The Great Basin Revisited

After leaving the Huachuca Mountains in southeast Arizona, we got a cell signal for the first time in several days, and upon seeing the number of messages left by Eileen’s siblings while we were incommunicado, we knew that there was a family emergency. One evening after dinner, Eileen’s father, age 91, lost consciousness and never regained it. We made it to El Paso in time to join the family vigil, which included all six of Eileen’s siblings, and several of their spouses and children. He passed away after five days, on May 24. He had a full and rewarding life, and will be missed by the whole extended family and his many friends. He and Eileen’s mother were married for 67 years, so this is especially hard on her.

Above: Yellow-headed Blackbird, near Stillwater NWR, NV

When we got back on the road again in early June, we headed directly for central Nevada, to make yet another pass through the Great Basin Desert, in hopes of exploring some higher elevations. (Because our exploration of the Great Basin has been so fragmented by weather, COVID-19, etc., and has thus spanned several blog posts, I am including as an addendum a short overview of the region from an earlier blog post.) Our first destination was the Toiyabe Range, a long, dominant mountain chain south of Austin, NV. It is crossed by Big Creek Road, which, aided by some very sharp switchbacks, crests around 8700 feet elevation (where we had snow flurries while eating lunch one day). We camped in nice riparian areas on both slopes, and spent 5 days botanizing in the mountain range.

White-faced Ibis, near Stillwater NWR, NV
Above: White-faced Ibis, near Stillwater NWR, NV

There was a good assortment of species at all elevations, with the top wildflower displays being on a north-facing slope around 7000 feet, and in a moist drainage at 8200 feet. Our best find was Hackelia sharsmithii, a native forget-me-not known only from a couple mountain ranges in central Nevada. MacGillivray’s Warbler and Warbling Vireo were especially common and widespread. While hiking a steep slope with lots of abandoned mining gear and claims, we came upon a sunny spot with a trickle of snowmelt, which harbored nine species of butterflies, three of which were new for us.

California Quail, Carson R, Lahontan Res. SRA, NV
Above: California Quail, along Carson River, NV. The fuzz above the bill is cottonwood fluff caught in the plumage.

Heading out towards the northwest corner of Nevada, we spent a night at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), where there were high numbers of White-faced Ibis and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. After visiting historic Fort Churchill State Park, we camped on the Carson River, on which we paddled about 7 miles on June 11. The current was about 1.4 mph, compared to our average paddling speed of about 3 mph, so the return trip was about three times as fast as the upstream paddle! Early one morning, a herd of 17 wild horses, with several foals, came up to the riverbank, directly across from our campsite, to drink; it was exciting to see them at such close range.

Eight-spotted Skimmer, Hidden Spring, Soldier Meadow ACEC, NV
Above: Eight-spotted Skimmer, Soldier Meadows, High Rock Canyon Area, NV

We next drove past Pyramid Lake, where we once paddled to see the huge White Pelican nesting colony, and through the Black Rock Desert, where the Burning Man Festival is held. We camped for two days in the Soldiers Meadows Area of Critical Environmental Concern, including our 34th wedding anniversary, exploring the hot springs and the wetlands they create. Odonates were excellent around the hot springs; we found three new dragonflies and a new damselfly within walking distance of our campsite. The botanical highlight was Potentilla basaltica, a cinquefoil described from this exact area in the 1980s, and since found in only one other place in the world. We also found a native grass genus we had not seen before, Sphenopholis, in the wetlands.

Above: Calochortus bruneaunis, High Rock Canyon area, NV

Continuing northwest, we traversed Sheldon NWR on a rainy day. This refuge was set aside for Pronghorns, and has lovely scenery and high-quality sagebrush habitat, as evidenced by our seeing several Pygmy Rabbits, a difficult species to observe. Crossing into Oregon, we visited the analogous Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, which features a superb view of a series of lowland lakes that vary widely in water level. We had perhaps our best wildflower displays of the Great Basin, in terms of numbers of species, in this refuge. The Great Basin Desert does not have such spectacular displays as the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, and our impression is that they can be rather short-lived.

Frasera speciosa, Fish Lake Cpgd, Steens Mtn, OR
Above: Frasera speciosa, Steens Mountain, OR

Our last stop in Oregon was Steens Mountain. Unlike most mountains in the Great Basin, it was formed by a single fault, rather than two. Consequently, the mountain is shaped like a ramp, rising about 5500 feet from west to east, then dropping precipitously at the location of the fault, like the Grand Tetons (whereas most Great Basin mountains, uplifted between two faults, have quite symmetric slopes). It is well-known for its scenic views, but the road section leading to the best views typically does not open until around July 1, and was still closed when we visited. However, we camped on both the north and south portions of the loop road, and found a nice selection of plants. In South Steens Campground, the commonest birds were Gray Flycatchers and Common Nighthawks, two favorites of ours. Juniper Hairstreaks, very small butterflies, were abundant, and were lovely when the lighting angle showed their iridescence to advantage.

