When I first arrived in Baker, Nevada, I paused a bit, hoping I hadn't made a mistake. This remote outpost near the Utah border is home to a whopping 68 residents and Great Basin National Park, the reason for my visit. I had never heard of the park before I spotted a green swath on Google maps and zoomed my screen, looked it up, and learned it was one of our nation's least visited national parks. That serendipitous route seems to be how I often decide where to travel.
The town is basically a small grid of gravel streets dotted with trailers, campers, and tiny houses located in an expanse of high desert in the foothills of the South Snake Range. Most of the properties have some odds and ends strewn around their yard. The 1,200 square foot two-bedroom bungalow I owned back in New Albany would be huge in comparison to pretty much all of the residences here.
As soon as I pulled in to the last homestead at the edge of town, my host Margaret popped out to greet me. I don't see how anyone could feel anything other than comfortable with Margaret. While she hunted for my keys, she invited me in to her place and we proceeded to share a couple of glasses of wine and swap stories. What an interesting woman with an amazing life! By the time I got the key to my place, I had been invited to dinner with Margaret and her friend Beth at the only dining establishment currently operating in Baker, T&D's Restaurant.
It was Friday night and T&D's was hopping. Terry, one of the owners, was out due to a recent surgery. Patricia, another local, was filling in for him as the sole server because, as Margaret said, "That's just what we do around here."
Margaret is unable to drive due to a vision impairment, but that doesn't seem to be much trouble, even though she lives in one of the most remote locales in the United States. She helps other people, and they help her. People genuinely care about each other here. That's obvious.
Of course, I came here to visit Great Basin National Park, and that has also been a true highlight. This park is one of the most unspoiled places I've been. I've spotted as many critters as I have other visitors, including the yellow-bellied marmot, mule deer, turkeys, jackrabbits, sheep, chipmunks, mice, and birds.
I admittedly didn't do the best job researching (or much researching at all) when I decided to come here, and a good portion of the park, including the ancient bristlecone pine trees that really intrigue me, is still under several feet of snow. The road to the top of Wheeler Peak, the second highest mountain in Nevada, is still closed due to the snow levels, although on my final day I happily found it was open further than it had been when I arrived. This might be the desert, but Baker's 5,000+ foot elevation means that much of the year is frigid, with the town under a foot of snow during parts of winter. Wheeler Peak's 13,000+ foot elevation is obviously even more inhospitable and slow to melt.
Challenge aside, the parts of the park that are accessible have been lovely, and the weather during my days here has been in the 60's and 70's with gorgeous blue skies.
I hiked in the Snake Creek Canyon area, traversing through fields of sagebrush, groves of ghostly white aspen trees, and pinyon pine and Utah juniper woodlands. It was so quiet that the creek was almost deafening and I could hear the clinking of the aspen tree branches as the wind whisked through them.
I took a peek at the Strawberry Creek area, which is closed due to a massive wildfire that destroyed nearly 5,000 acres of forest last year. There were tinges of green as the spring temperatures warmed the soil, and the blackened ghosts of trees still stood tall and animated against the mountains and sky.
The Baker Creek trail took me over the river and through the woods. Well, not so much a river as several mountain streams that were gushing with melting snowpack. I hiked up, up, up, through aspens and twisted mahogany groves, until the snow became so prevalent on the trail that I decided it would be wise to turn back. Toward the highest elevations, I spotted lots of hoof tracks. I kept my eyes peeled, but none of the critters that created them revealed themselves.
Something I learned while here is that the Great Basin, which spans much of Utah and Nevada, is so named because it is like a giant bowl, dotted and surrounded with mountains. This "bowl" used to be Lake Bonneville, the remnants of which comprise the Great Salt Lake. With nowhere to go in this region, precipitation makes its way underground, sometimes resulting in caves.
Great Basin National Park is home to a stellar example of one of these caverns, Lehman Caves, which I toured during my stay. Cave tours are the only part of Great Basin National Park that has a fee, a very reasonable $10 per person. The park itself and I'm pretty sure many of its camp sites are free to visitors. I truly think this is one of the most impressive caves I've ever visited. It's full of unique formations and home to some rare varieties of cave decor, including cave "shields" and cave "turnips."
People here have been just as warm and friendly to me as they are to one another, and this is honestly going to go down as one of the best experiences of my trip because of them. I often think of tiny places like Baker as somewhere I would be unwelcome because I wasn't "one of them." Everyone I've met has been happy to make my acquaintance and genuinely interested in me. They also have seemed pretty surprised when I share that I am staying in Baker for a week. Apparently that is unusually long. "Are you thinking about moving here?" has even been uttered once or twice.
After experiencing the hospitality and the beauty of this area, I could warm up to that question a bit... if only the climate here was a bit warmer, too.