Hiking to the Only Glacier in Nevada
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
This summer, we decided to road trip to southwest Colorado via Hwy 50 ("The Loneliest Road in America") for some hiking and Jeeping, meeting up with my husband's aunt and uncle from Minnesota. Up until this trip, my only exposure to Colorado was catching connecting flights at the Denver airport, so I was looking forward to some sightseeing in new territory.
On our first travel day, we made a stop in Austin, Nevada, for lunch followed by a short drive up to historic Stokes Castle.
The 3-story tower that overlooks the Reese River Valley was constructed as a "summer home" by a silver mining mogul in 1897 – built entirely of hand-hewn, native granite.
Although the current structure is completely fenced off and dilapidated today, it was a symbol of opulence in its day. The first floor contained the kitchen and dining room, the second floor included the living room, and the third floor housed two bedrooms. Lavish details were not spared, as each floor encompassed a fireplace, plate glass viewing windows, and the upper two levels included a balcony complete with a sun deck. (Perhaps if you squint a little, you can envision these high-end design elements.)
Following our brief stint in Austin, our first official "adventure stop" on the trip was Great Basin National Park. My husband plotted out a 6-plus-mile loop hike above 10,000 ft. that included a lake, a glacier, and ancient bristlecone pines.
We woke up early and made our way in the Jeep up the climbing, winding road to the trailhead parking lot, which was lined with plentiful aspens. The lot had just a few cars in it when we arrived and the air was pleasantly cool, but we knew it wouldn't be long before the sun would heat things up.
The trail started out climbing right away, through a moderately forested and slightly rocky terrain. We were surrounded by pines, bright green-leaved aspens, and spotty green grasses to match, something we are not used to hiking amongst. The mountainous backdrop including Wheeler Peak was more than impressive.
A few minutes into the hike, we saw a total of four deer on the outskirts of the trail – one lone doe, and another with two bounding fawns in tow. (My husband said he also spotted some very tame turkeys, but I must have missed them or they weren't in view when I passed by.)
Shortly, we reached the first destination, Stella Lake.
The lake wasn't overly impressive, but the backdrop was nice.
A little farther along the trail, we came across Teresa Lake, which was really more like a pond, but again, with an incredible backdrop.
These two modest lakes were the warmup to the big show... the glacier. So, we continued onto the section called Glacier Trail, which got steeper and far rockier. And it became cooler and windier, too, despite full sun exposure.
We approached the official "overlook" of the glacier and learned that the glacier wasn't exactly what we were envisioning.
Here's the glacier and rock glacier – with Wheeler Peak (13,063 ft.) on the right, the second-highest peak in Nevada.
Slightly underwhelmed and looking for more adventure, we forged ahead on the trail and decided to make our way out onto the rock glacier to see what else we could see (and to see how far we could get). And let me tell you, it got substantially rockier and steeper. We climbed and climbed over piles and piles of rocks.
The rocks eventually transitioned to large boulders, and the "trail" disappeared, requiring each of us to plan our "line" on which to carefully walk, hoping and praying we didn't trip, fall, or otherwise lose our balance as we hop-scotched along atop the rock glacier. One misstep could have resulted in a dire situation.
The views surrounding us were larger than life, though.
We finally reached a point where we'd had our fill of navigating the treacherous rock glacier. The bouldering became tiresome, especially at over 10,000 ft., and we weren't convinced that advancing farther would be worth the time, effort, and risk, so we decided to turn around and make our way back down to the bristlecone loop.
This was not our first time hiking amongst the ancient bristlecone pines, but nevertheless, being in the presence of "the oldest non-clonal species on the planet" or "the world's oldest known living thing" is quite remarkable, not to mention difficult to fathom. These 3,000- to 5,000-year-old slow-growing pines have an incredible knack for adaptability and resilience, even after they die, as they can remain standing for centuries. Tenacious trees to say the least!
Our legs now feeling quite fatigued, we finished out the loop and made it back to the parking lot – which was now full – where we found a fun, open-air Jeep to duck.
This hike was unique and definitely remarkable in its own way, but it was quite strenuous and a little bit treacherous if you hike on the rock glacier. I'm glad we did this hike in Great Basin National Park, and it's notable to have hiked to "the only glacier in Nevada," but I'm not sure it's a hike I would attempt a second time.
We stopped at an expansive overlook of Wheeler Peak on our way back down the winding road. It's hard to envision, but we read that during the Pleistocene period (roughly 11,000 to 30,000 years ago), the Great Basin's valleys were full of wetlands and lakes and home to Teratorns with 16-foot wingspans, Smilodon cats, and bears that hunted prey such as camels, small horses, llamas, and pronghorn. And bristlecone pines grew at low elevation, albeit still in the rocks! (The bristlecone pines we saw today were growing above 10,000 ft.)
Onto our next adventure on this Colorado road trip!
Stella Lake, Glacier Trail, Bristlecone Loop