Great Basin: The washboard of the west

Road Journals Blog—Great Basin National Park occupies only a small corner of the actual Great Basin, which stretches from the Sierra Nevada in California to the Wasatch Range in Utah, covering some 200,000 square miles.

I discovered this firsthand, traveling eastward to the park from the San Francisco Bay area, across Nevada on Highway 50. The road climbed to the summit of a compact range and then down across a flat expanse of desert—a basin—then up onto the next range. Over and over again. I began to picture the terrain as a giant washboard.

An expansive swath of basin stretches across Nevada | Peter Jaret

Geologists call it corrugated topography, resembling cardboard of the same name. By my count, I crossed more than a dozen basins and ranges on my way across Nevada.

The entire Great Basin, I read later in one of my guidebooks, encompasses 90 basins and 160 mountain ranges.

Each basin and range has its own ecological characteristics, but I’ll admit that it took some time before I could discriminate. But as my eyes adjusted to the palate of colors and the desert landscapes, I began to see distinctions. Some of the ranges were arid. Others bore scruffy vegetation. Some of the basins were flat and sandy. Others were formed of undulating rocks.

Basin, meet range. Range, basin. | Peter Jaret

The vast region gets its name from the fact that it’s literally one giant basin. All the precipitation that falls here stays here because there is no outlet to the sea. When I stopped for a picnic lunch in the middle of the state, I understood, on a small scale, what that means. I was surrounded in all directions by the reddish and tan rocks of the basin’s rim. A rainstorm had passed through the day before, leaving behind pools of water. They would evaporate before another day passed.

If you’re interested in reading more on the geological forces that formed this stark and fascinating terrain, check out John McPhee’s classic, Basin and Range. And if you make the trip, set aside enough time to give your eyes and other senses time to adjust to the landscape’s minimalist beauties. There’s no place quite like it on earth.

This blog post was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.