If you only have time to do one hike, these are the places you want to go. They are all located in the same area and many people actually do it as one large hike. You can also decide to pick only a specific area of the hike if you are pressed for time or not interested in some of the sights.
This was definitely one of my favorite things to do in the park (after the Lehman Caves), and one I would recommend regardless of how many days you spend in the park.
About the Trails
Complete Hike: Distance: 5.6 miles | Type: Loop | Difficulty: Moderate
The Hike is split into several different sections. The alpine lake and bristlecone grove can be done as two separate hikes. The glacier continues on past the bristlecone grove to create a longer (out & back) hike. If you are pressed for time, I would prioritize it this way:
- Bristlecone Grove
- Alpine Lakes
The Alpine lakes are nice, but they are certainly not as unique as the other items in the list.
- Alpine Hike: Distance: | Type: Loop | Difficulty: Easy
- Bristlecone Grove: Distance: | Type: Out & Back | Difficulty: Moderate
- Bristlecone Glacier: Distance: | Type: Out & Back | Difficulty: Moderate
The trail is moderate for the parts that include the bristlecones. I would say even at the alpine lakes you need to be careful if you are not acclimated to the elevation. The trail starts at over 10,000 feet.
Best Time to Do the Hikes
The trail is quite difficult to do outside of the warmer seasons. The scenic drive does seasonally close during the winter due to snow. So there may be a chance late in the fall, that you may still be able to do the hike prior to closure (and when you may even see snow in the area). Just don’t expect to have access once snow hits the area (which is earlier with the elevation).
Late Spring to Early Fall are the best times to visit. Summer can be hot and crowded, although Great Basin sees far fewer visitors than other nearby parks. Honestly, many people don’t even know it exists!
I think early fall is the best time to visit. The weather is still warm, the days are still long enough, and crowds will be less once schools are back in session. Mid-Fall you can often see some great fall colors as well.
How to Get There
The Bristlecone / Alpine Lake Trailhead is located within the northern area of the Great Basin National Park. Access is via the same entrance for Lehman Caves. There are actually two visitor centers in this area, one right outside the park and the one at the caves. You’ll follow the Lehman Caves Road (Route 488) into the park and prior to the caves visitor center you’ll see a road junction to your right for Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (closed in winter). Take the Wheeler Peak Scenic Road about 12 miles until you see the Parking lot and area prior to entering the Wheeler Peak Campground (you’ve gone too far if you enter the campground area). It’s pretty hard to miss it once you get there. It’s definitely worth stopping at some of the scenic overlooks along the way as well.
There’s quite a bit of parking here, although it can fill up during peak times.
From up here you’ll see bathrooms and such as you park in the parking lot here. On the right side of the road across from where the bathrooms are you’ll see the trailhead for Alpine Lakes as well as the Sky Island Forest Trail.
Hiking the Trails
The trail starts from the area by the parking lot. Look for where the road continues on past the parking lot to the campsite and on the right side of the road there you’ll see the sign for the trail head.
The trail starts pretty flat and shares a bit with the Sky Island trail and then you’ll see a sign that will point you in the right direction. Follow the sign here to the right for the Bristlecone and Alpine Lake Trails.
For the first about 0.2 miles they both follow the same bit of trail. So either way just follow this through the woods until you come to a fork.
Here you have two options. You can either follow the trail to the right for the Alpine Lakes Trails, this is a loop trail that will pass two small Alpine Lakes, or you can go straight for the Bristlecone Grove and Glacier. This is an out and back trail up to the Glacier. You can do both, which is what I did. I did the Alpine Lake trail first, so you can follow along for that.
Or you can skip ahead to the part about the Bristlecone grove and glacier trails.
Alpine Lake Trail Loop
For the next two miles you’ll be hiking the Alpine Lake Trail Loop before the next fork to either go towards the Bristlecone pines or head back to the trail head.
You’ll be heading through a variety of wooded areas that do provide a lot of shade and are quite lovely. You’ll be walking through this for much of the early part of the hike, and it’s pretty easy and fast going.
The trail continues through the woods a bit and over some small wooden boardwalk bridges. It opens up more and you’ll get much more open area here.
At after about 0.7 miles from the junction for the Alpine lakes trail, you’ll see the fork for the Wheeler Peak trail which I suppose is another access for that trail (there’s a trail head for it further down the scenic drive before you hit this particular parking lot). This is good for those who may want to do wheeler peak but the other parking lot was full.
From here continue down the trail about another 0.5 miles until you hit the first of the Alpine Lakes. Stella lake is a pretty, shallow alpine lake and the first of the two you’ll hit (if you follow this guide).
From here it’s back in the woods a bit more. I liked this area, I felt that the trees were really quite beautiful here.
