Best Things to Do in Great Basin National Park
From the moment you enter Great Basin National Park, you'll find that there's more than vast desert in Nevada. Located about 300 miles north of Las Vegas in east central Nevada, Great Basin is a very diverse national park! You'll discover the second highest peak in the state, sage-covered foothills, Bristlecone Pines, mysterious subterranean passages, and some of the darkest night skies in the country!
It truly is a different world in this lesser-visited and remote national park. In fact, when I was driving to the park, the map on the navigation system labeled Highway 50 as “The Loneliest Road in America.”
Know Before You Go
The Great Basin Visitor Center is located just outside the park and is open during the summer months. If your visit is anytime from fall through spring, you will want to visit the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, which is inside the park. Most of the park rangers are here; they are great resources for questions and up-to-date information.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
A true mountain road, Great Basin’s scenic drive is a 12-mile extravaganza of mountain-hugging road and horizon-reaching vistas. The drive begins at the park boundary on Highway 488 and ascends 4,000 feet to the face of Wheeler Peak (at 10,000 feet above sea level). Along the way, visitors will cross several ecological zones with a surprising diversity of life. It is not uncommon to encounter mule deer, coyotes, marmots, and jackrabbits along the climbing road. During summer rains, the captivating aroma of sagebrush fills the air at the lower elevations. As you climb higher, the sagebrush gives way to Pinyon Pine and then mountain mahogany wilderness, with aspen and conifer forests along the way.
Lehman Caves Tour
By far the most popular attraction in the park, be sure to book this ranger-led tour in advance, as they tend to sell out quickly. The cave tours are offered year-round except for major holidays and give you a detailed look into different sections of the caves. Learn the ecology, geology, and history of these amazing caves. Two different guided tours are offered – the Grand Palace Tour and Lodge Room Tour.
Hiking in Great Basin National Park
The best introduction walk is the Mountain View Nature Trail, at just 1/3 mile in length. It’s an easy walk through a pinyon-juniper forest. The Sky Island Forest Trail is just under ½ mile through a high alpine conifer forest and is wheelchair accessible. At the Bristlecone Trail, make your way through a grove of ancient trees, with interpretive signs explaining the various points of interest. This trail continues to the Glacier Trail and the only glacier in Nevada.
A wonderful longer hike is the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail. At 2.7 miles long, it takes you to two gorgeous alpine lakes, named Teresa and Stella Lakes. On this hike, you’ll get stunning views of Wheeler Peak. For hikers who seek something more challenging, Lehman Creek and Wheeler Peak Summit Trails will take visitors through different habitats, showcasing the diverse landscape. The summit trail, in particular, can be a beast with occasional high winds and some scrambling over terrain. However, the view at the top cannot be beaten. There are several other hikes to choose from, all at higher elevations, with different ability levels.
Whether you are a hiking novice or an experienced backpacker, there is something for you in Great Basin. If you are looking to do some serious hiking, stop by the visitor center to pick up a backcountry camping permit. While they are not required, registration is free and permits are strongly encouraged; it’s also good as a safety measure so that the park knows where you are.
Walk Amongst the Longest Living Things on Earth
The Bristlecone Pines are a big attraction in Great Basin. With the ability to survive in harsh conditions, these trees are the longest living giants on the planet. Due to the high elevations, colder temperatures, and windy conditions, these trees grow very slowly. Consequently, the wood is very dense with fascinating twisted features, making them resistant to insects, fungi, and erosion. They are found in lower elevations but do not live as long. The three bristlecone pine groves in the park are Wheeler Peak Grove, Mount Washington Grove, and Eagle Peak Grove. Wheeler Peak is the most accessible grove, while the other two are more difficult to reach.
Admire the Night Sky
Designated as an International Dark Sky Park, Great Basin attracts astronomy lovers the world over. On a clear night, one can view an expansive playground on view with five planets, satellites, the Milky Way, and the Andromeda Galaxy, all with the naked eye. If you’re wondering how this is possible, you have combination of high elevation, low humidity, and minimal light pollution to thank, creating the best conditions for night sky viewing. The park offers astronomy programs that typically run from April through October on select nights.
Bird Watching and Wildflower Viewing
Several species of birds can be found at Great Basin in this higher elevation environment. Look for Pinyon Jay, White-crowned Sparrow, Mountain Bluebird, Mountain Chickadee, Say’s Phoebe, and several types of hummingbirds, among others. Be sure to stay on designated trails and roads, which offer the best opportunities for bird watching.
The diverse habitats on Great Basin give rise to hundreds of species of wildflowers, perfect for the avid photographer. Typically, wildflowers are abundant in the lower elevations in Springtime, and at higher elevations later on in the season.
Amazing Fishing at Great Basin
As long as you have the required license, which is easy to obtain, fishing in Great Basin National Park can be enjoyable and rewarding. The best locations to fish are Lehman Creek near the Upper Lehman Campground, where anglers can expect to find plenty of brook, brown, and rainbow trout. At Baker Creek, several fishing spots off Baker Creek Road offer high densities of brown and brook trout throughout. Snake Creek contains native Bonneville cutthroat trout. All fishing spots encourage catch and release fishing to promote population growth. Be sure to adhere to current local fishing consumption advisories.
Click here to see the Great Basin National Park Poster!
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!
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