Feral Horses, South side Steens Mtn Loop Road, OR
Above: Feral horses, Steens Mountain, OR

Continuing the theme of Great Basin mountains, we returned to Nevada and headed for the Santa Rosa Range. On our first attempt, from the north, we decided the road was too dubious, being just a two-track with major drop-offs and nowhere to go if a vehicle were met. The road from the south was still narrow with drop-offs, but there was some room to maneuver so the next morning we took this up to Lye Creek Campground. Lazuli Bunting and slopes covered with yellow Wyethia flowers were highlights of the drive. We took a nice hike from the campground to a subalpine stony fell, but we had to pass through a horde of thousands of Mormon Crickets, which are at pestilential numbers this year in portions of the northern Great Basin. As some compensation, we obtained our first positive identification of a gorgeous pink flower, Longtube Skyrocket (Ipomopsis macrosiphon).

Above: Juniper Hairstreak on Tritelia hyacinthina, Steens Mountain, OR

After resupplying in Winnemucca, we headed east, crossing much of the state to reach Lamoille Canyon in the Ruby Mountains, one of the highest mountain ranges in the state. This range is famous among birders because it is the only place in North America where Himalayan Snowcock occurs. This species was introduced for hunting purposes and apparently has maintained a stable population. We don’t count introduced birds on our lists, and so did not look for it, but instead hiked to Lamoille Lake, still partially surrounded by snowbanks. Cassin’s Finches and Clark’s Nutcrackers (an adult feeding two young) were year birds for us. We actually had even better luck in our dispersed campsite, lower in the canyon, which had American Dipper, Lewis’ Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, and a lovely pink member of the mallow family, Iliamna rivularis, one of our more spectacular new plants this year.

Clarkia pulchella, Steens Mtn, OR
Above: Clarkia pulchella, Steens Mountain, OR. The four magenta parts are petals; the four-lobed white structure is the stigma.

Our final destination in the Great Basin was the eponymous Great Basin National Park, in east-central Nevada, which we visited briefly last fall on the way back from the Arctic. Despite the campgrounds filling each night, we got the same site as last time, a stroke of good luck. We did four hikes in as many days, on the Bristlecone, Osceola Ditch, Timber Creek, and Serviceberry Trails. We intended to combine the Alpine Lakes Trail with the Bristlecone Trail to make a lovely loop hike, as we did last fall, but high winds and a threat of thunderstorms cut the hike short. In general, wildflowers were mediocre to poor, with low precipitation over the winter to blame, as gradual but extended snowmelt is key to good displays.

Mormon Cricket, above Lye Creek Cpgd, Santa Rosa Range, NV
Above: Mormon Cricket, Santa Rosa Range, NV

Reflecting on our roughly seven weeks in the Great Basin this year, there are actually many similarities in visiting this area and the prairies, which were our focus in 2017. Both regions have a paucity of interesting destinations where natural history is interpreted and relatively little information available for planning survey trips. Quite a bit of advance research is needed to put together a good itinerary to either area. At the end of our four months in the prairies, I wrote a blog post with natural history travel recommendations (link), and will provide a similar but shorter review for the Great Basin in the next few paragraphs. The info below is based not only on our experiences in 2020 but also from a number of earlier forays into the region.

Above: Sagebrush Lizard, Great Basin NP, NV


Because of the wide range of elevations in the Great Basin, it is difficult to survey the region in a single trip. I estimate that the basins, mostly at elevations of 4000 to 6000 feet, are perhaps best in early May, whereas the higher mountains may not be fully accessible until the very beginning of July. So a single trip meant to encompass the Great Basin would have to be in summer, but two separate surveys, a basin trip in spring and a range trip in summer, would be advantageous.

Places in the Great Basin Desert that I feel are of the greatest general and natural history interest are as follows, in alphabetical order. In the basins:

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, UT. Outstanding birding in winter and migration. Because of COVID-19, we could not visit nearby Antelope Island SP nor the Nature Conservancy’s Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, both of which are also said to be well worth seeing.

Malheur NWR and Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, OR. The former has fine birding nearly all year, with nice camping in nearby volcanic areas on BLM land to the east. The latter is about an hour and a half from the south end of Malheur NWR. It features Pronghorns, has lovely scenic views of lake country to the west, and had the best wildflower assortment we saw in basin country (at about 6000 feet in mid-June, but we believe this to have been an unusually late year). Some of the roads do not open until late summer.

Mono Lake, CA. Lovely scenery, interesting tufa formations, recent volcanic features, and good botanizing. Fall migration features remarkable numbers of Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes. Good anytime spring to fall.

