Welcome to the extraordinary realm of Great Basin National Park, a true gem within the National Park System and a testament to the dedication of the National Park Service.
Nestled in the larger Great Basin of Nevada, the Great Basin boasts a captivating tapestry of landscapes that are anything but “just desert.” From the iconic ancient bristlecone pines standing tall amidst sage-covered foothills to the breathtaking alpine lakes cradled by towering mountains, each step here unveils scenic features that showcase the incredible diversity of nature.
This post is your ultimate guide to exploring the Great Basin’s wonders, where the fascinating bristlecone pine forests and mysterious caves in the west are matched by the mesmerizing dry landscapes in the east. Whether you’re seeking to spot elusive creatures or a nature lover longing to walk amidst stunning valley views, the Great Basin has a whole lot to offer.
Prepare to elevate your senses as we delve into the untamed beauty of this unforgettable location. So, let’s hit the highway for adventure and unravel the secrets of Great Basin National Park.
History of Great Basin National Park
The history of Great Basin National Park is a captivating journey that weaves together the diverse tapestry of this remarkable location. Situated in eastern Nevada, the park is defined by its iconic Wheeler Peak, which stands tall as the second-highest point among all national parks in the United States.
The story of the Great Basin began with the discovery of Lehman Caves in the late 19th century. Recognizing the significance of the area’s unique features, President Warren G. Harding designated the region as Lehman Caves National Monument in 1922. However, it was not until 1986 that the monument expanded and was re-designated as Great Basin National Park, encompassing not only the mysterious subterranean passages but also the pristine wilderness of the Snake Range and the ancient bristlecone pines that grace its mountainsides.
Long before becoming a national park, this vast area was inhabited by Native American communities that thrived amidst the sage-covered foothills and alpine lakes. The Great Basin region, named for its unique geological characteristics that trap water without it flowing into the sea, was once a shallow ocean millions of years ago.
The park’s rich geological history dates back to the times of Earth’s creation, and the bristlecone pine trees found here tell a tale of endurance and resilience, making them the oldest living trees on the planet.
Exploring the Great Basin today is an adventure like no other. Many roads lead to the park, whether you’re coming from Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, or other nearby towns. Once within its borders, visitors can drive along the scenic highway, take a walk, and check out elevations ranging from the valley floor to the lofty heights of Wheeler Peak.
Great Basin National Park offers a unique combination of mountain and cave landscapes that showcase the incredible diversity of the American West. So, embark on a journey to uncover the secrets of this extraordinary national park, where the past meets the present, and the wonders of nature await your exploration.
Key Facts about Great Basin National Park
Size: About 77,180 acres (312.3 km2).
Number of Visitors: 144,875 (in 2021).
Establishment: As a national monument on January 24, 1922, and a national park on October 27, 1986.
Number of Hiking Trails: 12 trails ranging from 0.3 to 13.1 miles (0.48 to 21.08 km).
Length of Hiking Trails: More than 133 miles (215 kilometers).
Lowest Point: The valley floor, between 6,000 and 7,000 feet (1,829 and 2,134 meters) above sea level.
Highest Point: Wheeler Peak, the second-highest point in all national parks, at 13,063 feet (3,982 meters) above sea level.
Other interesting facts about Great Basin Park
- Great Basin is home to the oldest living trees on Earth, the ancient bristlecone pines, some of which have thrived for over 5,000 years, revealing secrets of the distant past.
- Delve into the underground wonders of Lehman Caves (map), a limestone labyrinth that houses unique formations, including rare “shield” formations found in only a few places worldwide.
- Explore more than 40 miles (64 kilometers) of interconnected passageways within the Lehman Caves system, showcasing stunning stalactites, stalagmites, and delicate crystal formations.
- Designated as an International Dark Sky Park, Great Basin is an ideal destination for stargazing, where the absence of light pollution allows for a clear view of celestial wonders.
- The park’s diverse landscapes range from more than just desert valleys to alpine environments, harboring a fascinating variety of plants (Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Great Basin National Park and Adjacent Snake Range) and wildlife, including rare and endemic species.
- Discover the “Wheeler Peak Glacier,” a permanent snowfield often referred to as the “forever forest” due to its continuous presence even during the hottest summers.
- In the 1880s, Absalom Lehman, for whom the caves are named, accidentally stumbled upon this underground marvel while chasing a wounded elk.
- Scientists have used Great Basin’s bristlecone pines to construct an impressive tree-ring chronology that helps in dating archaeological sites and studying past climate variations.
