“Unknown” Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Most people have never heard of Great Basin National Park. Do a google search on the “best National Parks you’ve never heard of” and it’s included in many lists (National Geographic, Huffington Post, and more). Located in central Nevada on the eastern border near Utah – about a 4 hour drive from either Salt Lake City, Utah or Las Vegas, Nevada – it’s definitely off the beaten track – but it’s cool, esp. inside Lehman Caves!
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin achieved National Park status in 1986 and is named because it is located at nearly the geographic center of the Western Great Basin – an area consisting of most of Nevada, half of Utah and small parts of California, Oregon, and Idaho. The area is like a huge sink with no outlet to the ocean – no rivers exit the area. All precipitation that falls in the basin stays within the basin.
Getting there is part of the adventure
We happened to have a family gathering and high school football game in Salt Lake City and a sailing planning meeting in Las Vegas on consecutive weekends in September. What to do in between? Zion National Park was a logical choice (and we love it), but we have been there several times. Why not try Great Basin?
Our route from Salt Lake City took us through the town of Delta, Utah. Definitely not a big town but it’s the biggest you are going to see for quite a while. Be sure to top off the tank and your tummy here. Just outside of town we came across a mysterious shoe tree – gotta be a story there, but we didn’t pursue it. The road is stark, straight, and lonely for a long stretch.
[singlepic id=5229 w=400 h=480 float=left] As we got closer to the Nevada border, we saw what we thought was a large lake or reservoir. It even reflected the distant mountains beautifully. As our elevation gained, we could see that what we thought to be water, was actually a vast white sandy plain – a true mirage!
We snapped pics of both (the water mirage below and the sandy non-water left).
Can you imagine the disappointment for people crossing the desert 150 years ago?
Great Basin has quite a lot to do – especially for avid hikers and campers.
The park’s most famous features are the Lehman Caves (which were a National Monument prior to being incorporated into the National Park) and the Wheeler Peak scenic drive. Hiking trails at the end of the drive lead to the bristlecone pines, alpine lakes, a small glacier, and Wheeler Peak (the highest point in Nevada at 13,159 feet (4,010 meters). We only had about a day and a half to explore, so we stuck to the highlights.
Even though we were there in the off season, reservations are necessary to see the Lehman Caves. It is by tour only and led by a park ranger. Our ranger, Sarah, is fantastic! It’s obvious that she loves her job – she gave a very informative, funny and enthusiastic tour. We opted for the longest tour available – about 90 minutes. The caves are quite pretty with a variety of formations and colors and a lot of interesting history (with the scars to prove it). Check the website for a list of things to bring and things that are not allowed on the tour. Watch your head! Tom had a couple head bonks. Sheila gloated a bit at the advantages of her height, or lack thereof.
Wheeler Peak scenic drive
The Wheeler Peak scenic drive gains 4,000 feet of elevation in just 12 winding miles – be sure to put your car in low gear on the way down to save your brakes. Our timing was perfect, for as we approached the top, the aspens were nearing peak golds and temperatures were very comfortable for hiking. A small herd of cautious deer observed us taking our fall color pics.
At 4,000 years old, these bristecone pine trees are the oldest living things on earth!
With limited time, we did not attempt the trail to the Wheeler Peak summit. Instead, we opted for the hike to the bristlecone pines with views of the summit and side trips available to alpine lakes and a VERY small glacier. Bristlecone pines grow in isolated groves just below tree line. Conditions are harsh, with cold temperatures, a short growing season, and high winds. They grow very slowly, and in some years don’t even add a ring of growth. This slow growth makes their wood very dense and resistant to insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. Most scientists agree they are the oldest living things on earth, with some specimens over 4,000 years old.
After a 1.5 mile hike, the park has a short loop trail through the bristlecones with excellent informational signs. The gnarly, contorted trees make for interesting photos. The side trip to the alpine lakes was disappointing – the water level was very low due to a prolonged drought. And sadly, the glacier is almost gone and just looks like a patch of dirty snow (hardly picture worthy), but the summit views and the Bristlecone Pines make for a fun hike.
Sad little Baker
The closest (and really only) town near Great Basin National Park is Baker, Nevada. There is next to nothing here. There are only three restaurants and two of them were closed when we were there. The website for Lectrolux Café said they were open, but when we walked in, we were rudely greeted that they were closed. Groceries are hard to come by, so best to bring your own from home (or buy in Delta). We had one dinner and one breakfast at the Border Inn – a combination gas station, campground, small motel, small casino at (surprise!!) the border of Utah and Nevada on highway 6/50. Based on the looks of the place, we were pleasantly surprised at the prices, food, and friendly service. The only bar in Baker (at the campground) was already closed when we drove by after dinner at 9 PM.
Lodging is slim pickings, too. We read the reviews before we arrived and were not encouraged. We opted for The Getaway Cabin – basically a privately owned outbuilding converted into a small apartment. We had low expectations and they were met – actually not bad but the furniture and décor is all older than we are. At least we had our own kitchen and A/C! There probably aren’t any better options in Baker. We had planned to check out the lodging attached to LectroLux Cafe, but not after their rudeness. Biggest disappointment at The Getaway Cabin was the lack of promised wi-fi. When we called to tell the owner it wasn’t working, she was friendly, but bottom-line, no wi-fi.
Scenic route to Las Vegas
Rather than taking the quickest route from Baker to Vegas, we took the road that the atlas designated as “scenic”, highway 93 south. It was scenic in its own way – mostly due to the vast emptiness. Another reason for taking this route is that it leads to Cathedral Gorge State Park (near the town of Panaca, NV). Here we found interesting sandstone formations and we had a blast exploring numerous short slot canyons. We practically had the place to ourselves.
We continued the scenic route south and found beautiful reservoirs, lava flows, Joshua trees, and more desert panoramas. While zooming along at 60 mph, Tom saw something scuttling across the road in the distance but moving very slowly. What is that? A small squirrel? A big mouse? Nope…a fist-sized tarantula!
Great Basin National Park is worth a visit, especially if you like to get away from the crowds. The Lehman Caves are quite good and the Wheeler Peak drive is very scenic with lots of hiking options. But there is a reason that most people have never heard of it. It just doesn’t have as much variety as the famous Zion or Yosemite or Yellowstone. And the area has very little for facilities (restaurants, lodging, and groceries). In spite of that, we can still recommend it, and getting there is half the fun.
[singlepic id=5243 w=320 h=400 float=left]We aren’t campers, but we heard that the camping facilities in the National Park are quite good and visibility of the stars is amazing! Both Visitor’s Centers (one for Great Basin and one at Leyman Caves) are excellent. The Leyman Caves one even has a small cafe with great ice cream, plus nice locally made gift items.
RTG Helpful Hints
Learn more about Great Basin National Park on the NPS website.