Thursday, June 25, 2020

GBT Overview

Great Basin Trail: Overview


I believe my inspiration for route within the state of Nevada began when I was a kid. My family and I frequently traveled between Los Angeles and Las Vegas not only for family visits but for an eventual move as a pre-teen. Then, as a teenager my family frequented the June Lake area which meant taking Highway 395, which is mainly the western boundary of the Great Basin. The basin and range high desert climate is etched in my memory stemming all the way back from childhood. 

Many, many years later in 2015, I undertook a long distance hike across the state of Nevada called the Great Basin Traverse. This route made sense to me considering my childhood and familial memories. I had grown to seek those wide views and isolated and lonesome areas. While on that particular route, I began to understand how undervalued and overlooked the state and region is. In actuality, I felt pretty surprised at how ignored this vast landscape seemed in the long distance hiking community. To me, the spirit of hiking felt focused on the Triple Crown trails. Around this time, and in the background, hiking routes had gathered some steam. Folks gravitated from the Triple Crown trails to more route driven trails like the Grand Enchantment and Hayduke Trails. As I accomplished the majority of these hiking routes, I noticed the lack of a focused route trail in Nevada and the Great Basin. On my traverse, which really had been my first researched and thrown-together route, I started to gather knowledge of what a route consists of, mainly a theme within the landscape that makes sense and flows with the terrain and geographic feature. As I crossed into Idaho from the remote town of Jarbidge, Nevada, I felt underachieved. 

Nevada is temperamental in climate and extremely exposed. Unfortunately, I had encountered quite a number of thunderstorms and snowstorms that greatly altered my route and had me hunkered down in those small dusty towns of central Nevada. Over the years, I thought a lot about this Great Basin Traverse. In fact, some of the Great Basin Trail uses the idea and the basin and ranges that I had thought of in the Great Basin Traverse. 

A few years went on since that Great Basin crossing. Then, I spoke about the route on The Trail Show and The Routes Podcast with John Z. The community seemed to be aware of the route, although I still felt it to be unfinished. But, I felt lucky to have stumbled upon a landscape where such openness exists enough to create a route without relative ends.

Two years later, in 2017, I rode on a bikepacking trip, called the Poop Loop, which is a 5,200m circuit around the intermountains and basins of the West. Part of that bikepacking trip consisted of nearly 600m within Nevada. In this trip, I went through parts of the Great Basin that my traverse did not. The bike also helped me explore more of the Great Basin within a shorter amount of time. What seemed to benefit me the most in regards to the Great Basin Trail, besides the more familiarity of the Great Basin, was the exploration of mining roads, like how these roads characteristically looked on the maps versus how they appeared in the present, how the springs may not be running in these areas due to the past mining history, and lastly, how these roads, if not used, maintained a character of wildness that one could possibly feel on a two track that is hardly ever or never used anymore.

In 2018, I hiked the Desert Trail, a 1500m route-driven trail from Jacumba Hot Springs at the California/Mexico border to Drinkwater Pass in central-eastern Oregon. This route's various ecoregions exist as not too unfamiliar with the Great Basin. From the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts in southern California to the outback deserts of eastern Oregon, sandwiched in between is the basin and range ecoregion of Nevada and the Great Basin. Conceived of in the 1960s by a Russell Pengally in Bend, Oregon, the Desert Trail had the lofty aspiration of connecting Mexico with Canada by foot in an entire desert ecoregion. The nature of the Desert Trail is route-driven with navigation and backcountry hiking experience a must. I found trail tread scarce, yet found undocumented horse trails. I found the creative notions of ridge running very doable and thrilling. I found one could be creative in resupply and caching strategy utilizing well-graded BLM roads and highway crossings. Most importantly, I found water plentiful despite the long, long carries.

Finally, in the Fall and into the Winter of 2019, a couple of friends of mine, Pepperflake and Handy Andy of Pa'lante Packs invited me on another version of the Great Basin Traverse. After a couple weeks of mulling the idea over I decided to join them. Not only did I want to start a new hiking season hiking with friends, especially in a remote and special place, but I really thought about those sections I had to forego in '15 due to severe weather. From that point on, I spent most of the Winter revisiting the route.

Route and Loop Concept:

As I perused over maps and satellite images of the Great Basin Traverse, I began to get more and more excited. My eyes drifted to other mountain ranges and ridge lines. Even remote basins intrigued me. Really, I felt more interested by the isolation and remoteness of the Great Basin. Pepperflake had a tentative start date of May 1st. I had that set in mind too, but as the Winter progressed and as my job became more stressed, I realized I wanted to leave earlier and to spend as much time immersed in isolation within the Great Basin as possible. I developed the Great Basin Loop that instead of staying north above Area 51, like the GBT does, stayed south and skirted just north of Las Vegas and headed west to Death Valley where I was to meet the boys. The original loop pushed 1700 miles or so. But, then the Covid-19 happened. I'll get to that later.

