Visiting Great Basin National Park
Approaching Nevada from the east, travelers are greeted by the towering silhouette of Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 ft (3,982 m) the second-highest and most impressive mountain in the state; from the west, similarly sheer escarpments tower over lush green open range for miles and miles along US-50. In 1987 more than 77,000 ac (31,160 ha) around Wheeler Peak were designated Great Basin National Park, but its remote location has made it one of the least-visited national parks in the United States. Hikers and campers will have no trouble finding solitude amid the alpine forests, ancient bristlecone pines, delightful annual wildflowers, glacial lakes, and a small ice field.
Thanks to the well-maintained Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive climbing to over 10,000 ft (3,048 m), the wilderness areas are easily accessible to people willing to take a short hike, though many visitors go no farther than the park’s centerpiece, Lehman Caves. Geological forces have been sculpting Lehman Caves for roughly 70 million years, but they weren’t noticed until homesteader Absalom Lehman stumbled upon the small entrance to the caves in 1885. They were declared a national monument in 1922, and since then only minor improvements have been made, leaving the mind-bending limestone formations alone—no flashy light-and-sound show, just hundreds of delicate stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, aragonites, and the like. Check at the small visitor center (775/234-7331) to see if tours are available. It also offers details on hiking and camping as well as exhibits on Great Basin wildlife—from birds and bats to mountain lions. There’s even a small summer-only café.
Top Things to Do in Great Basin National Park
Tour Underground Caves
Rangers lead two cave tours (summer departing daily every two hours between 9am-3pm, spring and fall twice daily, winter once per day Fri.-Sun., adults $9-11, ages 5-15 and seniors $4.50-$6, kids under 5 free). Reservations (877/444-6777) are recommended up to six months in advance. The 60-minute Lodge Room Tour is 0.4 mile (0.6 km) long and perfect for kids. The tour passes through three main cave rooms—the Gothic Palace, the Music Room, and the Lodge Room. The 90-minute Grand Palace Tour is limited to children older than five. The 0.6-mile (1-km) tour includes the Lodge Room Tour with additional access to the Grand Palace, which holds the Parachute Shield.
Take a Scenic Summit Drive
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (June-Oct., weather permitting, no vehicles or trailer combos over 24 ft./7.3 m permitted) switchbacks 12 miles (19 km) along Lehman Creek toward 13,063-feet (3,981-m) Wheeler Peak. This extraordinary drive curves at 8,500 feet (2,591 m) where Wheeler Peak comes into prime view. Stop at Mather Overlook, at 9,000 feet (2,743 m), where the views are even better. The road keeps climbing, with the peak ahead and the vast valley behind, until reaching the parking lot for the Summit Trail. The scenic drive ends 1 mile (1.6 km) later at Wheeler Peak Campground.
Ride the Star Train
This International Dark Sky Park features a unique ranger-led experience. At sunset, board the Nevada Northern Railway (777/289-2085, select Fri. nights mid-May-mid-Sept., adults $42, kids $41) in Ely outside the park to ride into the dark night. When the train stops, Great Basin rangers trained in astronomy guide the stargazing through telescopes. Make reservations a year in advance, or check for available cancellations.
Food and Lodging Near Great Basin National Park
If you’re not camping and self-relying, or if you are and want a break, the nearest food and drink are at the foot of the park in the tiny, artsy, and friendly “town” of Baker (pop. 68), which boasts a gas station, a great place to stay—the nine-room Stargazer Inn (775/234-7323, $82 and up)—as well as good food, beer, wine, and at Kerouac’s Restaurant (May-Oct. dinner). Baker is also home to the main Great Basin National Park visitor center (775/234-7331), on the north side of town.
Back on US-50, straddling the Utah-Nevada border, the Border Inn Casino (775/234-7300) is a much more functional café-gas station-motel, open daily 24 hours. From here, the only other reliable services are in Ely, 62 mi (100 km) west, or in Delta, Utah, 96 mi (155 km) to the east, so pass by at your peril.