- Great Basin’s hydrology is unique, with some streams flowing above ground in mountainous regions, while others flow below the surface, nourishing hidden ecosystems.
- Venture on high-altitude hikes to uncover the pristine Stella Alpine Lake and Teresa Lake, offering serene reflections of the surrounding peaks.
- The park’s limestone formations preserve significant paleontological evidence, including fossilized marine life, providing insights into ancient ecosystems that once thrived in the region’s ancient ocean.
Climate and Weather
Visiting the Great Basin means embarking on a journey through diverse climates and breathtaking landscapes, as this park in eastern Nevada encapsulates the essence of the larger Great Basin region.
With half the park lying above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) in elevation, the weather can vary significantly, offering a plethora of experiences throughout the year.
Spring (March to May)
As the snow begins to melt and temperatures rise, spring brings life to the park’s lower elevations. Visiting in March or April might still mean chilly temperatures ranging from 5°C to 15°C (41°F to 59°F), but the beauty of blooming wildflowers amidst the sage-covered foothills is an enchanting sight.
By May, the weather becomes more favorable for exploration, with temperatures reaching 10°C to 20°C (50°F to 68°F). Don’t miss the Lehman Caves Visitor Center (map) to explore mysterious subterranean passages that stay at 10°C (50°F) year-round.
Summer (June to August)
Summer unveils the grandeur of Great Basin National Park, with many roads and facilities fully open for visitors.
Temperatures during the day can climb to 25°C – 30°C (77°F – 86°F), making it perfect for activities like scenic drives or exploring ancient bristlecone pines on mountain slopes. At high elevations, however, the weather remains cooler, providing an ideal escape from the scorching heat of the larger Great Basin region.
Fall (September to November):
Fall is a particularly pleasant time at Great Basin, with daytime temperatures ranging from 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F).
Witness the captivating transformation of the park’s foliage as the landscape shifts from green to vibrant shades of orange and red. Fall is also the best time to venture into the South Snake Range (map) and its rugged terrain, enjoying activities like horseback riding while relishing the incredible diversity of this vast region.
Winter (December to February):
Winter blankets the Great Basin in a pristine layer of snow, creating a serene wonderland at higher elevations.
While low elevations experience mild temperatures averaging around 0°C to 5°C (32°F to 41°F), higher elevations can be considerably colder, with temperatures dropping below freezing. The Great Basin Visitor Center (map) remains open year-round, providing access to informative exhibits and the Resource Management Newsletter.
Whether you’re exploring the caves in the west, trekking the mountainous footpaths, or admiring the ancient bristlecone pines in the east, each season offers a unique perspective on this extraordinary national park.
When to Visit
The Great Basin offers a kaleidoscope of natural wonders throughout the year, making it a destination worth visiting no matter the season. However, certain times of the year may be more suitable for specific activities and experiences, ensuring an unforgettable adventure tailored to your preferences.
Spring (March to May):
Spring marks the awakening of life in the park, as temperatures start to rise, and the flora bursts into a vibrant array of wildflowers. This season is ideal for witnessing the rejuvenation of the low elevations, trekking through picturesque valleys, and exploring the Lehman Caves with pleasant temperatures inside the caves.
Summer (June to August):
Summer is the peak tourist season at Great Basin National Park, offering full access to roads and visitor centers. This is the best time to explore the higher elevations and indulge in various outdoor activities like camping and stargazing.
Be prepared for warmer temperatures at low elevations and cooler weather as you ascend higher into the mountains.
Fall (September to November):
Autumn presents a magical experience as the foliage transforms into a stunning array of fall colors. The pleasant daytime temperatures make fall an excellent time for wildlife watching and taking in the breathtaking scenery. September is particularly delightful, with mild weather and fewer crowds, making it an optimal time for a more tranquil visit.
Winter (December to February):
Winter enthusiasts seeking solitude and a snow-covered wonderland will find Great Basin National Park particularly enchanting. While some facilities may be closed, winter offers a unique opportunity for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and experiencing the serene beauty of the park’s higher elevations.
The Lehman Caves Visitor Center and the Great Basin Visitor Center remain open year-round, providing educational opportunities and exhibits.
Here is what you should know before embarking on winter hiking.
Packing the right gear is essential to fully immersing yourself in the wonders of the Great Basin and making the most of your visit. Whether you’re exploring mysterious subterranean passages or marveling at the dark skies and starlit night, being well-prepared ensures a safe and enjoyable experience in this diverse and captivating landscape.
