A high point in one of the Basin and Range mountain ranges, Davidson Peak is a fun ridge scramble on ancient sea limestone with great views of eastern Nevada and western Arizona.
Approaching Davidson Peak from the south on Sheep Pens Road.
Overview: Observe in solitude the raw geologic events and forces that shaped the eastern Great Basin from the tilted limestone sediment summit of Davidson Peak. The fun, rocky scramble up its east ridge has a steep "limestone slickrock" section and circumvents the huge gulch stretching down from the peak. Pass over bryozoan and bright orange brachiopods on slopes with healthy Joshua trees and hedgehog cacti.
Location: East Mormon Mountains in Mormon Mountain Wilderness BLM, near Mesquite, Nevada.
Distance/Elevation: 5 miles round trip; 2,200' elevation gain. Start = 3,163', summit = 5,315'.
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous Class 2 ridge hike.
Coordinates: Trailhead = Sheep Pens Road = 36°53'59.14" N 114°17'51.92" W. Summit = 36°53'45.36" N 114°19'27.51" W.
Navigational aids: Bureau of Land Management - Nevada/Overton topo map, Stav is Lost's trip report.
Date Hiked: 4/3/22
Geology: East-tilted Cambrian through Pennsylvanian block rooted to its Precambrian basement rocks.
“A million years is a short time - the shortest worth messing with for most problems. You begin tuning your mind to a time scale that is the planet's time scale. For me, it is almost unconscious now and is a kind of companionship with the earth.”
- John McPhee, Basin and Range
A high point to one of the many parallel Great Basin mountain ranges, the horn-shaped summit of Davidson Peak with its steep west-facing cliffs rises solitary over the expansive Mojave desert as you drive on I-15 heading north from Las Vegas. Formed during the time of shallow seas, when North America was closer to the equator, its rocks are 500 - 300 million years old and contain coral and brachiopod fossils. This hike is a ridge ramble for the entire 2.5 miles to the summit, gaining roughly 1,000 feet per mile, and is surprisingly scenic and full of intriguing sights, like bright orange fossils and a gaping, seemingly bottomless gulch.
Our goal this year is to hike to as many high points of the Great Basin mountain ranges as we can, and Davidson is our third. We hiked Wheeler Peak and Virgin Peak last autumn, both in the eastern-most Basin and Range region. From Davidson's summit, we could see another target summit, Mormon Peak, the highest point in the Mormon Mountain Wilderness, northwest of Mesquite, a town on the border of Nevada and Arizona. Nevada is the most mountainous state, so we have a lot of choices!
Another planned summit is North Schell Peak, a nearly 12,000-foot high point near Ely, Nevada.
The hike begins after a 12-mile drive north from I-15 that initially follows the Old Spanish Trail. It is a good gravel road but nevertheless slow-going. We parked on Sheep Pens Road just north of the radio towers. A short spur road takes you to the base of Davidson's east ridge. We walked to the end of this road and started up the ridge on the left side of a wide gulch; a few cairns were present. About 1/3 of the way up, we encountered large rocks, so we skirted the left side of the ridge.
After skirting the ridge top, enter a beautiful valley/saddle with great places to take a break and enjoy very healthy Joshua trees, red barrel and prickly pear cacti. Ahead, confront a steep climb to remain on the east ridge. On the way up, we circumvented the actual ridge top to the right, looking down into the deep and wide gulch coming from the peak. Davidson Peak is an easy scramble straight ahead. However, it is not too difficult to stay on top of the ridge, requiring some use of hands for hoisting and balance, but mostly a Class 2. The ridge to the summit is long and flat.
Mormon Peak is seen to the northwest, and the solitary hulk of Moapa Peak to the southwest. The west side drops almost straight down . We could see Virgin Peak to the southeast, an 8,000' summit we hiked last autumn, out of the Gold Butte National Monument.
On the way down, we stayed on top of the ridge all the way to the saddle, hiking over a fun, steep, smooth and relatively rockless limestone slab which elevated us high above steep drops on both sides. We stayed for the most part on the ridge the rest of the way down and then descended through a shallow canyon to arrive at the spur road lined with yellow poppies.
