled trunks that usually lack bark. The needles, about one inch long, come in packets of five and usually cover the whole branch.
It’s really a short hike to reach the grove. Upon reaching the grove, you’ll see interpretive signs explaining how the trees survive, researching them, and how old they are (nearly 4,000 years old!). “Born 1150 B.C.”. The signs put into perspective how old these trees are by noting what was going on in the world when these trees were born.
One sign notes the age of the tree when Jesus Christ was born and the tree was already a couple thousand years old at the time! The wood is very dense and resists rot, fire, insects, wind, and every other element that would destroy any other tree. They can survive on very little nutrients. The interpretive trail goes in a short loop around the pines.
Instead of returning back to the parking lot, continue on the trail branch that continues up towards Wheeler Peak. After a very short climb you’ll come to another interpretive sign under the glacier, this one explaining how the glacier was formed. The trail then continues through the moraine and up to the glacier, but you don’t need to go all the way to get great views of the glacier.
Tips for the Bristlecone Pine & Glacier Trail
- Due to the altitude and northern exposure, this trail may be covered with snow and ice until well after spring.
- I have the luxury of living at 7,000′ so this trail didn’t affect me much. But if you’re a flatlander from low elevations, you may want to acclimate yourself slowly as this trail starts at around 10,000′
- Great Basin has a number of excellent campgrounds. Stay in one of them (acclimation!) and start this trail early in the morning when the light is good.