- Sturdy Footwear: With a multitude of pathways like the Mountain View Nature Trail and opportunities for exploring on foot, comfortable and sturdy boots or shoes are a must. They’ll provide the necessary support for traversing the varied terrain, from the sage-covered foothills to the rocky mountain slopes.
- Warm Clothing and Layers: Great Basin National Park experiences significant temperature fluctuations, especially at varying altitudes. Prepare for colder evenings and higher elevations with warm layers, including a jacket, hat, and gloves. Even in summer, nighttime temperatures can drop significantly, so packing appropriate clothing ensures a comfortable stay.
- Headlamp or Flashlight: For night adventures and stargazing under the impressive dark skies, a reliable headlamp or flashlight is essential to ensure safety and visibility during your nocturnal explorations.
- Water and Snacks: Staying hydrated is crucial, especially in an arid environment. Bring a refillable water bottle and pack nutritious snacks to keep your energy levels up during your adventures. but here is more information about backpacking food ideas to ensure a successful stay.
- Sun Protection: With the sun shining brightly in the desert, don’t forget to pack sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses to protect yourself from the sun’s rays.
- Camping Gear (if applicable): For those planning a camping trip to fully embrace the natural surroundings, ensure you have appropriate camping gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, and camping stove.
- Camera and Binoculars: Capture the stunning beauty of the landscape, wildlife, and ancient bristlecone pines with a camera, and bring binoculars to enhance your wildlife-watching experiences.
- Maps and Guides: While the National Park Service provides information at visitor centers, bringing along detailed maps and guides [4MB JPG], outdoor navigation tools, and the NPS Park App ensures you can fully explore the park’s incredible diversity and plan your routes.
- First Aid Kit: Always have a basic first aid kit with you to address minor injuries like blisters or discomforts during your visit.
- Horseback Riding Gear (if applicable): If you plan to enjoy horseback riding, bring appropriate riding gear and equipment to explore the Great Basin from a different perspective.
Remember that Great Basin National Park offers limited services and facilities, so be self-sufficient and prepared for a lot of exploration and adventure.
Check out our single-day and multi-day hiking guides for more information on what to bring along.
What to Do in Great Basin National Park
The Great Basin caters to a wide range of interests, inviting you to engage with the landscape in unique and immersive ways. Whether it’s fishing by alpine lakes, gathering pine nuts as a culinary adventure, or marveling at the enchanting night skies, every activity presents an opportunity to create cherished memories amid the awe-inspiring wilderness of this extraordinary national park.
Hiking and Backpacking
The Great Basin is a haven for hiking enthusiasts, offering a plethora of paved and gravel pathways that cater to various skill levels and interests. Some of the trails you will find include, the easy Snake Creek Overlook Trail, Pole Canyon Trail to Baker Creek Trailhead, the historic Osceola Ditch, and the Upper Strawberry Trail.
Whether you’re seeking scenic viewpoints, serene alpine lakes, or immersive wilderness experiences, the park’s footpaths are a gateway to unforgettable adventures.
Best Hikes in Great Basin National Park
- Mountain View Nature Trail: This is a 0.3-mile (0.5 km) easy paved road loop suitable for all ages and skill levels. This leisurely hike offers stunning vistas of the Snake Range, Wheeler Peak, and the surrounding valleys. Interpretive signs along the trail provide insights into the park’s geology, flora, and fauna, making it an educational experience for families. You need approximately 30-45 minutes to complete, depending on the pace and stops for enjoying the scenic views.
- Lehman Creek Trail: This is a 6.4-mile (10.3-km) roundtrip moderately paved trail with some elevation gain and rocky sections. As you meander along Lehman Creek (map), you’ll be surrounded by lush riparian habitat. The trail leads to the impressive Lehman Caves Visitor Center, where you can explore mysterious subterranean passages with guided tours. It requires around 3 to 4 hours, including time spent inside the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
- Sky Island Forest Trail: This is a 0.4-mile (0.6-kilometer) roundtrip moderately paved road hike with a steady climb to the mountaintop. The journey cuts through a unique forest ecosystem atop the mountain, known as a “sky island.” This high-altitude hike offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape, especially during fall when the foliage displays vibrant colors. Plan for approximately 45 minutes to fully appreciate the scenery and take photos.
- Glacier (includes Bristlecone Grove): This is a 4.8-mile (7.7-kilometer) round trip moderately strenuous hike with a gain of over 1,100 feet (335 meters). The highlight of this hike is the ancient Bristlecone Pine Grove, where you’ll encounter some of the oldest living trees on Earth. The trail continues to the Glacier Overlook, offering breathtaking vistas of the surrounding landscape. Allocate about 3 to 4 hours to enjoy both the Bristlecone Grove and the Glacier Overlook.