The ancient Basin and Range mountain ranges rise above a stark and dusty desert; it appears as if there is not much there to discover. But when you get into the "heart" of them, walk over their scratchy limestone and volcanic rocks, circumvent sharp yucca leaves and cactus spines, catch the sudden crimson blooms of a claret cup hedgehog, and feel the desert space you know you are in a special, unique and maybe even spiritual place.
Keep On Exploring!
From Davidson Peak summit; looking at the ridge we ascended and Moapa Peak in the distance.
I'm not sure what this is - appears to be a fossil that has been exposed to a lot of iron - maybe a brachiopod? If anyone knows what this may be, please let me know!
Start of hike; we parked on Sheep Pens Road before it ascended to communication towers and walked cross-country to a spur road from Sheep Pens that led to the base of Davidson's east ridge (right on photo). Davidson Peak is highest point on the right.
At end of spur road, we hiked up this east ridge with the large gulch to the right. Stay on ridge to the top.
On the ridge
On the ridge, gulch below - summit far right
Skirting top of ridge cliffs by hiking on the left side of it ~ 1/3 of the way up.
After skirting to the left side of cliffs, regain the ridge to arrive at beautiful saddle.
On saddle looking back at ridge on the right and large gully - approach road faintly seen on desert floor.
Taking a break on the saddle; Joshua tree, hedgehog cactus, and prickly pear.
Some cool stuff on the trail:
Fishhook cactus, Indian Paintbrush on the summit, two photos of fossils (corals?), Joshua tree bloom, red barrel cactus.
The climb from the saddle up to the summit - about one mile to go! Note limestone with brown chert (microcrystalline quartz) nodules.
A good look at the summit - easy enough to stay on ridge.
Sue on fun "slickrock" section on ridge - Moapa Peak in background.
Fun walking on ridge line
Summit ridge - summit at right
Indian paintbrush on summit. looking northwest to the Mormon Mountains.
Fred on Davidson Peak summit - what better way to spend Sunday afternoon than summit a Basin and Range peak?
A very patriotic and organized peak register.
On summit looking north at the East Mormon Mountains ridge.
On summit looking at Moapa Peak to the southwest, south of Mormon Mountains.
(looks like a fun peak to climb).
Descending from the summit to follow the ridge back down.
Limestone "slickrock" section!
Back to the Joshua trees in the saddle or flat part of the ridge. We went around to the right.
Looking back - we came down the small gulley just off the ridge instead of following ridge to toe.
Parting shot of Davidson Peak.
Our tracks - South direction at top of map. The road we started at is Sheep Pens Road; there is a spur road off of Sheep Pen that a good 4-WD vehicle could drive to the base of Davidson's east ridge.
GPS tracks and profile.
Axen, G.J. , Wernicke, B.P., Skelly, M.F., Taylor, W.J. 1990. Mesozoic and Cenozoic tectonics of the Sevier thrust belt in the Virgin River Valley area, southern Nevada. Geological Society of America - Memoir 176. In the book, Basin and Range Extensional Tectonics near the latitude of Las Vegas, Nevada.
Simplified geologic map of the Mormon Mountains - Tule Springs Hills - Beaver Dam Mountains transect. Uploaded by Gary Axen. www.ResearchGate.net.
Making images in the photogenic northern Mojave Desert and a quick hike up Little Virgin Peak.
Virgin Peak - 8,071', Seeking Solitude in the Mojave
Jarvis Peak Hike in Beaver Dam Mountains
Desert Plant Photos
Utah's Red Rock Country
The 10 Essentials for Hiking
We returned to Gold Butte National Monument, about an hour's drive from Las Vegas to explore, hike and photograph this land of meandering gravel roads leading to petroglyphs, weirdly-shaped sandstone spires, old mines, and thrusting sandstone domes. Just a month ago, we hiked Virgin Peak summit, the highest in Gold Butte, on an enjoyable fossil-filled ridge.
