The second trailhead leads along the South Branch of Baker Creek. Both areas are very pretty and have a different ecosystem than what I saw on the scenic drive due to a lower elevation and a more constant supply of water. Note the recent flood damage in Photo 2.
Lehman Caves extend 1/4 mile into the limestone and marble flanking the Snake Mountain Range. The cave was formed in two parts: First, hundreds of thousands of years ago, surface water turned slightly acidic by Carbon Dioxide gas seeped into the earth and combined with deeper water and dissolved some of the soluble rock below the surface. This water then drained away. Second, more water seeped in bringing limestone deposits with it. Over the years this water caused the formations we see here today. Lehman Cave has many of the regular speleothems or cave formations but also an unusual number of formations called shields (a flat clamshell like formation) and a type of shield called a "parachute". Make sure you do not miss the short, easy, ranger-guided tour through the cave. The tour is about 90 minutes. Temperature inside the cave is a constant 50 degrees F. Photo 3 shows an area called the speakeasy which saw some drinking during prohibition; Photo 4 shows a "parachute" formation; and Photo 5 shows some bacteria growing in the cave due to someone writing their name on a formation.
If you turn south off the road which leads to the visitors center, Nevada Highway 488, you can take a decent dirt road to Baker Creek. There is a group camping area along the way and the Baker Creek Campground. At the end of the road are three trailheads. The northernmost trailhead leads along Baker Creek to Bake Lake.
To me, one of the most interesting looking trees is the Bristlecone Pine. It looks very rugged appearing almost dead (or at least dying) while actually quite alive. The Bristlecone Pine is also one of the longest lived plants in the world. There are Bristlecone Pines at Great Basin that are almost 5000 years old.
Also along the Scenic Drive is a trail leading to the remains of the "Osceola Ditch". In 1872, gold was discovered three miles Northwest of the area now called Great Basin National Park. The town of Osceola was born and in the next two decades grew to over 1500 residents and two million dollars worth of gold was uncovered here. There was believed to be a lot more gold in Dry Gulch but too little water made large-scale extraction impossible. From 1889 to 1890, investors spent over $100,000 building an 18-mile aqueduct called the "Osceola Ditch". Gold production did not meet initial hopes and drought conditions a few years later caused the demise of the town and the abandoning of the ditch. This is all that remains today.
Mather Overlook is slightly higher than 9000 feet in elevation and offers great views of Wheeler Peak and the Snake Mountain Range. This is frequently as far as you can drive on the Scenic Drive due to snow and road closures. The drive up the road is well worth the view. The first photo is Wheeler Peak which at 13,063 feet is the highest point in the park.
In addition to touring the cave there is a very nice 12 mile scenic drive from near the visitors center to the top of Wheeler Peak. The road rises 3400 feet. RVs and trailers over 24 feet are not recommended on this road. Inquire about road status at the visitors center because portions of the road may be closed due to snow any time of the year. When I visited in mid-May the road was closed beyond the Mather Overlook. There are a few trailheads, campgrounds, and scenic pull offs along the road.
The caves and the area surrounding it was explored in 1885 by Absalom Lehman who owned much of the land in the area. From the time of his death until 1920, this land passed through a number of hands. In 1920, C. T. Rhodes bought the land and began to develop the land around the cave both above and below ground. This cabin was one of the rooms for the motel on site. Rhodes and his wife managed the cave from 1920 until 1932. From 1933 to 1936, this cabin became the home for the monument custodian and his family.
There are displays inside the visitors center explaining the ecology of the area, the geology of Lehman Cave and about the animals that call the area home. There was a nice photo of Lexington Arch which I could not go see for real because you need a high clearance vehicle.
Start your tour at the visitors center where you can obtain a brochure about the park, the park newspaper, and other information to help you plan how best to enjoy your visit. You will also pay/register for cave tours or for camping sites here.
Down low, towards the desert floor, driving to or from Baker, you will see pronghorn antelope dancing among the sage of the desert floor. The Great Basin desert is one of four warm weather types found within the US - Mojave, Chihuahuan and Sonoran being the other three. Sagebrush is symbollic of this desert. Pronghorn feed on the sagebrush and the rabbitbrush. They are capable of speeds of over 50 mph. At night, you will hear another well-know inhabitant of this desert - the coyote.
Wander from the heliography stateion remnants over to the tall stone cairn just to the east. Here you can look down into the cirqu off the easter Headwall. You can make out the Scenic Wheeler Peak Drive as it snakes up through the hills. Your trail, the lakes. Lots of energy was expended getting here. Enjoy.
After 3-4 hours of perserverance, you reach the summit. Views go in all directions. Breaths come slowly. You will find an old rock shelter atop that is the reamins of a heliograph station - canvas tents were used as roofs. Heliography was an experimental system using the sun and mirrors to send messages quickly from one peak to another in a Morse code-like fashion. The station was used throughout the 1880's and people would spend long intervals atop the peak.
From Stella Lake, you come to the start of a trail that will take you to the very top of the Park. The trail climbs 3000 feet/909 meters in 4 miles, demanding some physical condition. The hardest part of the hike will be enduring the high altitude encountered. Wheeler Peak tops out at 13063 feet/3959 meters. From the lake, the trail switchbacks up to the western ridge above and then heads south on the broad, open ridge to the summit. Up high, rocks, pervail. Take water.
The trees do eventually die. Erosion will expose their root systems, drying them out. But as in life, so it is in death. Ages go by before they eventually die. 90% of the tree can be dead, yet a little piece of bark can remain connected to a little piece of limb which can be connected to a little piece of root. The wood is so dense that a tree can stand for another 1000 years after death!
Going on from the grove, you come into the literal Hall of the Mountain Gods. Walss rise vertically on three sides, as you pick your way across the rock. The small glacier of Wheeler Peak glistens ahead.