Everyone has heard about glaciers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, but not many people seem to know that there’s a lone glacier all the way south in Nevada!
It’s called Wheeler Peak Glacier, and it sits at the heart of Great Basin National Park. It’s very small, and it’s almost entirely covered by rocks, so there isn’t much ice visible. It continues to shrink, and may cease to be a glacier within the next 10-20 years. So visit now!
There’s one viewpoint along the park road where you can see the glacier from a distance. But you can get much closer by hiking to it. The Wheeler Peak Glacier Hike was one of the coolest hikes I’ve ever done.
The hike not only gives you access to the base of the glacier, but puts you in a deep valley surrounded by mountains on three sides. It also passes by rare bristlecone pine trees, some of which are more than 3000 years old!
There’s a second hike that allows you to see the glacier from above. That’s the hike to Wheeler Peak Summit itself. From there, you’re on the peak of the mountain, and you’re looking down at the glacier.
Wanna hike to Wheeler Peak Glacier? Read on to learn how you can see Nevada’s only glacier. We’ll also cover the hike to the peak, and then go over some other FAQs about Great Basin and some of the park’s other natural features (caves!)
How to See Wheeler Peak Glacier from the Road
Great Basin National Park is located in east-central Nevada. It’s 300 miles (4.5 hours) north of Las Vegas. It’s actually quicker to get here from Salt Lake City, Utah, which is 230 miles (3.75 hours) north of the park.
Because it’s far from major cities, Great Basin is one of the 15 least-visited national parks in America. When I visited, I flew into Salt Lake City and drove down.
The Great Basin visitor center has an elevation of 6825 feet, and it only goes up from there. The 12-mile paved road gains more than 4000 feet in elevation.
You can view Wheeler Peak Glacier from Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. But it will be a distant sighting. And depending which direction the sun is facing, you may have a hard time spotting the glacier at all.
To view the glacier from the road, drive 9 miles up the scenic drive to the Wheeler Peak Overlook. The overlook has telescopes you can look through. Or just peer up at the mountain from a distance.
Can you see the glacier in this pic? It’s tough to see, so I circled it in red. Remember that more than 90% of the glacier is covered in rocks. Look for the patch of rocks that is slightly darker than the rest, and the tiny sliver of ice above the rocks.
Needless to say, the glacier views from the overlook aren’t amazing. That’s why it’s better to hike to the Wheeler Peak Glacier instead.
Hiking to Wheeler Peak Glacier: Details and Photos
The hike to the glacier begins at Wheeler Peak Campground, which can be found at the very top of the scenic drive. The elevation there is 9886 feet, so if you’re coming from sea level, you may want to take a day to acclimate before taking on the strenuous hike. Bring plenty of water!
The hiking trail is popular, so you will likely see other folks along the way. The hike is referred to as the Bristlecone-Alpine Lakes Trail, or the Bristlecone Pine Glacier Trail – that’s the name you’ll search for if you use an app like AllTrails.
Bristlecone Pine Glacier Trail Details
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
Length: 2.3 miles each way
Elevation gain: 1059 feet
Time needed: 3 hours
Terrain: Dirt trail, rocks
Experienced hikers may think that 1000 feet of elevation gain isn’t much. But because of the altitude, I found the trek a little more challenging than you’d think.
Still, with frequent rest breaks, most healthy individuals in decent shape can do this hike. Just take your time and don’t push too hard, since you will be going uphill and altitude sickness is a danger. The air is thinner up here, and breathing can become slightly more difficult.
The hike begins by going up a dirt trail in a forested area. I saw a couple deer hiding behind the trees in this section.
Before long, you’ll reach more exposed terrain, with thousands of large rocks all around. Pine trees are the only trees living at this altitude.
You’ll start to spot a few scattered bristlecone pine trees on the way. “Grotesque” is the most apt description of these trees. That’s not an insult, it’s just accurate.
They have twisting, spindly branches that have been weathered from millennia of intense sun and powerful snowstorms. Because the branches often have no vegetation whatsoever, it’s sometimes hard to tell if a tree is alive or not.
At the 1.4 mile mark (600 feet elevation gain), you’ll reach the Bristlecone Pine Grove. This is a large collection of the iconic trees which naturally clustered together.
There’s a short loop detour (0.1 miles) that you absolutely should take to see these trees up close and read the interpretive markers that tell the story behind some of the individual trees.
Some trees have dates of birth listed. This one is approximately 3200 years old (born in 1230 BC), and still going strong! It required five separate coring efforts for the park to count up all the rings and nail down its precise age.
