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12 Months of National Parks — No. 11, Great Basin: Miles of adventure fit in one little ring

Published August 24, 2016 7:27 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The gnarled branches of a bristlecone pine act out the story of the rings inside. They writhe toward the sky like a frame from a stop-motion film, a hint of something dynamic in a tree that has stood still for 3,200 years.

Time is swallowed in Great Basin National Park. Centuries are digested and transformed into stalactites dripping off marble, a glacier in its death throes after tens of thousands of years, images of a nebula in the dark Nevada sky, a tree that fits a human life into 2 inches of narrow lines.

My 3-year-old daughter, Saskia, stands next to a senior member of the Wheeler Peak Grove and stretches out her arms in a hug. This year's ring, nothing to a tree that has survived millenniums, means a lot to us.

Almost a year ago, I made a goal to take Saskia to a different national park each month for a year. At our first park, Acadia, Saskia was 2 years old. She hiked less than a mile. My husband needed to hold her during her Junior Ranger "pledge," which the park staff helpfully shortened to a promise to be kind to plants and animals.

By July, the 11th of our 12 months of national parks, she is becoming an outdoorswoman. She identifies wildlife and marks the animals in her activity booklet. She picks up other people's litter on the trail. She is learning to distinguish nature from human impact. And she recognizes the limits of that distinction as we do a Junior Ranger activity about noise pollution.

"Is the sound of a helicopter made by nature or humans?" I ask. Humans, she replies.

Is birds' singing made by nature or humans?


What about music?

She thinks.

"Humans," she says. Then she pauses. "What made humans?"

It's a big question for a big place.

Great Basin National Park rises out of a desolate corner of Nevada, near the Utah border west of Delta. From the visitors center, Lehman Cave burrows deep underground, its formations gently lit to expose room after room of glistening secrets. Wheeler Peak sends its jagged points more than 13,000 feet above the sea, shadowing its glacier as well as it can. By night, the Milky Way glows across the park, designated by stargazers as an official International Dark Sky Park for its distance from light pollution; rangers bring out telescopes after sunset, and I try not to cry as I see Saturn for the first time. Groves of feathery mahogany make a canopies of lace in the park's lower elevations, while the bristlecones strike their anguished poses below a rocky cirque.

As Saskia hugs the tree, she has lost interest in her big question. She has hiked almost 10 miles in three days with my husband and me, and she is proud of herself. I am amazed how far she has come, how tall she has gotten, how much she has learned.

Bristlecone rings are measured by hundredths of a millimeter. That's not very much, but it's enough for our little adventure in a big universe. In our insignificant, human way, I think we grew a lot this year.

National park hike: Bristlecone Trail

This family-friendly hike takes visitors from the Wheeler Peak Campground to a grove of ancient bristlecone pines. It is about 3 miles round-trip. You can see a sketch of the route on Google Maps.

Previous national park trip reports

12 Months of National Parks: A mother-daughter tour

12 Months of National Parks — No. 1, Acadia: Small children love nature, but on their own level

12 Months of National Parks — No. 2, Capitol Reef: 'People shouldn't be here'

12 Months of National Parks — No. 3, Arches: Are national park rules too strict?

12 Months of National Parks — No. 4, Canyonlands: The best fun may require a child's eyes

12 Months of National Parks — No. 5, Biscayne: A threatened park claws its way forward

12 Months of National Parks — No. 6, Everglades: Please don't spank the gator

12 Months of National Parks — No. 7, Bryce Canyon: The $10 lifetime senior pass needs to end

12 Months of National Parks — No. 8, Death Valley: The poetry of survival

12 Months of National Parks — No. 9, Wind Cave: Drama unfolds in a quiet corner of the prairie

12 Months of National Parks: Bonus stop in Badlands

12 Months of National Parks: The error of rushing history in Boston Historic Park

12 Months of National Parks — No. 10, Mesa Verde: A detour from the plan leads to floral delights

— Erin Alberty


Twitter: @erinalberty






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