So, because of COVID-19, I wanted to be responsible in my hiking choice. I wanted the route and loop to be contained in Nevada and completely within the Great Basin. I really wanted to hit the mountain ranges that my Great Basin Traverse did, as well as the higher ranges of eastern Nevada, in particular the High Schells and the Snake Ranges. I, then, focused on the timing of such a loop hike noticing the climate bifurcation boundary of Highway 6. I followed mountain ranges and linked them together with basins that followed a more or less direct path within public land. As I followed crest lines of some ranges, I would then zoom in on satellite to see if the ridges could be traversed. If so, I then plotted a line that would follow the crest and then leave the crest in an area where a spring or possibly even a small creek existed. 

More time on the satellite imagery for the water sources ensued. Most water sources seemed reliable and the ridges doable. After drawing a route south from Lake Valley Summit off of Highway 93, I then ventured in a westerly direction crossing some barren and remote country that initially went through the Basin and Range Monument with the idea of meeting the boys at Peavine Campground in the southern Toiyabe.

From Peavine Campground, we would follow the trace of what I had originally drawn nearly 5 years earlier and interweave that line with Pepperflake's newer line. His line made the traverse more attractive and even more challenging. I was excited to see how his route would be implemented with such rigors as isolation and long distances between resupply. 

Both our routes would split up at Wells, NV. Pepperflake's would head in a northeasterly direction to complete a traverse of the Great Basin while mine would loop around at Wells and turn south to eventually complete a loop at Lake Valley Summit.

Besides the characteristics and the draw of immersion in such a grand ecosphere, I really became focused on a loop for a complete thru-hike. Other than the Tahoe Rim and Wonderland Trails, finding a loop on a long distance trail is fairly rare. Andrew Skurka's Great Western Loop, Pepperflake's Greater Yellowstone Loop, Ras's UP North Loop, and my Vagabond Loop are four notable loops that utilize other well-known routes or trails. But, to have a long distance trail in the form of a loop and be greater than a 1000 miles without utilizing any other trampled routes is even rarer and even underexplored. The more research I put into this idea the notion of a loop became my goal. Little was I to know how I would be affected by hiking a large continuous loop in an extremely remote area.

As I began hiking the Great Basin Loop, I noticed that the wildness and isolation is the most apparent trait of the route. Ultimately, as I turned the route westerly and northerly I felt the pull of the core of the Great Basin. It is a big difference to pass through something within a point-to-point trail and to touch multiple pulse-points within specific areas, such as the PCT and CDT. Within a loop, you are constantly in the core of an ecosystem and within that core you develop an intense sense of place where you become part of the landscape. You become immersed in the wholeness of the Great Basin, you become the wild horse, the roaming antelope, and the grazing elk; you become the wind rifling through the warped bristlecones and the tumbling sagebrush; you are the enormous sky, the dryness within the stillness, the ruffling tumult of gusts that deposit sand in plumes; you are the water that flows from the mountain tops down through lonesome canyons only to bubble up or run out into the basins that seep into the aquifers below. 

The concept of the route continued to marvel my curiosity. As I turned south, I found myself, to my surprise, almost doubling back on the route I had just passed through. Although I really didn't get that close to the sections I had hiked, I still felt the pulse of the core of the Great Basin. The heart still felt present. With the deceiving distances of the Great Basin, due to its vastness and enormity, one range felt so close as to travel there on foot in a day even though I had taken 2 weeks to get from one place to another. This sense of place made me feel incredibly small and vulnerable, as well as to feel as a part of the region. To be honest, I felt incredibly connected, clear-minded and balanced while feeling so familiar with the land. I could name every ridge, every drainage and basin; just everything, everyplace.

Then, as I crested the Highland Ridge at 11,775ft in Great Basin National Park, I could see my starting point, the cinch point of my loop, that I started 43 days prior. Lake Valley Summit shimmered in the miraged distance at 5,800ft. I vividly recalled my lead up to that first day: the campfire, the Talking Heads song, my partner Ruta, her smile, her eyes. I envisioned that first day in the Fortification Range: the horse trails, the flowing springs, the intimidating and impenetrable rock walls along the crest, the pinyon and juniper. As I neared the beginning, I felt the end. Like I was actually completing something, like I had come home, that I had re-lived such a familiar experience that I stumbled into a realm of what was real and what was memory. I felt alive within the landscape, simply exhilarated, exactly surreal. One who experiences completing the loop of the Great Basin Trail indulges in such a unique experience where one has attained complete immersion within the Great Basin of Nevada. 

The Foundation of a Trail:

Like I stated above, when I started to create the Great Basin adventure I had initially called the route the Great Basin Loop. Really, in the planning phase, I had not even considered the possibility of creating something for others to hike. I had only been focused on how I had to rearrange and edit the route to fit within the timeframe and the social upheaval of the Covid-19 Pandemic. As with most of the routes I have endeavored on, I had my vision sighted on personal goals. The idea of sharing something that felt intimate to me felt not fair not only to me but to the next hiker. The notion that others would enjoy the immersion in the Great Basin eluded me. I mean, there simply had not been enough buzz or interest in the Great Basin except for how I felt about it personally. Nevertheless, something became apparent as I walked the route. 