We scored a hidden campsite in Whitney Pocket perched at the end of a platform above a rocky wash on one side and a rough gravel road marked "designated route" on the other. One night we heard an animal walk around our trailer, maybe a deer. The night sky was illuminated by the milky way as well as a weird glow from distant Las Vegas.
Gold Butte and recreational side-by-side ATV's make the perfect match. We saw a few large "jamborees" of riders churning through sand and gravel and meeting up at the end of the day to re-fill their deflated tires. While searching out the petroglyphs on the way to Little Finland, not one, not two, but about 15 open ATV's buzzed by us, their dust cloud giving away their whereabouts after vanishing behind a bend. These folks are outfitted with all of the necessary off-road devices: multiple navigational aids and emergency personal locators. On the summit of Little Virgin Peak, we watched another caravan buzzing down the road like ants leading to Lake Mead. This activity looks fun, but I will stick to using my legs and breathing fresh air.
The images in my hike descriptions are what I call "photography on the run", where we are moving along and I usually don't have much time to plan or compose my photos. On this trip, however, I had the time in the mornings and evenings, sunrise and sunset, to wander around the beautiful sandstone alcoves and into washes, to take time making images. It is a meditative exercise and a luxury.
We wanted to hike Mica Peak, but that meant another 20 miles on slow-going roads, so we saved it for another time. There's so much to see in the American west, Nevada, and this little corner of southeast Nevada.
Aztec Sandstone at Whitney Pocket.
Buckhorn cholla at Whitney Pocket.
Detail in sandstone at Whitney Pocket
Iron oxide concretions caused by precipitation of iron in paleogroundwater through sandstone.
Joshua Tree - a Mojave Desert "indicator" species (a measure of environmental conditions in the Mojave).
Mud Wash petroglyph panel near Little Finland in Gold Butte National Monument.
Whitney Pocket sunrise.
Whitney Pocket - Aztec sandstone at sunset.
Little Finland - a platform of sandstone features eroded into strange and intricate shapes hanging above a palm oasis.
Our own "private Mojave" hidden by Aztec sandstone in Whitney Pocket - at sunrise.
Little Virgin Peak Hike
Summit and rock cairn of Little Virgin Peak; Virgin Peak (8,071') on the horizon.
Overview: Little Virgin's mellow southwest ridge is a relatively short and sweet way to get fantastic bird's-eye views of the stark northern Mojave desert filled with alluvial fans, washes and mountains of Gold Butte National Monument and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Location: Gold Butte National Monument, Southeastern Nevada.
Coordinates: Little Virgin summit = (UTM) 11S 0748307E 4054422N. Our trailhead = 0749437E 4053626N.
Distance/Elevation gain: 2.2 miles out and back/860' gain.
Difficulty: Moderate effort Class 2 scramble on faint trail once on ridge.
Permit: None required; no entrance fee to Gold Butte NM.
Map: Gold Butte National Monument Area Map by Friends of Gold Butte.
Date Hiked: December 4, 2021.
From I-15 north of Las Vegas and just south of Mesquite, Nevada, take exit 112 in Bunkerville, onto Highway 170, traveling 3.5 miles, taking a right onto Gold Butte Backcountry Byway just after crossing Virgin River. Continue on Gold Butte Road about 13.8 miles to the base of Little Virgin on the right. We parked at the intersection of Gold Butte Road and the sandy Fisherman's Cove Road, marked with a sign.
Hike Directions: Can use east or south ridge: we hiked up south ridge from intersection of Gold Butte Road and Fisherman's Cove Road. From this intersection, hike up slope to the north to gain Little Virgin's south ridge. Continue on ridge to the summit. There is a faint trail occasionally cairned once on ridge.
Gold Butte Road passes by Little Virgin Peak on the way to Whitney Point. The hike is short and sweet with great views of alluvial fans and valleys peppered with black, grey and white limestone rocks. The Virgin Mountain range to the east cascades downward from its highest point, Virgin Mountain in a descending series of saddles and rises, its foot embedded into the creosote-filled plains. The geology is vastly different on Virgin versus Little Virgin and the elevation, too (Virgin is 8,071' and Little Virgin is 3,514'). The Mississippian limestone on Virgin Peak's southeast ridge is younger than the schist and gneiss of Little Virgin. To the west, the view looks across Virgin River to Mormon Mesa and other ranges beyond.