Some of the trees here are no longer living, as noted on the informational signs. This piece of trunk is still sitting near the trail, more than 200 after the tree perished. The tree lived about 3000 years, from 1300 BC to 1700 AD.
After the Pine Grove, it’s back to rocky terrain for the final mile or so. Before long, you’ll see the peaks and enter the valley where you will be surrounded by mountains on three sides.
Next comes the first glimpse of the Wheeler Peak Glacier up on the hill. A little bit of ice peeking out!
The end of the trail becomes a large boulder field, with a somewhat flat path established. You’ll continue getting closer and closer to the glacier.
The glacier itself was only 300 feet long and 400 feet wide when last measured. During the early part of the season (May/June), you can see more ice around the edges of the rocks. During my late August visit, only a tiny bit of ice was visible around the top edge of the glacier.
That lump of darker rocks in the middle is the glacier. It’s known as a “rock glacier” for that reason.
The trail officially ends a little bit before reaching the base of the glacier. You could continue to get closer to the glacier if you like, but the National Park Service suggests hikers not do this, since the rocks are unstable and could slide or fall.
The best option is to zoom in and get your closest glacier pic before turning around and heading back down.
Wheeler Peak Glacier used to be much bigger. But like the glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park, this glacier has lost a lot of mass as the ice slowly melts away due to rising global temperatures.
A couple hiking tips: Storms can develop up here quickly, even during summer. Bring a hat or poncho to be safe. To avoid altitude sickness, hike at a relaxed pace, and bring plenty of water and snacks to keep your energy level up.
This hike has a spur trail to Teresa Lake. But that lake isn’t particularly scenic. Especially if you come in August or September – a lot of the lake has dried up by then.
Hiking to Wheeler Peak Itself
Suppose you don’t want to hike to the base of the glacier, but would rather view it from above? In that case, hike to Wheeler Peak itself. Then you’ll be on the very top of the mountain and can look down on the glacier.
The Wheeler Peak Summit Hike is more difficult than the glacier hike. It goes all the way to 13,063 feet elevation. Much of the trail is completely exposed with no trees to protect you from the sun and wind. No climbing equipment is necessary, but poles are very helpful to power yourself up the hill.
And you won’t be able to see the glacier at all until the very end. So make sure you’re totally committed to spending a full day on this trail!
Wheeler Peak Summit Hike Details
Difficulty: Very strenuous
Length: 4.2 miles each way
Elevation gain: 2906 feet
Time needed: 5-8 hours
Terrain: Dirt trail, meadow, rocks
For this hike, you can start from either Summit Trailhead or Wheeler Peak Campground. Starting from the campground is slightly shorter in terms of distance, but adds 300 feet of elevation gain to the trek, making it 3200 feet total.
For this reason, I suggest starting at the trailhead. There’s a small parking lot 0.8 miles before the campground where you can begin your hike.
This is a very strenuous hike that covers more than 8 miles roundtrip. Start as early as possible, since it will take 5-8 hours to reach the peak and back.
The hike to the summit is gorgeous. It begins by passing through a forest of aspen trees. These trees are notable because of their bright white trunks. How unusual!
Let me drop a quirky nature fact in here: An entire hillside of aspen trees can actually be a single tree. They send out roots underground which sprout into new trees, but are often all connected as one organism. That’s pretty cool!
Look above the aspens to catch your first glimpse of the summit. It’s the tallest peak, way in the distance. Are you sure you really want to hike all the way up there?
Roughly a mile into the hike, there’s a side trail to Stella Lake. Stella Lake is probably worth the detour. Particularly if you’re hiking in the morning. The views of the lake and the mountains in the background are nifty.
After the aspen forest comes a pretty meadow area with little shade. I saw some wildlife in this area, including wild turkeys running around and three deer meandering across the trail, not particularly bothered with my presence.
I also saw something more creepy: a deer skeleton that had been picked clean. There are no bears up here, so I shuddered to think what might’ve taken it down.
I’ve never seen a complete skeleton right next to a trail like this. Only the front legs and skull were missing.
I have a fear of mountain lions and worried that one had made the kill. But cats usually drag their prey off into the shrubs. Perhaps the deer simply died of natural causes and got picked over by coyote and birds.
The trail proceeds up a hill, which then provides a nifty view looking at Stella Lake from above. Soon, the pine trees disappear, and the ground becomes nothing more than large rocks and thick grasses. There is zero shade up here.
Make sure to bring a long sleeve shirt and a hat, because the wind up here, even in summer, can get pretty chilling.
At that point, the end of the summit hike will be within reach. Make that final push!
