Wheeler Peak is the second-highest point in Nevada. Some will argue that it counts as the highest peak because Boundary Peak's prominence isn't enough to qualify it as an actual mountain. I don't really care. The trip to Boundary Peak the week prior to this was set up largely because we already had this trip on the calendar. Chad was looking to get a few climbs in and hit some real altitude before a trip to Mount Whitney, so we threw this one up when we had a free weekend. As it turned out, we had the previous weekend free as well and got Boundary in then.
When we chose this date, we had no idea it was the same weekend as Pioneer Day in the average state of Utah. Great Basin National Park, which, according to their website, rarely has full campgrounds, would have full campgrounds all weekend, we learned upon arrival and scouring every site for a tag indicating it was occupied. For a group of three--myself, Chad, and our friend Quinn--there are no ways to make reservations to camp at one of the three sites along the Wheeler Peak Loop road. We set off not knowing about the holiday and not figuring there would be any trouble.
The drive across Nevada on Highway 50 is an interesting and aesthetically pleasing one for anybody who appreciates the desert landscape. After leaving Fallon on the eastward route, you begin to cross mountain range after mountain range with large valleys in between. Austin, Eureka, and Ely are the towns that stand between you and the park. In case you didn't know, Nevada is the most mountainous state in the union. Most of those ranges run predominantly north/south, so when driving east/west, you have to ascend and descend a new range every thirty miles or so. This is specifically not called Horst and Graben. It makes for an interesting drive, but it also makes your car work a bit to maintain the normal 70 mph speed limit on most of The Lincoln Highway.
We stopped for lunch at the Pony Express Deli in Eureka. Quinn had been out this direction a couple of weeks prior (something that helped us make a few decisions about food) and told us that the Pony Express Deli's burger was "a legitimate contender for best burger within 100 miles of the middle of nowhere." He wasn't wrong. The food was good and the stop was quick, so we could be on our way.
All told, the drive from Reno to Baker, the town situated at the park's entrance, was about six hours. We immediately went looking for a campsite, only to spend about two hours on that to no avail. After talking to the park employees at the visitor center, we were about to drive back to Sacramento Pass, toward Ely about 20 miles away for a campsite, when we saw a sign at The Whispering Elms that said "tent camping." I turned us around and we grabbed us a tent site "anywhere along the fence" and had us a place to stay right near the park, saving us from a drive in the morning.
From the campsite, we walked ourselves to Kerouac's, a small cafe with whiskey cocktails and pretty darn good pizza. It's an odd establishment in a town this size, but we quickly learned that many of the park employees hang out here. The night we were there, trivia was going to happen with a $100 bar tab going to the winning team. A couple of drinks and a solid pizza later, we were heading back to the Whispering Elms where my legs would proceed to be dinner for several species of bugs.
We woke early to get ourselves packed up and fed. We wanted to hit the trail by about 8:30. Most accounts gave the range for a round trip at 5.5 hours, give or take, so that would put us at the top near noon. We wound up grabbing the last available parking spot in the proper lot (there is an overflow lot/large turnout across the road from where the main lot is) and quickly hit the trail.
The first mile is a relatively flat path through a lot of aspens. One spot affords you a great meadow with a stunning view of Wheeler Peak. Everyone who has hiked this route probably has a photo from that exact spot. You meet with another trail that comes directly from the main campground, and about a quarter mile later get to a split with a sign. The summit is one way, and Stella Lake is the other. For about another mile, it's uphill, but very manageable. That'll take you to the treeline. Once you reach that point, it's a series of switchbacks for a while until you reach a leveled off spot before the final bit if ascent.
That final bit is about a mile and a half of pretty steep hiking to reach the summit. You climb right along the ridge, so on a windy day, this could be quite unpleasant. But, you do get great views of the valleys on each side of the mountain. The real treat, though, doesn't come until you get right to the top. Since you're approaching from the north, the southern view of the park and the Snake Range is obscured the entire way. If views are why you climb to the tops of mountains, take my advice and do not turn around early on Wheeler Peak.
We hit the top at around 11:00. It's an easy peak to hang around on top of. It's big up there, with about 100 yards running from east to west and about 15 yards the other direction. You can walk out to the edge and stare at the shittily-named Jeff Davis Peak, or you can enjoy the views beyond it and around it. We met a few folks up there. There was the woman who flew to Las Vegas from Arkansas, hiked Mount Charleston, then drove up to do Wheeler before heading home the next day. And there was the couple from Carson City who had done about 20 of the highest peaks around Tahoe. Traffic is much greater than it was at Boundary Peak the week before. At Boundary, we saw one other guy. Here, probably as many people as would see Boundary all year were heading up just on this day.
The main marker at the top was missing. There were two reference markers that we found, each pointing directly to the missing spot in the that was drilled into a rock at the high point on the peak. It's a bummer that it's missing. I hope someone didn't steal it, but I have a hard time believing that's not the case. People can suck. The register is a series of notebooks in a metal mailbox just below where the marker should be. We each signed, ate a bit, and headed down.
On the initial part of the downhill, the steepest part, we started to get a little rain. That rain quickly turned to some painful and really annoying hail that continued for about a half hour. The forecast showing thundershowers after 11:00 a.m. had come to fruition. On the steepest part of the mountain, it made moving quickly a lot harder to do. By the time we began to level off, it stopped and the sun eventually came back out. Such is life in Nevada.
The trip back to the car, after the hail ceased, was a breeze. The final two plus miles are really easy and gradual, making speed easily attainable. The total round trip was just a few seconds under five hours.
We grabbed a campsite to cook up a good lunch on the way down. It was necessary before continuing on to Ely for the night. We grabbed a room and rested for a few hours before hitting the Hotel Nevada to watch the USMNT play Costa Rica in the Gold Cup semifinal. What that means is that we didn't get around to dinner until 9:30. Guess what time everything except Denny's closes in Ely on a Saturday night. We ate at Denny's.
The only thing we needed to do on the way home was stop at Middlegate Station to have a burger. (Also, idea: The Burgers of the Loneliest Highway.) We left Ely at around 8:00, which put us in the perfect position to hit Middlegate for lunch. We did hit it perfectly. And the burger was pretty good. None of us went with the Monster Burger, but what we did have was pretty solid and I'd say it lived up to the hype.
From Middlegate, it was an easy drive the rest of the way. We made it back into Reno in the mid afternoon on Sunday and the trip was in the books. Two weekends in a row with some real altitude should be a great help to Chad on his attempt at the highest mountain in the contiguous 48. It was also nice getting out to do a few before the summer winds down and we're all suddenly too busy again.