The Climb to Wheeler Peak Campground
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is closed November though (approximately) June. If you are visiting the park during the closure, you will need to use the pull-out at Upper Lehman Trailhead for trails heading to the Bristlecone Forest, Rock Glacier, Stella and Teresa Lakes, and Wheeler Peak. The climb is approximately 4 miles and 2,000 feet making any hike into the Wheeler Peak Area long and strenuous.
Don’t let that deter you. The Lehman Creek Trail, which connects the 2 campgrounds, is full of wonders. From cactus to douglas fir, the trail does not dissapoint. A highlight is Meadow View. Just 3 miles up trail, the meadow is surrounded by aspen and firs and provides views of Wheeler Peak and Snake Valley. This is a good turn around for those looking for an easier hike.
The trail also crosses Osceola Ditch, built to divert water from Lehman Creek to mining operations during the late 1800s. Learn more about the ditch here. You can follow the ditch for a while but be aware that this is a route and not a trail so carry a map. The Osceola Ditch Trail begins further up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and follows the ditch to Sage Steppe and the Blue Canyon Trailhead in the Strawberry Creek Area (our hike on the ditch began here).
For those of you wishing to explore the Wheeler Peak Day Use Area in the winter, we recommend backpacking into Wheeler Peak campground. Water is not available through the facets and the creek may be partially frozen on the surface. Bring plenty of fuel to melt snow or carry extra water. The pit toilets remain open for your pooping convenience.
Hint: Backcountry permits are not required but come HIGHLY recommended. They let the rangers know where you’ll be in case of emergency. They are free and obtainable at the Visitor Centers.
The Bristlecone Forest and Rock Glacier
A rock glacier is, as defined by the National Park Service, “a lobe of angular boulders and cobbles that resembles an alpine glacier in outline and in its slow downslope movement. They are found in mountain ranges throughout the world. Inside a rock glacier, ice fills the spaces between the blocks. By freezing, thawing, and sagging, the ice works with gravity to provide the force that moves the rock glacier.”
The rock glacier in Great Basin NP is 300 feet long and 400 feet wide. You can view the glacier from Wheeler Peak Overlook along the scenic drive or you can hike out to it.
From Wheeler Peak Campground, the hike to the very end of Rock Glacier Trail is 2.3 miles one way with 1,100 feet of elevation gain. Most of the hike is below treeline. We recommend combining the Bristlecone Interpretive Trail with your hike to Rock Glacier.
The Bristlecone Interpretive Trail intersect the Rock Glacier Trail at both ends. Continue straight along Rock Glacier and catch the other side of the Bristlecone loop on your way down to learn more about these incredible 4,000 year old trees.
At 1.8 miles, you will reach an interpretive sign and a viewpoint for the glacier. Turn around if you are satisfied with this view. For those that want to explore a moraine, continue along the ridge for another half a mile to the end. It will seem like the never-ending trail, but stick with it. The end of the trail is marked by a sign signifying the elevation.
If you are comfortable hiking in the dark (and do not mind skipping the Bristlecone Loop), time your hike so you are on the moraine at sunset. The views into Snake Valley are beautiful. Otherwise, hike up in the early hours of the morning and catch the sunrise from Rock Glacier.
The highest point in the park and second highest in Nevada, this peak provides amazing 360-degree views. The peak is alluring but should not be underestimated. Standing at 13,063 feet, Wheeler Peak is a goal of many park visitors.
Long before the area was a park, people were climbing the mountain. Some named the peak, others renamed it. Not one name stuck until Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler climbed with his Army mapping expedition. He was 27 years old at the time and his team urged him to name the peak for himself. To learn more about the mountain’s name, check out the NPS page.
You can start your hike at the Wheeler Peak Trailhead, a couple miles North of the campground, or begin a a Wheeler Peak Campground.
The hike from the campground is slightly shorter but also involves slightly more climbing; the hike will be challenging from either location.
If you being at the campground, you will follow the Alpine Lakes Loop for a mile and then turn right to head towards the peak. The trail ascends above treeline about a mile from the summit. From treeline, you will have views of Spring Valley to the West of the park (a wind farm lies in the valley). Turn around here if these views satisfy you.
The final mile is very exposed and follows a rocky trail. Leave early, especially in the summer, to avoid afternoon storms. The winter will offer brutal winds so be prepared. Extra clothing is strongly advised, no matter the time of year.
Hint: Look towards the summit, if you see dirt or snow swirling rapidly, as we did, you should probably turn around and try another day.
The 3,000-foot climb from the campground is tough and slow but the descent is a welcome reprieve.
The Alpine Lakes Loop
If you still have energy, we recommend completing the Alpine Lakes Loop on the way down for Wheeler Peak. Alternatively, you could complete the 3-mile loop another day.
The park is home to 6 subalpine lakes: Stella, Teresa, Brown, Johnson, Baker, and Dead.
The Alpine Lakes Loop Trail will take you past Stella and Teresa Lakes, both of which are located in glacial cirques and fed mainly through snowmelt; although Teresa gets additional water from a spring.
These lakes are scientifically important because they contain phytoplankton, zooplankton, and aquatic insects as well as prehistoric pollen and volcanic rock sediments. They freeze almost completely during the winter since they are shallow. On a warm day, find a log along the trail to enjoy a mid-hike snack.
Island Forest Nature Trail
The Island Forest Nature Trail is just a quarter mile in length and is accessible from the Wheeler Peak Campground. Complete this hike on its own or combine it with other hikes on the mountain. The main reason to complete this trail is to learn about the landscape and animals that inhabit the Snake Range. The land animals have been isolated from their kin for thousands of years and have taken on unique adaptations to deal with the harsh life in Great Basin, specifically the Snake Range. Brown Lake lies nearby but is not accessible by trail.
Possible Itineraries for Winter Travel
1 Night/2 Days
- Day 1: Leave Upper Lehman TH and climb 4 miles/2,000 feet to Wheeler Peak Campground. Pitch camp, eat lunch, head to Rock Glacier. To the end of the trail, round-trip back to camp is 4.6 miles/1,100 feet. Catch the Bristlecone Loop on the way down. Totals: 9 miles/3,100 feet of gain
- Day 2: Climb Wheeler Peak; 4.3 miles/2,900 feet to the summit. Complete the Alpine Lakes and Island Forest Loops on the way down. Pack camp, eat a snack, and descend 4 miles/2,000 feet to Upper Lehman TH. Totals: 13 miles/3,000 feet of gain.
2 Nights/3 Days
- Day 1: Leave Upper Lehman TH and climb 4 miles/2,000 feet to Wheeler Peak Campground. Pitch camp, eat lunch, head to Rock Glacier. Catch the Bristlecone Loop on the way down. Totals: 9 miles/3,100 feet of gain
- Day 2: Climb Wheeler Peak; 4.3 miles/2,900 feet to the summit. Totals: 8.6 miles/ 2,900 feet of gain.
- Day 3: Complete the Alpine Lakes Loop. Complete the Island Forest Interpretive Loop on the way down. Break down camp, have a snack, descend to Upper Lehman TH. Totals: 7.25 miles/600 feet of gain.
Check out our National Park Service Guide for more adventures.
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