The east ridge could be hiked for more mileage. The red barrel cacti and green cholla contrast with the chocolate and rust-colored metamorphic rocks (Proterozoic basement rocks - gneiss and schist). We started walking from Gold Butte Road and Fisherman's Cove intersection through a wash at the base of Little Virgin and hiked up the hill to find the ridge. Once on the ridge, it is an easy walk to the summit, following occasional ducks and cairns along the way.
The vegetation is healthy, with a few attractive cactus gardens of California barrel cacti (ferocactus) and buckhorn cholla on the ridge, as well as one of my favorite Mojave plants - creosote bush. It is a long-lived desert survivor with a lifespan of roughly 90 years. But the best attribute of creosote comes to life after a rain. Water penetrates the creosote leaves' waxy coatings to produce the wonderful smell of the Mojave desert. It was used by Native Americans to treat a variety of diseases and as an antiseptic.
If you are lucky enough to stay at Whitney Pocket in Gold Butte and want a quick adventure, you won't be disappointed with Little Virgin Peak. Once again, as with every hike, we affirm our fortune of having the health, the legs and lungs, to get to these extraordinary places.
Heading up flank of south ridge.
View of summit
Barrel cactus and buckhorn cholla, metamorphic rock. View to the southeast of Gold Butte Road and Virgin Mountains on the left.
Small "duck" on rock at right to mark trail on ridge.
Summit of LIttle Virgin Peak, looking at Virgin Mountains.
Descending down south ridge to intersection of Gold Butte Road and Fisherman's Cove Road. Virgin Peak highest point on ridge left horizon.
Our GPS tracks to Little Virgin Peak from intersection of Gold Butte Road and Fisherman's Cove Road.
Elevation gain and mileage profile: 1.1 mile from road to summit - 850 feet gain.
Gardner, L. The Vegetation of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts.
Nevada geology maps. Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.
pitchstonewaters.com. Creosote Bush: An Unassuming But Ancient Form of Life All Around Us
Remote ridge ramble on fossil-filled limestone northeast of Lake Mead and south of Mesquite in Nevada. Camping the night before among the dramatic sandstone formations at Whitney Pocket in beautiful Gold Butte National Monument enhanced this experience.
Related: Jarvis Peak - Beaver Dam Mountains near St. George, Utah
Utah's Red Rock Country
Desert Plant Photos
Wheeler Peak: 13,063' - Great Basin National Park
Red Mountain Primitive Trail, St. George, Utah
Virgin Peak summit, looking north toward town of Mesquite, Nevada and Mormon Mountains on left horizon.
Location/Overview: Virgin Mountains Instant Study Area, Gold Butte National Monument, southeast Nevada, northeastern edge of Mojave desert. The approach to this remote hike begins with a drive through ancient bright orange sand dunes at Whitney Pocket, rising abruptly over Joshua tree-filled valleys, providing private primitive camping coves. The southeast ridge hike has three main sections. The first is a high-clearance 4 WD road that utilizes a deep wash on the right (east) side of the ridge. Next, a steep scramble gains 500 feet from the wash/jeep road to the summit's southeast ridge where the third section is a 2.3-mile, 2,000'-gain beautiful ridge hike to the summit, with many examples of Mississippian-age fossils in limestone, and spectacular views of northern Lake Mead, Valley of Fire, Beaver Dam Mountains to the north.
Distance/Elevation Gain: varies depending on how far you can drive up 4 WD road; our distance was 10.85 miles out and back. Our starting elevation: 4,355'. Summit: 8,071', for a gain of 3,700'.
Difficulty: Moderate hike on 4 WD road, moderate-strenuous Class 2 ridge to summit. Although not "official", the trail is seen most of southeast ridge.
Coordinates: See waypoints table below.
Navigational aids: Virgin Peak, Southeast Ridge - birdandhike.com, Avenza app on GPS with Arizona Strip Map, Gold Butte NM Area Map (purchased at St. George BLM).
