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The Loneliest Road

Approaching Nevada from the east, travelers are greeted by the towering silhouette of Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet 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 the 77,000 acres 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 feet, 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. A variety of guided tours are conducted at intervals throughout the day; on some holidays and special events on summer evenings at 4:30pm, there’s a memorable candlelight tour. Tours leave from the small visitor center (775/234-7331, tours $8-10), which has details of hiking and camping options as well as exhibits on Great Basin wildlife—from birds and bats to mountain lions. There’s even a small summer-only café.

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. 66), which boasts a gas station, a great place to stay—the nine-room Stargazer Inn (775/234-7323, $72-and up)—as well as good food, beer, wine, and at Kerouac’s Restaurant & Bar (Wed.-Mon.). 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, 70 miles west, or in Delta, Utah, 85 miles to the east, so pass by at your peril.

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