By the time I had my first actual town resupply in Tonopah, some 350 miles in, and I had the opportunity to express the experience up to that point, I realized I had been on an actual route that I firmly believed another hiker, whether section or thru-hiker, would want to hike. During that first 2.5 weeks, I found so much more than scenic beauty. As I ground-truthed the route in the field, I discovered the foundation of a long distance trail. I found myself utilizing my research from the past Winter, however, I realized I had been utilizing my Desert Trail experience. That experience provided me with validation in what I found myself creating and discovering. 

So, I decided to change the name from the Great Basin Loop to the Great Basin Trail. I found abundant horse trails meandering the crests of ranges and cattle trails within the basins. Shoot, even on the first day in the Fortification Range I found nothing but horse trail, like close to 15 miles worth. Even the cross country travel had the character of wildlife travel, which meant that most game or horse or cattle trail led eventually to water, especially in the basins. I saw my instincts shift from one of a hobby hiker to one of a tracker and creator as I was seeking and following the lay of the land and wildlife tracks. The cross country travel was still appealing when wildlife trail was absent. This I knew would appease a long distance and route-driven hiker. This brought a wild aspect to the route even if a dirt road is near like in the basins. 

I, also, found the mining two tracks to be very appealing and held a wild spirit. What at one time might had been a blatant scar on the land now held the appearance after so many years of being a part of the landscape. If the road became faint and non-existent the corridor still held its integrity. Plant life grew within the road to become two side-by-side singletracks. And, an important aspect of these mining roads is that they led up into the mountains that otherwise felt untraveled. The mining roads provided a way.

The exhilaration in all of this came in the form of an unsuspecting discovery--- I found most of the foundation of the trail as undocumented trails and in seldom used public lands while also buffering the foundation with the presence of water. The amount of water surprised me greatly. The more I found the more I understood why and how the water is used by the wildlife and ranging cattle. This meant I could reasonably estimate if a water source would be reliable or not. At every high point on crest lines in ranges I would scout my gaze over the next basin to spot the corral and tanks. Sometimes I could see water shimmering in the troughs in the distance, sometimes I could see the stamped out ground from the cattle frequenting the corrals. The more I hiked onward the more confidence I achieved. 

When I got to Tonopah, I believed I was on to something, that I was onto a legitimate route worth sharing. And I knew what laid ahead of me: the Toiyabe, Toquima, and Monitor Ranges section, and the Diamond and Ruby Ranges section-----all would be enticing and incredible. That left the last third of the route. With the high ranges of the Shells and the Snakes, I envisioned something wholly complete. With some luck, research, and my previous experience I stumbled onto the Great Basin Trail.

The GBT in the time of Covid-19:

The Covid-19 Pandemic put a lot of hiking plans to a screeching halt. People lost their jobs, folks sank into a depression, the economy crashed, people fell ill, and life became set in a lockdown isolation. Besides spending considerable time thinking about what it would mean to hike the route during the trying times of Covid, I occupied my time by training with running, walking, and body-weight workouts. I also spent my time refining my Great Basin Trail and trimmed some fat of the route that would fit in a reasonable timeframe with a later start date due to the warming of the weather in the southern half of the route. I looked at reversing the loop depending on the openings. I looked at food and water caches along the route to maintain social distancing standards and respect for others. In a weird way, I felt I had an opportunity during the time of 'stay-at-home' isolation. I planned for the time to be ready when the time of opening presented itself. 

A couple months into the pandemic things began to open slowly. My lease was up on my seasonal employee housing, my partner went back to work, and my job had no start date in sight. I kept my eyes on Nevada's opening and timed it with Ruta's return to work to spend a weekend driving to the Great Basin to cache food and water. I felt comfortable in my plan: head to the most isolated place in the lower 48, be as self-sufficient as possible for 2-3 weeks, quarantine for 14 days in isolation in the Great Basin, dip quickly in and out of town when necessary and utilize the USPS for resupply after the caches, create a safety plan, and refine my route to be attainable. All in all, my plan worked out well and most things played out according to plan. I felt socially responsible for the situation I had planned and created for myself even if the decision to hike might not have been a popular one in the eyes of others.


  1. Cool route! Would love to try it someday.

  2. I grew up in this country...right at the base of Great Basin National Park on the Cleveland Ranch. You are completely right about the enormity and sense of smallness and vulnerability one feels in this landscape. Nothing makes me feel more at peace. It is my sense of place - my home. I will be returning there in Sept. as I consider some walking/hiking routes and appreciate your sharing this amazing excursion. Elizabeth Masek

  3. I love your comment---that sense of place. I am envious of that enormity you have witnessed most of your life. So special. Thanks for the words!