Permits/Camping: No permits or fees required. Dry camping at Whitney Pocket in Gold Butte NM.
Date Hiked: November 3, 2021.
Considerations: Long pants advised due to a lot of bushwhacking through shrubs and trees, exposed ridge (thunderstorms), the higher the clearance of your 4 WD vehicle, the nearer your access to trailhead at Cowboy Campsite.
Geology: On southeast ridge and on summit, you will be walking on Rogers Spring Limestone AKA Monte Cristo Group (Mississippian period ~ 340 million years ago). Canyon walls on the way up to ridge are Devonian (~ 400 mya) and Cambrian (~500 mya).
Geologic map of the Virgin Mountains Instant Study Area, Clark County, Nevada
“The Mojave Desert is a harsh, but very spiritual, place. As children growing up in the Mojave, we chased lizards and snakes, instead of frogs and squirrels. There is an arid openness about it, and a true feeling of being alone, that you don’t get in any other type of environment.”
- James Stanford, from Shimmering Zen
View of Virgin Peak and its southeast ridge from Little Virgin Peak.
Mojave desert sunset at Whitney Pocket in Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada.
In our quest this year to explore "off the beaten path" areas in southwestern Utah, away from crowded national and state parks, we have seen some sublime, amazing and sometimes astonishing wilderness beyond park borders, almost always in solitude. Last month, we explored part of the Beaver Dam Mountains. Our adventure this month landed us on the highest summit in the Virgin Mountains, a remote "sky island", rising more than 6,000 feet above the dusty desert floor of southeastern Nevada, a little over an hour's drive from Las Vegas. Extra work goes into figuring out approaches and routes to these less-traveled places, but I find this more meaningful and fun than hiking in well-traveled parks. In 1993, the first time I visited Zion National Park, there were a total of 2.4 million visitors. This year, 2021, looks like it will top 5 million visitors. When I visited Zion in May this year, I noticed the trails were much wider and literally trampled. On Virgin Peak's ridge, we had to focus on finding the trail, as it is not well-defined.
I wondered, as we drove on Gold Butte Road to our camping spot from the city of Mesquite, what was so special about this area to make it a National Monument and why so many cared enough to form the Friends of Gold Butte organization. After 20 miles of driving, then suddenly coming upon Whitney Pocket, I understood why. Large, bright orange and red sandstone domes scattered about, anchored into the green creosote and Joshua tree-covered valleys. These large cross-bedded domes glowing orange in the setting sun are remnants of a huge desert formed 180 million years ago, and are the same rock unit as the cliff-forming Zion National Park sandstone. In Utah, this sandstone is called Navajo; the correlative unit of sandstone in Nevada is called Aztec.
Hidden around shaded corners of a few of these outcrops are perfect camping spots of which a few were taken. We found our own and got our trailer ready for the night.
You can't beat the sublime Mojave Desert sunsets.
Whitney Corral - a glimpse of past ranching. The spring that once provided for cattle is reportedly dried up.
A thing of beauty - look at that patina!
Narrower, high clearance vehicles would be able to get up the road further than we did.
I used the waypoints from birdandhike.com and Avenza with the Arizona Strip Map loaded to make sure I was at Cowboy Campsite. Stay on the main road. Two spur roads take off to the right, but you want to stay left near the ridge you will be mounting. Near the Cowboy Campsite, three miles from the corral, remnants of ranching gear appear: old truck tires, water troughs, the metal skeleton of a chair and various other rusted relics and another old truck! See my waypoints table below or check out birdandhike.com waypoints.
From Cowboy Campsite you turn left onto an obscure spur road ascending toward ridge through trees and shrubs that runs southwest as you climb overlooking the canyon and road you just climbed.
Near Cowboy Campsite with view of Virgin Peak's southwest ridge to climb. Road goes left at intersection with wash.
Second Segment: Cowboy Campsite to Virgin Peak's southwest ridge.
We turned right (west) off the spur road at its highest point and started ascending through junipers and brush toward the ridge, eventually got above this forest and saw limestone cliffs at ridgeline. The climb is 500 feet in ~ 0.3 miles. We hiked to the right of the cliffs to get onto the ridge instead of hiking to the lowest point on the ridge to the left of cliffs. We did, however, descend on our way back from the lowest point on the ridge down to Cowboy Campsite.
