Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rock Glacier Trail

Rock. Glacier. Two words that describe two of my favorite things. Because of these two words, my attention immediately gravitated to the Rock Glacier Trail when I perused the Great Basin National Park guide. Glaciers are ponderous and slow moving, which can also describe me now that I sadly think of it. But I can't carve chunks out of mountains like a glacier can, though.  Rocks are hard and unyielding as a wife and and speaking of which, Dollie came along with me on a loop hike that explored a stand of bristlecone pines, a pair of alpine lakes, and a glacial cirque full of rocks.  

Blessed be the shade
At the outset, the Bristlecone Trail climbed steadily through a beautifully shaded forest comprised of limber pine and Englemann spruce. We immediately began huffing and puffing which probably had more to do with hiking at 10,000 feet and very little to do with the grade of the trail. Literally, we were getting high on our hike (thanks Jim, for that remark!).

Older than John McCain, even!
After a mile or so, the trees thinned out and the trail took us into a stand of bristlecone pines, the living trees burnished orange with limbs all twisted into phantasmagorical shapes. The dead trees were likewise twisted but colored a more appropriate cadaver gray. Bristlecone pines are the oldest individual living organism on our planet, older than the Rolling Stones even. Their growth rings are packed so tight that a dead tree is nearly impervious to decay, taking several thousand more years to fully decompose. And here we were, walking among dozens of these arboreal ancients, the total age of all these trees added together being eclipsed only by the total age of the U.S. Senate.

Hiking on the moon
Continuing past the bristlecones, the trail left all trees behind and delivered us into a rocky cirque situated between Jeff Davis Peak and Wheeler Peak. This little world was all rock, with the odd lichen splotch and tundra vegetation stuffed into cracks between the rocks. The rocky bowl had been gouged out of Wheeler Peak's cheek by a glacier eons ago and on the jagged ridge above us, a rock finger was permanently raised upright in geologic disapproval of the awesome power of glaciers.

Lichen on a rock
As we hiked up the moraine, we met a young lady from Arkansas coming down the trail, gimping courtesy of a twisted ankle. A few minutes later, a middle aged man came down, his left arm a bloody mess from a fall he had taken. Between I and his companions, we had enough large bandages in our respective first-aid kits and we patched him up in short order, good enough to get him to an emergency room and stitches. Rock Glacier was a cruel taskmaster, indeed.

Down the moraine we go
However, I am glad to report that no injuries big or small were suffered by the O'Neill party of hikers, all two of us. Without ceremony and at 10,800 feet, the trail ended where we had a nice look at the glacier which was a thin strip of muddy snow and ice and a pitiful reminder of the glory of glaciers past. After spending a few minutes craning our necks up at the rock wall that was the base of Wheeler Peak, we turned around and hiked down the moraine, picking our way carefully as we went.

Teresa Lake
While spectacular, the hike wasn't particularly long so we took an additional loop trail around the alpine lakes named Teresa and Stella. Teresa Lake was more tarn than lake, reposing in a semi-barren bowl below the large rockpile that is Wheeler Peak. We plopped down in the shade (we were back in Tree World after leaving the moraine) and enjoyed lunch while soaking up the spectacular scenery.

Stella Lake
A short walk up and over a thinly forested ridge took us to Stella Lake which had even better views of Wheeler Peak. We entered a meadow as we departed from the lake basin and observed Ma and Pa Turkey taking all the little turkey darlings out for a walk. A short walk through an aspen grove, the trees appearing alien to we Oregonians, returned us back to the trailhead, camp, and the nightly thunderstorm.

For those about to rock
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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