- Pole Canyon Trail to Baker Creek Trailhead: This is a 3.9-mile (6.3-kilometer) one-way moderately strenuous hike, with a steady climb and rocky terrain. The Pole Canyon trail takes you through rugged terrain and diverse landscapes, offering an immersive wilderness experience. Wildlife sightings are common, and you’ll traverse through sage-covered foothills and towering mountain slopes. Plan for approximately 5 to 6 hours, depending on your pace and whether you choose to hike back or arrange transportation.
- Timber Creek Loop: A strenuous 5.1-mile (8.2 km) loop with some steep sections. This loop showcases the park’s diverse ecosystems, passing through meadows, aspen groves, and forests. Keep an eye out for wildlife sightings, and enjoy the peaceful ambiance of the wilderness. Allocate 4 to 5 hours to fully appreciate the natural beauty and diversity of the Timber Creek Loop.
- Baker & Johnson Lakes Loop: This is a strenuous 11.7-mile (18.8 km) loop with a gradual gain. This gravel road hike offers scenic beauty as you pass by two picturesque alpine lakes, Baker Lake (map) and Johnson Lake (map). The reflections of the surrounding mountains on the lake’s surface create a breathtaking scene. You will spend approximately 5 hours on this trail, including time for picnics and relaxation by the trail.
- Serviceberry Loop: A 3.2 mile (5.2 km) moderately strenuous loop with gravel and rocks. The Serviceberry Loop takes you through diverse habitats, from forests to open meadows. Enjoy the abundance of wildflowers in spring and summer and savor the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Allocate 3 to 4 hours to fully appreciate the scenery and immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the park.
- Dead Lake Loop: This is a strenuous 5-mile (8 km) loop with significant elevation gain and challenging terrain. This demanding hike rewards you with stunning vistas of the Great Basin region, including views of Dead Lake and Lexington Arch. In addition, this loop offers a remote and adventurous experience in the heart of the park. So, plan for a full day (approximately 5 to 6 hours) to complete and enjoy the incredible sights.
- Lexington Arch: A 3.6-mile (5.8 km) round trip moderately strenuous hike, with some steep sections and rocky terrain. The highlight of this hike is the fascinating Lexington Arch, a natural sandstone formation resembling an ancient bridge. The trail leads to a stunning viewpoint, offering fantastic photo opportunities. Expect to spend around 2 to 3 hours, including time to admire the unique geological feature.
Camping in the Great Basin offers a chance to embrace the serene beauty and tranquility of this captivating wilderness. With various camps to choose from, each offering a unique experience, you can tailor your stay to match your preferences and desired level of seclusion.
Lower Lehman Creek Campground: Located at a lower elevation, this campground is ideal for those seeking milder weather conditions. The soothing sounds of Lehman Creek add to the ambiance, creating a calming atmosphere for a restful night.
Here is a map of Lower Lehman Creek Campground.
Upper Lehman Creek Campground: Situated at a higher elevation, the Upper Lehman Creek Campground is a great option for those seeking cooler temperatures and a more remote camping experience. Surrounded by towering trees and rugged terrain, this campground offers a tranquil retreat amidst nature.
Here is a map of the Upper Lehman Creek Campground.
Wheeler Peak Campground: Positioned at the base of Wheeler Peak, this campground provides stunning mountain views and easy access to the park’s footpaths. It is a popular choice for those who wish to tour the alpine wonders of Great Basin National Park.
Here is a map of Wheeler Peak Campground.
Baker Creek Campground: This primitive campground caters to those seeking a more rustic experience. It offers limited facilities, making it an excellent choice for adventurous campers seeking to immerse themselves in the backcountry.
Here is a map of Baker Creek Campground.
Grey Cliffs Campground: Located on the park’s eastern side, Grey Cliffs Campground offers an opportunity to camp near the ancient bristlecone pines. The breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape make this campground a picturesque destination.
Here is a map of Grey Cliffs Campground.
Snake Creek Campgrounds: These primitive camps, located just outside the park, offer solitude and a chance to experience the rugged wilderness of the Snake Range. They provide a unique opportunity to camp amidst the natural beauty of the larger Great Basin region.
Grey Cliffs Campground: Situated on the park’s western side, Grey Cliffs Campground provides a unique experience of camping amidst high elevation meadows and valleys. The stunning views of Wheeler Peak and the surrounding landscape make this campground an ideal place to explore the park.
