Developing the Great Basin Trail: A Hiker Immersed into the Soul of the Land
By: Ryan Sylva
Standing on top of the High Schell Crest, I could see a panorama of a hundred or more miles of Nevada’s Great Basin. Interestingly enough, I could trace my growth as a traveler within the Great Basin from the High Schells, my knowledge of the region becoming more intimate with each step and each traverse. The wind up on the High Schells howled and watered my eyes, stinging the corner slits and wrinkles containing salt. I squinted and traced every ridge line of every range. I felt isolated yet unencumbered by any societal constraint. I felt like a true vagabond wandering out here, nearly 1,200 miles on a path I’d developed and named the Great Basin Trail (GBT).Suddenly, down below a couple thousand feet in a valley, I saw a dirt contrail whip up and spiral behind some unseeable vehicle. Like most of the vistas in the Great Basin, images become blurred by surface heat or the illusion of proximity because of the vastness and enormity of the landscape. Zeroing in on the spiraling contrail, I felt curious about a fellow traveler, albeit a longed for encounter that would not occur. I sensed the isolation of that dusty contrail in an open space at bay to the unpredictable wind. I sensed the isolation of that fellow traveler, regardless if that vehicle and driver were residents of this place. Simply the notion of another nomad stirred my spirits. I could not help but think where that other vagabond was headed, or where that ranch hand was going, or that cowboy venturing on a cattle seeking expedition.
My observation from up high went from a curiosity to a faraway snoopiness that interrupted the spirit of the Great Basin: freedom in an open landscape. “Let one wander” is the hope, the motto of this place.
I knew the day’s end neared by the layer of purple to the east. This purple layer stretched for seemingly endless miles from south to north, and one could even fathom the curvature of the Earth. Still on the crest, I hurried my feet a little quicker to descend lower and find coverage from the wind. Desolation sank in the air. No one else dared to tiptoe along this crest at the setting hour, for soon, the sky and basins would be enveloped in darkness and emptiness.Immediately careening to the east, the massive shadow of the High Schells fell to Spring Creek Valley below forming a jagged maw of a mountainous beast. The farther the sun sank in the west, the more the shadow elongated eastward until it became part of the purple layer, the long angles of light and shadow melding together.
I found a wind-blocked campsite beneath a spired rocky outcrop. As I boiled water, I observed the remaining light vanquish to the impending night. Stars brightly twinkled and Mars glared in a fierce red in the low horizon to the east. Because the sky is so big at night, with no obstruction from a mountaintop, a forest, or canyon walls, with the horizon as big as anything, one can see the constellations above revolve in the night sky. And, because of this, I can gauge the hour of the night within a half hour. It is not that I am trying to judge time, I am just aware that time slips by the elegant twist of the globe in relation to the revolving constellations in the sky. Inevitably, the sun will rise and the isolation of a new morning will set in, the desolate reality that I am in the middle of nowhere.
I developed the GBT in late 2019 as a passion project looking for the most isolated place I could find in the Lower 48 states.Five years prior, I developed a traverse across the Great Basin in hopes of linking the basin and ranges that I had driven past countless times. That traverse inspired an awe inside of me for the region. The open space and emptiness, the wide vistas, lonely stretches of walking, the starkness of aridity and life, the balance of life so precious, all tickled my heart. Often in idle times—frankly, when I was not hiking—I would find myself scanning over broad maps of the Great Basin region in Nevada. I studied the mountain ranges, zeroed in on the canyons, and memorized the basin names. I sensed a mystery in the desolation of the Great Basin that I could not satiate with one long visit.
In 2017, I bikepacked across the Great Basin, picking off ranges I had wanted to visit. This only led me to want more because the bike could not get to the most remote places. So, in 2018, I trekked the Desert Trail, a nearly 700-mile stretch along the western expanse of Nevada. This route honed in more of what I had wanted in my original Great Basin traverse—to wander with intent.
To me, this has been the exploratory drive within me and I have sought my travels to have this characteristic. Basically, I am compelled to move forward yet am concurrently drawn to an immersion within a place. I want to utilize open spaces, cross-country zones with no path other than game trails. I want to meander up canyons and tiptoe across the catwalks of ridgelines. I want to gaze into the distance, a faraway and unobstructed distance, and make sense of it all, piece it together in a freestyling manner. The Desert Trail provided me with everything that my vagabond heart could desire. Still, it made me envision something even more isolated and exploratory that symbolized the epitome of wandering to me.
The GBT is a culmination of all those previous experiences. When I embarked on the GBT last May, I admit I didn’t want others to attain the personal experience I had out there, mainly because this adventure was a selfish one. However, within a week on the trail, I realized this trek would be enjoyed by most folks in the long distance hiking community. The route is rugged in spirit, isolated, remote, dry, hot and cold, extreme in nature, challenging, but most of all—fun. A route of this sort—one with no boundaries, a loop, and thematically dreamy—empowers an experienced long distance hiker to explore one’s whim, to walk something without boundaries, to feel immersed in an ecoregion that is enormous, to feel insignificant in this wide, wide world. These are all aspects of the “why” of what I seek, and I believe other hikers have, as well.
Within two weeks on the GBT, I had found more unmarked trails and unnamed paths in an area called the Lunar Crater that I knew right then and there that the hiking community and the Great Basin had something entertaining and challenging in this route. The route closely resembles the Nevada portion of the Desert Trail in navigational challenges, remoteness, lack of water, long resupply stretches, and terrain. That being said, since not many hikers have hiked the Desert Trail, I compare the GBT to a combination of the Hayduke and Oregon Desert Trails, with some parts overland, some parts bushwhacking, some parts remote dirt road walking, and some parts primo singletrack. While most of the Great Basin is a high desert, mountain ranges hold perennial creeks and basins contain flowing springs. Water is scarce and distant, but available for the hardy traveler.
The GBT is lonely, too. However, regardless of the harsh tendencies, I really believe the Great Basin is overlooked and should be experienced by other long distance hikers. It’s simply that good.
To me, the most alluring quality of the Great Basin Trail is in its loop, which circumnavigates the heart of the Great Basin. Anchored in the west by the lengthy Toiyabe Crest and Alta Toquima, the northern portion highlighted by the Diamond Range and the Ruby Crest, the east flanked by the High Schells and the tall Snake Range, and to the south that arid zone of the high deserts and ranges, the GBT encompasses an area that is solely contained in Nevada. It is a big difference to pass through something within a point-to-point trail, such as the PCT and CDT, touching multiple pulses within specific areas.
Within a loop, you are constantly in the core of an ecosystem and, within that core, 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 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 mountaintops down through lonesome canyons only to bubble up or run out into the basins that seep into the aquifers below. Because of the loop, the hiker is immersed in the Great Basin’s heart, so close to the throbbing life of what makes the soul of the place. The hiker becomes a part of the place, immersed in an area that will shape and transform them the rest of their life.
Ryan "Dirtmonger" Sylva is a prolific long distance hiker seeking the most challenging and wild routes and trails. He is prone to wandering like a coyote in the desert rather than following a line. He is likely to go thirsty and not care. His skin is weathered and one day he hopes the sun-searing brings about rough face wrinkles that show a history of time spent wandering in open spaces. Along with the GBT, the reader can find more information and stories on other routes, such as the Vagabond Loop and the Desert Trail at his website freedirtmonger.com. He also shares his photos on Instagram @paincave_uno.