In a country with dozens of great national parks it makes sense that there would be some “orphan” parks that are only rarely visited. Such is the case with Great Basin National Park in Nevada. It gets 90,000 visitors annually compared with 3,500,000 for Yellowstone National Park. Part of the reason for this is the park’s remoteness; you REALLY have to want to visit it as there’s nothing else around for several hundred miles.
We traveled to Baker, Nevada from Twin Falls, Idaho, the drive taking us through one of the most unpopulated portions of the lower 48 states. This region is known as the Great Basin desert — a large stretch of land extending from the rain-shadow of the Sierra Nevada in California into southeastern Oregon and southern Idaho, encompassing most of Nevada and western Utah — almost 200,000 square miles. It’s characterized by mountain ranges and flat valleys, hot summers, cold winters, and the lack of any of its precipitation draining to an ocean (all the moisture that falls here is absorbed by plants or the ground, or evaporates). The scenery is nice but not the breathtaking beauty of the Rockies or Cascades. There are pretty mountain ranges dotted with pines and junipers, and desert valleys filled with an endless sea of sage plants. Some might call it desolate but if you did then you’re just not looking hard enough. So part of the experience of visiting this park is the journey through the vast Great Basin desert to get there.
Great Basin National Park lies in eastern Nevada and protects 77,000 acres of the South Snake Range near Utah. Created in 1986, it is an excellent example of a mountain “island” ecosystem. Before the end of the last Ice Age, the Great Basin was a lush area filled with many lakes and a rich growth of plants. As the glaciers melted, a desert environment developed. The cooler environment provided by the mountain range allowed forests of pine and even a small glacier to persist below Wheeler Peak, one of the park’s iconic symbols and, at just over 13000 feet high, the tallest peak in the area.
The best way to explore the area is to first stop at the Visitor Center for an introduction to the Park. From here it’s just a few miles into the park, where you begin the Wheeler Peak Scenic drive, a 12 mile road that gains almost 3500 feet in altitude and which takes you through varied habitats, going from desert sage to pinyon pine-juniper forest, then into lush forest of Engleman spruce and Douglas fir. The road ends in a subalpine forest of limber pine, aspen, spruce, and even a few stands of rare Bristlecone pines, the oldest trees on the planet (some almost 5,000 years old). There are at least half dozen trails worth hiking, including the Bristlecone-Glacier trail that takes you into an impressive stand of ancient Bristlecone pines. The trail ends at a glacier remnant, the last in Nevada. Another trail takes you to a string of beautiful alpine lakes, and another steep hike takes you up the spine of the mountain to top of Wheeler Peak. The trails are in excellent condition and offer wonderful views of the basin desert and the jagged mountain peaks. The park is at high altitude and the most interesting trails lie above 10,000 feet so be prepared for the risks and adventure altitude poses.
Also in the park is Leahman Cave, accessible year round with an ambient temperature of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so dress warmly if visiting. The cave has beautiful formations including stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and shield formations. There are several different tours available but as we were traveling with my wheel-chaired mother-in-law, we did not visit the cave this time around. Still I’d recommend the cave tour because it seems to be a beautiful sight.
The park also offers trout fishing in its streams, bird and wildlife watching, and a clear night sky which is excellent for star gazing and basic astronomy. It’s worth walking around after dark to see a night sky or to participate in one of the ranger star-gazing programs (it is cool in the desert night sky so be sure to have a warm coat at hand). Whenever I’m in a remote place on a clear night I love to head out and gaze at that star filled sky!
Somewhat of a drawback to your visit here is a relative lack of travel services. Baker, Nevada, is a small town close to the park with few hotel rooms or restaurants. There’s one gas station. The park has four lovely spacious campgrounds, set in the beautiful mountains and forests. I’ll stay at one of these during my next visit.
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