Hiking to Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park
As we drove around the campground for a second time, I felt my heart sinking. Mr. Nerd muttered under his breath and hit the brakes abruptly.
"This is ridiculous. We HAVE to find a camping spot here."
I nodded ... but hesitated. Out of the four paid campgrounds at Great Basin National Park, this was the only one that reportedly had open spots still, and it looked like our luck had run short.
But then again, it was 4th of July weekend. What had we expected?
Mr. Nerd jerked the wheel to the left and started our third and final circle of the campground. We eyed every drive-in spot like a hawk searching for prey—but eventually started down the mountain completely empty handed.
As we drove 12 miles back to Baker, the small town at the foot of the mountain, I looked out the window at Wheeler Peak. We would hike up there, I told myself. We would.
Less than 24 hours later, I stood at 12,000 feet, studying what still lay ahead: my final thousand foot ascent to the peak. Bitter winds pulled at my clothes, and I regretted having nothing but a camera and an empty water bottle on me. At the very least, I should've put a sweater on.
Mr. Nerd was almost a 40 minute hike behind, head between his knees, suffering from a sudden onslaught of altitude sickness. I'd told him I'd be back 10 minutes ago.
His phone was dead. My phone was dead. Worse, I had no idea Wheeler Peak was so high up, but I'd extremely under-calculated the time it'd take to get there.
With one final, lingering look, I turned and retraced my steps down the mountain.
We will make it to the top someday, I told myself. We will.
So, you want to hike to Wheeler Peak.
Let's get the disclaimer stuff of the way right now.
This hike is not for the faint of heart. It's a long, 4-5 hour, 8.6 mile roundtrip trek. You'll walk along rocky debris that makes you want to punt them straight off the mountain, you'll likely encounter some snow and ice, and your thighs will BURN, baby, burn.
If you don't bring enough water, the last push to the top is brutal (almost straight up on slippery rock that, again, makes you want to stab something). And let's not get started on the altitude sickness. Nasty stuff. Do heights make your head spin? Hike up to 11,500 feet, right where you pass above the treetops. Then turn back.
This said, the hike isn't impossible either. It doesn't require much training, as long as you have some stamina, a lot of patience (those rocks, though; I'm not even kidding), and good timing. Start in the morning, when you can cover the 2,900 foot elevation gain without the threat of storms. Bring good hiking shoes with brilliant ankle support (YOU try going down the mountain on slippery rocks) and enough water to keep you hydrated.
Mr. Nerd suggests taking a few days to get acclimated to the altitude, too, so you'll be right as rain on the trail.
And snacks. Because who doesn't love snacks? Trail mix and beef jerky. Yummmmm.
• How to Hike Wheeler Peak Trail •
Now that those pesky disclaimers are out of the way, let's move to the fun part: our guide to hiking Wheeler Peak Summit Trail in Great Basin National Park! With any luck, you'll actually make it to the top and be able to tell us what it's like up there. We're rooting for you.
Wheeler Peak Summit Trail is the highest trail you can hike in Great Basin National Park, with the trailhead accessible from two different places: the Wheeler Peak Campground OR a pull-off along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. No matter which one you pick, the hike will still be 8.6 miles—so don't fret about choosing one or the other.
However, if you're interested in exploring more of Great Basin National Park, we definitely recommend camping at Wheeler Peak Campground and walking to the trailhead. It's a nice stroll with great views of the peaks above.
Looking for other things to do in Nevada? Check out our five day road trip itinerary!
Starting Your Ascent
Let's assume you've started your hike from the campground (as that's what we did).
The first mile of the hike is pretty gentle. You'll walk through a shady evergreen forest next to a bubbling brook, with the hum of grasshoppers, birds, and the occasional deer on all sides. If you're a nature lover (which we hope you are, if you're tackling this hike), this is a great place to sit on a log and wait in quiet for something to cross your camera lens.
We took way too many photos here. It felt like something out of a video game (like Elder Scrolls).
There is a small hiking path that intercepts with the current trail, called Sky Islands Forest Trail. It's a half-mile-long loop, so you could extend your hike to 9 miles by diverting here for a while.
Deeper into the Forest You Go
Soon enough, the trail and brook will part ways, and you'll continue into the forest. But not for long. The cover of pine and branches start to part; first just a little, then a lot, like Moses and the Red Sea. You'll catch glimpses of the mountaintops in the distance.
Yes, you will hike up to one of those. And yes, it feels far off still. So very far off.
During our hike, we saw more than the occasional deer. Keep your eyes peeled for these gentle, yet easily startled creatures. If you're a wizard with your camera, you might capture one or two of them happily grazing in a yonder field—even as the trees continue to open around you. Or maybe you'll spot an elusive woodland spirit, playing a flute on a fallen tree stump.
You're in Narnia now, my friends. Anything can happen.
A Brief Pause at Stella Lake
After the fields and cute Disney creatures subside, you'll come to a fork in the path. Take a right, and you'll start the real climb to Wheeler Peak (which is still a good two-ish miles away, so go slow). Continue straight, though, and you'll quickly arrive at Stella Lake.