Ascent/descent from Cowboy Campsite and 4 WD road to Virgin Peak's southwest ridge. Ascended right tracks, descended left tracks. Top of map is west, ascend ridge walking west, then turn north to hike to summit.
On Virgin's ridge: lots of fossils including brachiopods and corals, a small burn area probably from 2020 fire caused by lightning. I believe the upper right plant is a Utah agave; I have never seen a flower stalk quite like that before!
Final Segment: Ridge to Summit
Once on the ridge, follow it 2.3 miles to the summit. The view to the west opens up; Lake Mead is seen (it looks really low) as you ascend the ridge. The ridge heads north to the summit. Wide at first, the ridge narrows and becomes steep to its right (east) side as you ascend. A trail can be seen, especially as you get toward the summit. There are numerous fossils including brachiopods and various corals.
Occasionally the light-colored summit is seen behind other "pseudo" peaks or high points on the ridge. There are a few trails that lead downward off the ridge; try to stay on top of the ridge or slightly below it to the west. You will do a fair amount of bushwhacking through trees and cacti. There are a few times hands are used to maneuver up/down rocks.
From the summit, the small city of Mesquite, Nevada is due north. The yellow sand washes of Arizona's western Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument spread to the east. Lake Mead, the largest U.S. reservoir that supplies water to 40 million people, is a small blue line to the southwest. A good view of Pleistocene relict Douglas fir forests are seen in isolated patches just below on Virgin's northeast ridge.
The peak's register contains a few small notebooks - one from the Desert Peaks Section of the Sierra Club inside an old ammo box. Two other groups had signed it in October. One of the entries proclaimed, "I'll be 79 in 4 days!". Remarkable. I hope I will be able to write that entry into a remote peak register some day, far above the desert floor.
View of Lake Mead to the southwest at top of image.
A view of Virgin Peak ahead.
One last rise to climb before the final summit climb (just to the right of this rise).
Getting up there! Ridge is a series of rises.
The last climb to the summit over increasingly steep and rocky terrain - just under 8,000 feet here.
Virgin Peak summit looking south: South Virgin Peak Ridge on the left, Whitney Ridge behind it, Arizona top of image.
Tilted limestone beds to the west.
Virgin Peak register box.
Summit register: an official Desert Peaks Section of Sierra Club notebook.
Solitude in the Mojave Desert
One of the great American nature writing classics, The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances by John C. Van Dyke has been in continuous publication since 1901. Through his descriptions of his travels in the deserts of California, Arizona and Mexico, Van Dyke changed the popular perception that the desert was a hostile wasteland. The book is a bit monotonous, like Thoreau's On Walden Pond, but Van Dyke helped us to see and appreciate the remarkable beauty of deserts. I can relate to his quote and falling in love with what I call "the desert":
"The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love. You think that strange perhaps? Well, the beauty of the ugly was sometime a paradox, but to-day people admit its truth; and the grandeur of the desolate is just as paradoxical, yet the desert gives it proof."
After seeing no one else on the trail, having our own private camping spot the night before, and walking through a few life zones gaining almost 4,000 feet to look over mountains and valleys, we felt as light and as "in balance" as the surrounding environment, in-tune to the rhythms of the living desert. Each hike and each peak has its own personality, and once you understand the desert's "personality" and ways that its plants and animals survive harsh conditions, you can oftentimes relate and then be amazed. What a great way to reset and rejuvenate and relax. We are lucky to live in America's southwest desert in which there are many places to find abundant peace.
Never Stop Exploring Nature!
On the way down
Near point on ridge to descend to Cowboy Campsite in wash below.
Signs of autumn on the way down.
The new and the very old.
Joshua trees at Whitney Pocket.
Detail in sandstone at Whitney Pocket
Iron oxide concretions caused by precipitation of iron in paleogroundwater through sandstone
At Whitney Pocket in Gold Butte National Monument: Younger orange sandstone and very old limestone ridge on each side of a cholla and joshua tree-filled valley.