At about another 0.7 miles you’ll come to the second Alpine Lake, Theresa Lake. This one was quite pretty and even had a bench for those who wanted to sit and relax a bit. It’s definitely a pretty place to just take a bit of a load off. If I hadn’t been in a hurry due to incoming weather I might have partook.
From here you follow the trail to the left of the lake and continue down the path. After about another 0.3 miles you’ll come to another fork. You can either go right towards the Bristlecone Pine Grove or go back left to the trailhead. I will cover both here, although going left it’s pretty easy.
But you can skip the next bit of section or click here to jump to the fork in the Bristlecone Pine Trail.
Return to the Trailhead (Alpine Lake)
From here you can turn left at the fork to return to the trail head.
You’ll be heading through the woods here for about 0.6 miles until you get back to the original fork you went when you had to choose between the Bristlecone Pine Trail and the Alpine Lake Trail.
As this post is going to be very photo heavy I’ll only include a couple of photos of what you’ll see on the trail.
Bristlecone Pine Trail
If you decided to take the Bristlecone pine trail, it’s a pretty decent little trek here through the woods on the way up to the fork.
From here the trail is through the woods and it’s pretty rocky and lots of trees. You’ll see a few stone and wooden markings for paths. Overall the path is really quite well marked and not too hard to keep on it. Unlike many other trails I’ve been on over my days.
After about 0.6. miles you’ll come to a fork in the trail. To the right is the Alpine lake Trail (if you followed the guide before its the opposite direction). Or to continue on the Bristlecone Trail, go straight.
Alpine Lake / Bristlecone Trail Fork
From here the path dips a bit and then gets way more rocky. You’ll be heading a lot more uphill here on this area of the trail than you did in other parts of the trail.
This is the start of where good shoes or boots really come in handy. It’s not super rocky yet, but there are definitely a fair bit of loose stones and it will get rockier very soon on the trail however (and even more so by the glacier).
Here the Trail gets a bit more dirt and trees again. You’ll be going through some really cool forests. I know some of these here are bristlecones but its not the concentration that you’ll find up in the grove (and there are some that look like it but are not).
Here the trail gets rocky again and a bit more exposed. it was a bit nerve wracking on the way down when it was raining and lightning. But at least I was no where near the tallest things here.
At about 0.7 miles from the fork in the trail above, you’ll get to the bristlecone grove and interpretive trail. It is worth wandering through the interpretive trail and reading the signs and seeing the various trees. You’ll obviously see trees outside of the trail as well and you can go straight to continue to the glacier.
I ended up visiting the interpretive trail. Instead of showing all the parts of the trail, here are just a couple photos from the trail. If you continue through the trail you’ll eventually meet back up with the main trail higher along the trail.
Once you get to the next fork, you’ll take a left to continue to the glacier trail. You’ll actually see a sign pointing in that direction as well.
Bristlecone Glacier Trail
If you’ve already made it this far on the trail, it’s not that much farther to get to the glacier. Just important note though. You really can’t see the glacier, it’s all buried under rock. I was able to see a bit of snow on the sides of the glacier (which I guess was cool) but it really doesn’t appear as much.
The Trail here gets really rocky. You’ll have a bit of a mix of a good trail and some rocks you’ll need to walk around. The trail actually feels longer than it is. I think it’s a mix of slow moving over the rocks and elevation.
After about 0.3 miles from the trail sign for the glacier you’ll come to the sign for the Glacier. From here the trail goes to the right of the sign and up and around. You’ll see the mountains in the distance here and the trail will get incredibly rock.
From here the trail is mostly rocks. You’ll have to navigate over some uneven rock areas to get closer to the glacier. You can get as close as you want along the trail although not to the actual glacier. So feel free to turn around after you get a good photo.
The glacier is actually pretty cool. It was really chilly up here for note. So you might want to pack a coat or something else with you if you plan to spend an extended time. Also the weather is a bit unpredictable up this way as well.
After this point you can head back the way you came. Follow the trail back down past the bristlecone groves and the various trail forks. It’s a pretty easy return voyage and much faster than the way up the trail.
Tips & FAQ
- Be Altitude Aware. The start of the trail is over 10,000 feet and is strenuous at times. Be sure to be acclimated to the altitude before going.
- Bring lots of water, snacks, sunscreen. You’ll need all
- those on the hike. In particular water and sunscreen. You can get more direct sun up here.
- Be sure to have good walking shoes/boots. I would recommend against flip-flops and sandals. There is a lot of loose rock you need to walk over. I almost twisted my ankle in hiking shoes.
- Leave no Trace. Be kind and take care of the trail. Things up here even food scraps can stay a long time.
- Stay on Trail. Alpine regions like these are very sensitive and fragile. It can take generations for them to rebuild even from small amounts of damage.