We did Stella Lake at the end of our hike, but you can detour whenever feels best. This is a great time to bust out the water and snacks (SNACKS!!!), too, and eye the peak you're about to face—or the peak you just conquered! There's plenty of logs and slight hills to sit your victorious behind upon.
Feast on those snacks like a king or queen. You deserve it.
Just don't go for a dip in the lake. I know, I know. Mrs. Nerd = stick in the mud and you're super sweaty from your hike. Going for a swim sounds as romantic as Jon Snow and Ygritte getting it on it the love cave. Spoilers. But don't say I didn't warn you. Seriously, the stuff is stagnant. Ew.
By the way, see that peak up there (see next photo). Yeah, THAT peak. That's your peak. Go climb it!
The Precarious Path*
*Doesn't this sound like the title of an A Series of Unfortunate Events book?
If you visited Stella Lake on your way up and now understand the entirety of the quest before you, turn back and head to the fork in the road. If you decided to skip Stella Lake, take a right and start up the path as you behind your antepenultimate climb.
Yes, antepenultimate is a thing. I'm so glad we have words for the things that pop in my brain. :)
Whatever decision you made for the lake, you're now starting what'll be a long climb up the mountain. In reality, it's not so bad. The trees diminish—if you stop and look out toward the desert, you can see for miles. There are a few rocks you can sit on to ponder your place in the world, too, or eat another snack.
Eventually, the path turns precarious. It narrows to a pinpoint that leads you along a steep ledge (like Gandalf led the Fellowship along the Pass of Caradhras in Lord of the Rings. You're welcome for the reference), which means if you pass any other hikers, you'll need to awkwardly step aside a little and let them through.
But honestly, I promise it's not that dangerous. Just watch your step—and don't look down too long.
Your Final Climb to Mount Doom
I promise, I promise. I'm done with the nerd references (but it was so worth it. How many did I drop in this post? I think I lost count), because this last part of your climb is the real deal. This is where it gets tough. Where your leg muscles have to earn their keep and you start obsessing about how much water you have left. Enough to get back to camp, we hope?
There will come a moment when the path turns to rock. You might even see some snow on the ground.
Unless it's winter. Then, duh, snow.
You'll hit a small grove of trees, perfect for a small break, and then you'll look up at the rocky cliff ahead of you.
Is this is? you wonder. Do I just summit this hill and reach the peak?
The answer, my friends, is no. This is just the beginning.
It was around this time that Mr. Nerd got hit with altitude sickness. He couldn't take another step. His legs turned to jello, and he collapsed, unable to acclimate to the height we were at (11,500 feet) or the thinness in the air. So I left him with our backpack, grabbed the camera and a small bottle of water, and forged ahead. Thinking, of course, that all I had to do was make it over the hill and I'd be done.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Up, up, up I went. The path turned completely to rock. And not solid rock either, but rocks that slipped and turned under my feet. I almost tripped several times. In fact, I'm genuinely surprised I didn't a) tumble down the side of the mountain or b) twist my ankle.
Not even kidding. Be careful. Bring good shoes with amazing ankle support. You won't regret it.
The path was pretty much a long series of switchbacks that I gingerly half-ran, half-staggered along, stopping every few minutes to catch my breath, drink some water, and take some photos. Then, finally, I summited the hill—and was overwhelmed with beautiful views.
I made it. I made it!
I... didn't make it.
Now, to preface this, there were a lot of people sitting (see: picnicking) in this general area. Probably 20 people. I figured, this must be the peak! But when I stopped to ask a skinny dude with earphones if this was it, he snickered at me.
"No, that's the peak," he said, pointing to a speck in the distance. "Another 1,500 feet or so."
I stared at the actual peak in true dismay. Not because I didn't want to hike that far, but because I'd told Mr. Nerd I'd be back in 30 minutes. And I had 10 minutes left. So I did what any normal, sane person would do in this situation, right?
I ran. I took off across the half-mile stretch of rocks like a coyote after a roadrunner (oops) as the wind tried to blow me to pieces. And I only stopped to grab photos of the literally stupid beautiful scenery.
Of course, you know how MY story ends. The last ditch effort to reach the top failed when I realized how far away the peak actually was, how rocky the climb would be, and how inadequately prepared I was to do it without Mr. Nerd trying to crawl his way up the path to find me.
But YOUR story doesn't have to end that way.
Climb slowly. Stop for breaks as often as you need them. Don't speed up the mountain, but enjoy the journey, and take lots of pictures. We talked to many people who made it after we attempted the hike, and they all agreed it was difficult—but they'd all do it again in a heartbeat. Because the view is just that worth it.
We hope to make it to Wheeler Peak someday. But we also hope you will first ... and will tell us what it's like standing at the top of the world.
Then? Hike back down, shower it off, and go eat a meal at Kerouac's Restaurant in Baker. Their food is YUM.