Our GPS tracks and profile. Top of the map is north.
Our Waypoints - Zone 11S. NAD27.
The Geology of Gold Butte National Monument - a thumbnail sketch. Friends of Gold Butte.org.
Geologic Formations of Utah. Navajo Sandstone. UtahGeology.com.
Recreation visits by month, Zion NP. nps.gov.
Hiking around Las Vegas and Gold Butte National Monument. birdandhike.com
Lake Mead Drops to a Record Low. NASA Earth Observatory.
Stringfellow, J. 2015. John C. Van Dyke and the Desert Wasteland. mojaveproject.org.
Whitney Pocket. The American Southwest.
Great opportunity to see an astounding view of eastern Nevada from its second-highest peak way above tree line on a well-maintained trail. We picked a gorgeous late summer day when the aspens in the high country were changing color.
Wheeler Peak (right) on a beautiful September day.
Trail follows ridge line on the right of peak.
Trip Stats for hike via Alpine Lakes Loop Trail and Wheeler Peak Trail
Location: Snake Range, eastern Nevada, Great Basin National Park: closest towns are Baker and Ely.
Trailhead: Bristlecone - Alpine Lakes Trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.4 miles out and back for a 3,100' gain. Trailhead = 9,957', Summit = 13,063'.
Difficulty: Moderate - Strenuous Class 1
Coordinates: Wheeler Peak Summit: 11S 0732663 E 4318632N Trailhead: 11S 0733174E 4321347N (UTM).
Permit/Fees: No entrance fee, no permit required.
Maps: Great Basin NP, Google Mymaps interactive map (below), Great Basin National Park - National Geographic Trails Illustrated map 269.
Date Hiked: September 15, 2021.
Considerations: Trail is exposed for last 2 miles (and 2,000 feet of elevation) to the summit - watch weather. There are 2 trailheads: Alpine Lakes Loop Trail and Wheeler Peak Summit Trail. See park map below. Ridge line is very windy.
History: Named after George Wheeler of the Wheeler Expedition in charge of surveying southeastern and southern Nevada in 1869. He and a party consisting of a guide, the Nevada state geologist, and three others succeeded in reaching the summit and found, through careful barometric measurements, the elevation to be 13,063 feet above sea level. Measurements for the precise distance to other mountain peaks were conducted for four summers beginning in 1881. The survey, combined with other federal surveys, resulted in the first accurate network of surveyed points crossing the continent.
Video - the final climb to the top
Long before our turn-off to Ely from northbound Nevada Highway 93, we saw the point in the sky that we would be standing on the following day - the summit of the giant and majestic Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada. Definitely worth a grin and a "wow" from two people who love to get to high places! Wheeler is the second-highest Nevada peak. Boundary Peak, close to the California border, is Nevada's highest. Stately Wheeler Peak stands with authority over lesser peaks of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, surrounded by miles of sagebrush in what is known as the Great Basin.
We met our friends Val and John for the hike. All four of us had been on our share of immense loose and trail-less talus slopes this past summer while climbing some of Idaho's highest peaks in the Lost River Range (Leatherman Peak), so we were grateful for Wheeler's stable and well-defined trail to the summit. Yes, it is steep and rocky, but not intimidating. The forest thins at about 2 miles into the hike, and views of jagged Doso Doyabi ("white mountain" in Shoshone language), to the left (east) of Wheeler are spectacular. Steep, huge rock slopes cascade down from these high points, and at various times of the day they are hidden in shadows. The Wheeler Peak glacier sits protected in a cirque at 11,500 feet. It's pretty small (2 acres), and the only glacier in Nevada.
Some of the fiercest winds I have ever encountered were on the ridge leading to the final steep ascent at about 2.5 miles into the hike, when Fred and I hiked this summit 18 years ago. This time the wind speed wasn't blowing us over, but it still had us holding onto our hats. In contrast, at the top an intermittent breeze wafted in and out of our summit celebration.
Wheeler Peak towers over the sagebrush steppes of eastern Nevada.
This photo was taken while driving east from Ely, Nevada.
