California Nature

Learn about California's beautiful and unique nature.

California's Great Basin Desert
a view of johnson lake in the great basinThe Great Basin Desert, the largest U. S. desert, covers an arid expanse of about 190,000 square miles and is bordered by the Sierra Nevada Range on the west and the Rocky Mountains on the east, the Columbia Plateau to the north and the Mojave and Sonoran deserts to the south.

This is a cool or "cold desert" due to its more northern latitude, as well as higher elevations (at least 3,000 feet, but more commonly from 4,000 to 6,500 feet). Precipitation, generally 7-12 inches annually, is more evenly distributed throughout the year than in the other three North American deserts. Winter precipitation often falls as snow. Playas are a conspicuous part of this desert, due to its recent geological activity. In notable contrast to the other three deserts, Great Basin vegetation is low and homogeneous, often with a single dominant species of bush for miles. Typical shrubs are Big Sagebrush, Blackbrush, Shadscale, Mormon-tea and greasewood. There are only occasional yuccas and very few cactus.

The Hydrographic Great Basin is a 200,000 square mile area that drains internally. All precipitation in the region evaporates, sinks underground or flows into lakes (mostly saline). Creeks, streams, or rivers find no outlet to either the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. The region is bounded by the Wasatch Mountains to the east, the Sierra Nevada to the west, and the Snake River Plain to the north. The south rim is less distinct. The Great Basin includes most of Nevada, half of Utah, and sections of Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and California. The term "Great Basin" is slightly misleading; the region is actually made up of many small basins. The Great Salt Lake, Pyramid Lake, and the Humboldt Sink are a few of the "drains" in the Great Basin. The Basin and Range region is the product of geological forces stretching the earth's crust, creating many north-south trending mountain ranges. These ranges are separated by flat valleys or basins. These hundreds of ranges make Nevada the most mountainous state in the country.

Many types of birds can be found in Great Basin National Park and the surrounding area. A large variety of birds can be seen in the many different habitats encountered between the town of Baker (5,280 feet elevation) and the end of the Scenic Drive (10,000 feet elevation). Many birds such as the Common Raven, Northern Flicker and the American Robin, can be found in more than one type of habitat.

climbing up an interior cave on the great basin wallLehman Caves is the most famous of Great Basin National Park's caves, but there are actually more than 40 caves in the park. Eight of these wild caves are accessible with a cave permit. All other wild caves are closed to the public. Many of the permitted wild caves in the park are important hibernacula and maternity roosts for various species of bats, including four National Park Service Sensitive species.

The hiking season at Great Basin National Park is typically limited to the months of June through September because many trails are at elevations of 9,000 feet or more. The Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is not plowed and may not open until mid-June, weather depending. Gravel roads that lead to the remote southern section of the park are impassable until late spring.

The area in and around Great Basin National Park sees a very limited amount of technical rock climbing. The hazardous nature of the rock is the main contributor to this as well as the remoteness of the sites. All routes in the Wheeler Peak area are hazardous with deadly rock fall at all times of year. A harsh expanse of dry desert and high mountains between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, the Great Basin has always been a land in between, a region apart, not included in visions of the other Western regions, the Rockies, the Colorado Plateau, the Southwest, or the West Coast. The first fact of life here in the Great Basin is the rain shadow cast by the Sierra Nevada, the highest range in the continental United States. On the east side of the mountains, average annual precipitation drops from around 30 inches to less than 10 inches across a five-mile span of the valley.

Nevada occupies most of this ragged heart-shaped territory. But the Great Basin also embraces western Utah, southeastern Oregon, California east of the Sierra, as well as a dry, salty lake bed just across the border in Mexico. These boundaries are broadly inclusive. Although Las Vegas sits in a wash that drains to the Colorado River and thus is technically just outside the Great Basin, it is tightly tied to the region and increasingly a center of power. Over the past 150 years, new populations, new activities, and new cultures have been laid on top of the land, almost as if desert and mountains and dry lakes did not exist. People have channeled the region's scarce waters, put livestock out on the desert, mined the mountains, bombed the valleys, and built a web of roads across the Great Basin. They have created domestic places, far-flung ranch houses, closely clustered Mormon villages, and a handful of cities and neon strips. But they have not domesticated this landscape.

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