And in the mountain ranges:

Great Basin NP, NV. Provides easy access to alpine habitats featuring a lovely Bristlecone Pine grove with interesting interpretive signs. Lehmann Cave tours are great fun, though I wonder, with COVID-19, when we’ll be doing activities like this again.

Steens Mountain, OR. The highest and most scenic part of the loop road typically does not open until early July. Can be crowded. Consider combining with Malheur NWR and/or Hart Mountain (see basin list).

White Mountains, CA. Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, spectacular scenery, great botanizing. The road goes to about 11,000 feet elevation.

You may have noticed that, with the exception of Great Basin NP, these locations are all near the periphery of the Great Basin Desert. I think that represents the reality of the situation; the heart of the Great Basin, in Nevada and western Utah, seems to me on average to have less variety and to be somewhat less interesting than the outlying areas. We certainly enjoyed our time in the central Great Basin, and the many lovely dispersed camping areas, but I don’t think it’s a high priority for initial exploration of the region. However, for those wanting to delve deeper, consider remote Fish Lake NWR, in the Bonneville Basin of Utah; Lamoille Canyon, in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada; and Big Creek Road, crossing the Toiyabe Range, also in Nevada.

Sunset, Lamoille Cyn, Ruby Mtns, NV
Above: Sunset, Lamoille Canyon, Ruby Mountains, NV

Addendum: Repeat of Great Basin overview from April blog post. The Great Basin can be defined in several ways. Hydrographically, it is the portion of the interior West that does not drain into any ocean. Instead, its rivers run into very flat-bottomed valleys, called basins, in which the water collects into lakes that may be dry for part of the year or for many years at a time. Because the water flowing into these basins dissolve minerals from the soils they pass through, the lakes that terminate rivers accumulate high concentrations of salt and alkali materials, which precipitate as the lakes dry out, forming playas. The Great Basin, then, contains many smaller basins (around 75 of them), as well as the higher lands they drain.

The Great Basin is part of the geologically defined Basin and Range Province. This region is characterized by block faulting, in which the earth’s surface is stretched by tectonic forces, causing many parallel faults to form, perpendicular to the direction of the spreading. The long, narrow, parallel slices of land so produced can either subside, becoming valleys (basins), or be uplifted, sometimes with tilting, to become mountains (ranges). In the Great Basin, the stretching was in an east-west direction, so the roughly 175 named mountain ranges and their inter-mountain valleys run north-south. Consequently, when driving across the Great Basin going east or west, for example on famous Route 50 in Nevada (“America’s Loneliest Road”), there is a constant repetition of climbing up a mountain range, descending down it, and crossing a valley to the next range.

Mostly coinciding with the Great Basin, as defined hydrographically, there is an area defined instead by biological factors, called the Great Basin Desert. It occupies all of Nevada except the southern tip (which is Mojave Desert) and a small area around Reno. It also includes some adjacent portions of bordering states: most of the western third of Utah; southern Idaho; southeastern Oregon; and small areas in far eastern California, most notably around Mono Lake. Unlike the “cold” Great Basin Desert, the other three major deserts in North America (Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan) are considered “hot” deserts, with the flora being largely derived from subtropical sources.

4 thoughts on “The Great Basin Revisited

  1. Thanks Brian, great report and pictures, me I’m just chasing loons and trying to stay virus free. Been chasing some orchids also which are doing ok this year. My new patch of fringed gentians up at Independence Lake North of Old Forge had many plants last fall, maybe more than the spot beside the road and there is Lousel’s twayblade growing there also which is just about to bloom. .See ya, Gary

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


  2. Dear Eileen,

    My condolences on the passing of your dear father. i will remember him in my prayers.

    All of your photos continue to delight me. I especially found the white-faced ibis to be my favorite.

    Since I am now in a retirement home, your postings are even more precious to receive. Thank you so much.

    Lyn Dremalas


  3. Hi Eileen & Brian, Always inspirational reading and photos!! I’m so sorry to hear about Eileen’s Dad. Congratulations on your 34th!! Love, Melinda

    On Sun, Jul 5, 2020 at 4:12 PM Nomadic Naturalists wrote:

    > bwkeelan posted: “After leaving the Huachuca Mountains in southeast > Arizona, we got a cell signal for the first time in several days, and upon > seeing the number of messages left by Eileen’s siblings while we were > incommunicado, we knew that there was a family emergency. On” >


  4. Just catching up on your Blogs, Brian & Eileen. So entertaining & instructive as usual. Just what we need in these pandemic times – a travelogue. Our own travels from Canada are necessarily restricted. Your pics are outstanding and I especially like the Juniper Hairstreak & Clarkia pulchella.
    Sorry to hear about your Dad, Eileen.
    Stay safe both of you.


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