Val and Fred at trailhead
First view of Wheeler Peak on Alpine Lakes Loop Trail
On the Wheeler Peak Trail: Doso Doyabi on the left and Wheeler Peak on the right. This trail emerges from tree line at
~ 11,500 feet.
On the way up on trail through stable quartzite talus!
As the trail emerges from the glacial valley, it climbs through quartzite, a metamorphic sandstone that tends to form resistant ridges and hilltops. A few rock shelters line the trail as it traverses Wheeler's northwest exposed ridge, built by hikers for wind protection. It's pretty darn windy on this section, so we had to shout in order to hear each other. No lightning worries - there wasn't a cloud in the sky. There were some shelters that appeared to be a bit larger, very level and well-constructed. These may have been the tent platforms built by the Wheeler Survey in 1881, according to Bruce Grubbs, from his book Exploring the Great Basin (see History, above).
Val, Fred and I were sticking together, John was ahead.
Quartzite is resistant to weathering and contains a high amount of silica which doesn't break down much to form soil. The scant amount of vegetation present seems to find small rock recesses to cling to.
Arriving onto the north spine of the summit block, the winds calm and the trail steepens. It's just a matter of kicking one foot in front of the other to climb the last spiral path to the summit. A cobalt-blue Nevada state flag, it's edge frayed from the wind marks this significant point in Nevada. The flag's phrase "Battle Born" signifies Nevada's entrance into the union during the civil war. It also illustrates Nevada's state flower with two sagebrush branches.
Looking northwest to Spring Valley and the Schell Creek Range
Looking north toward Bald Mountain and Schell Creek Range
Next to Nevada state flag at 13,063 feet - Fred, Sue, Val, and John
Nevada's flag pictures two sagebrush branches encircling a silver star with the words "Nevada" and Battle Born".
On Wheeler Peak summit
As usual, John summited first out of our group. This explains why I don't have as many photos of him. He is one of the fittest 71-year olds I know! We had a lot of time to enjoy the summit and talk to other hikers, bask in the sun and sign the summit register, a notepad stashed into a dented and decorated mail box.
We were standing over the other mountains of the Snake Range. Utah was not far to the east. The next parallel mountain range to the west separated from us by the Spring Valley basin is the Schell Creek Range, with tempting high points. We plan to summit North Schell Peak, the range's highest at 11,883 feet. Hopefully we will get back to Nevada's Basin and Range soon. So many adventures to do, so little time, as I always like to say.
Scenes from the summit
Signing the summit register. I don't recall seeing a "summit mailbox" before, but it's more fun than the standard water bottle or ammo box!
Doso Doyabi (White Mountain in Shoshone language), to the east of Wheeler Peak
We celebrated at Kerouac's, a restaurant and bar at Stargazer Inn with exceptional food in the little town of Baker, just outside the entrance to the Great Basin National Park. The meatballs had a kick to them and were fantastic, their specialty cocktail of the night was a refreshing fresh peach bourbon sour called "Princess Peach". I highly recommend this place whose website states, "Kerouac's is an homage to life on the American road and to feeling at home in unexpected places." Obviously they are referring to Jack Kerouac and his legendary novel "On the Road", an account of his road trips across the country in the 1940's. The roads of the American West lead to all sorts of adventures, and as Kerouac said, "Because in the end you won't remember the time you spent in the office or mowing your lawn." But you will remember your times spent in nature.
Keep on exploring!
The well-stocked Kerouac's Restaurant and Bar in Baker, Nevada.
Great Basin National Park map
click for larger image
Google Earth image of our GPS tracks to Wheeler Peak summit from parking lot at Bristlecone - Alpine Lakes trailhead. Top of map is south.
Our GPS tracks on Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, Wheeler Peak Summit Trail. Top of map is north. Wheeler Peak at bottom of map.
Grubbs, B. Exploring Great Basin National Park. 2010. Bright Angel Press, Flagstaff, AZ.
Geologic Map of Great Basin National Park, Nevada. National Park Service.
Historic Resource Study, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.
Why Wheeler Peak? U.S. National Park Service.
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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