Continue on to the end and you’ll get a look down at Wheeler Peak Glacier! This hike is a lot more challenging than hiking to the glacier itself, so be ready to invest an entire day, and bring lots of food and water. Remember, 13,000 feet elevation is nothing to mess around with.
Other Things To Do in Great Basin National Park
The glacier, the peak, and the scenic drive are three of the biggest draws to Great Basin NP. The main other feature worth mentioning are the Lehman Caves.
These caves are millions of years old. They formed when acidic water rose up in the ground and dissolved marble in the ground, which had been fractured over the years by the rising mountain. Some of the resulting caverns grew large enough for people to enter.
I was impressed by the many stalagmites, stalactites, and shield formations inside the caves.
The NPS offers tours of the caves, but you must make reservations. Tours do sell out, so book early (up to 30 days in advance.) I highly recommend doing a cave tour while in Great Basin. Prices range from $8-15 depending on which tour you choose.
Folks looking for Great Basin National Park hiking have a few options in addition to the glacier and peak hikes already mentioned. My other recommended hike is Lehman Creek Trail, which goes from the Lehman Creek Campground all the way up to the Wheeler Peak Campground. It’s 2050 feet elevation gain over 3.2 miles (one way) and parallels the creek most of the way.
This park is also known for its clear skies, which makes it ideal for stargazing. The park hosts occasional evening stargazing programs, with telescopes available for visitors.
When I visited, the park was hosting summer programs at the Astronomy Amphitheater twice a week. I attended one and found it mildly interesting, as rangers told us about the stars and constellations in the sky.
FAQs About Wheeler Peak and Great Basin
When is the best time to visit Great Basin National Park? What is the weather like?
Because of its elevation, Great Basin (and especially Wheeler Peak) can still have snow into June. So the best time to visit for sunny days and clear trails is July through September.
Temperatures vary greatly within the park, because the base of the mountain is desert, and the peak is much colder. Generally speaking, the weather hot and sunny during the summer, but nights get chilly. The rest of the year, it’s chilly most of the day, and snow can be a factor any time at the high elevations.
How old is Wheeler Peak Glacier?
The glacier is believed to have formed during the Last Glacial Maximum, which occurred from 33,000 to 16,000 years ago. It has lost most of its mass over the years and continues to disappear.
Where is the Great Basin Visitor Center?
There are two visitor centers. The Great Basin National Park Visitor Center is a short drive from the center of Baker. It’s a small visitor center by national park standards and has a few exhibits and informational boards. It’s closed entirely on Sundays and Mondays.
There’s also a Lehman Caves Visitor Center by the cave entrance. That one is open 9-5 everyday (9-4 during winter).
Is Great Basin worth seeing?
If you love national parks, yes! The caves are fun to explore. The peak is impressive to see and even more satisfying to hike. It’s cool to see a glacier this far south. The views of the forested valley are very cool. And it’s far less crowded than parks like Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains.
Are there Great Basin campgrounds?
Yes, the park has four primary campgrounds, plus a few primitive campgrounds on some of the rarely-traveled dirt roads. Lower Lehman Creek, Upper Lehman Creek, and Wheeler Peak Campground are the most popular places to camp in the park. Baker Creek Campground, reachable by unpaved road, is next on the list.
Great Basin National Park campgrounds cost $20 per site as of this writing. Make reservations here.
How many days do you need in Great Basin?
If you don’t plan to hike Wheeler Peak, you could conceivably see the park’s highlights (hike to the glacier, do a Lehman Cave tour, drive the full scenic drive) in one day. But two days would be preferable to allow for a more relaxed schedule. And having that first day to acclimate to the altitude will be useful if you plan on hiking on day 2.
Is there a good spot to eat lunch in Great Basin?
Yes. Wheeler Peak Campground has picnic benches and shaded areas under pine trees that make for a perfect rest location. There are bathrooms here too. Just beware that everyone else has the same idea, so this area can get crowded.
What is the entrance fee for Great Basin NP?
There is none! Entrance to the park is free. The only charge would be for cave tours or campground lodging.
Where to Stay: Lodging Near Great Basin NP
There aren’t many hotel options near the park, which makes sense since it’s so remote. The small town of Baker, Nevada, just outside the park entrance, has two hotels, a gas station, and a couple of restaurants. You’ll want to stay in Baker if you can find a room available.
Border Inn Casino. If the first two motels are full, try the Border Inn Casino. It’s technically in Baker as well, but it’s located right on the Utah border, 15 minutes outside the park. There are 29 guest rooms, plus slot machines and gaming machines. See availability here
Have you ever done a glacier hike? Would you hike to Wheeler Peak?