But you need reservations for group camping, which can be made here.
For those seeking a more adventurous experience, backcountry camping is permitted in designated areas within Great Basin National Park. However, a free backcountry permit is required for all overnight stays, ensuring a safe and sustainable experience while preserving the delicate ecosystem.
Also, remember to check the Great Basin’s backcountry regulations before visiting.
Camping Outside the Park
For those who prefer camping outside the park, there are opportunities for dispersed camping on public lands adjacent to Great Basin National Park. While camping on public lands, visitors should adhere to the specific rules and regulations governing those areas. Check with the managing agency for any necessary permits or restrictions.
Here are a few options worth checking out:
- Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest
- Bureau of Land Management
- Nevada Dept. of Transportation Roadside Rest Area
- Cave Lake State Park
Designated as a Dark Sky Park, Great Basin offers some of the darkest night skies in the country. With minimal light pollution, stargazers can revel in the brilliance of the cosmos, witnessing countless stars and celestial wonders above the stark beauty of the desert.
For a more relaxed adventure, you can take an auto tour along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, embrace the panoramic vistas of the surrounding landscape, and learn about the park’s geological and cultural history through informative signs along the way.
Delve into the enigmatic world beneath the earth’s surface with cave tours at Lehman Caves. Expert guides lead visitors through mysterious subterranean passages, unveiling an awe-inspiring world of unique formations and hidden chambers.
The Great Basin offers opportunities for wild caving for intrepid explorers. With proper equipment and guidance, venture into less-explored cave systems and unravel the secrets of the underground world.
Pine Nut Gathering
In late summer and early fall, pine nuts become ripe and ready for harvesting. Experience the cultural tradition of pine nut gathering, savoring the delectable nuts, and connecting with the land’s ancient heritage.
Experience the park’s winter wonderland through snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and winter hiking. Embrace the solitude and tranquility of the snowy landscape while exploring the park’s footpaths amidst the quiet beauty of the season.
For current snow conditions, email the NPS or call the park’s authority at (775) 234-7510.
Saddle up and journey through the vast landscapes of the park on horseback. Horseback riding offers a unique perspective, allowing you to cover more ground while connecting with the land in an authentic and immersive way.
Cycling enthusiasts can pedal along scenic roads, like the Great Basin Highway, enjoying the wind on their faces and the stunning vistas around every bend. Bicycling offers a leisurely and eco-friendly way to traverse the park’s wonders.
Where to Stay
Whether you seek an immersive wilderness experience within Great Basin National Park or prefer the comfort of nearby towns, a variety of accommodations cater to different preferences and travel styles.
Camping within Great Basin National Park: For those craving an authentic connection with nature, camping within the park’s boundaries is an ideal choice. Choose from a selection of camps, including Lower Lehman Creek, Upper Lehman Creek, and Wheeler Peak Campgrounds. These campgrounds offer basic amenities like picnic tables, fire rings, and restrooms.
Primitive Campgrounds: Consider primitive camps such as Baker Creek Campground if you prefer a more rustic experience. These sites provide a more secluded and adventurous camping experience while surrounded by the captivating desert landscape of Great Basin National Park.
Backcountry Camping: Backcountry camping is an option worth considering for the adventurous at heart. Obtain a free backcountry permit and venture into designated areas to experience the wilderness in its purest form, far away from the crowds and surrounded by untouched beauty.
Navigating Nearby Towns
A vehicle is beneficial if you need supplies or wish to go to any nearby town. Baker, Nevada, is the closest small town to the park and offers limited services, including a few dining options, lodging, and a gas station.
Ely, Nevada, located approximately 65 miles (105 km) from the park, provides more extensive amenities like grocery stores, restaurants, and lodging options.
Private Camps and Lodging in Nearby Towns
Several charming towns surround Great Basin National Park, offering alternative accommodation options and easy access to the park’s wonders.
- Whispering Elms Motel, Campground, and RV Park (Baker, NV): Located in Baker, Nevada, this family-owned accommodation provides motel rooms, cabins, and RV sites, making it a convenient base for exploring the park’s attractions.
- The Border Inn (Baker, NV): Situated near the park’s entrance, The Border Inn offers motel rooms, cabins, and RV sites. Enjoy the picturesque views of the Snake Range while indulging in their amenities and services.
- Hidden Canyon Guest Ranch (Ely, NV): For a unique and rustic experience, stay at Hidden Canyon Guest Ranch in Ely, Nevada. This working cattle ranch offers cozy cabins and a chance to embrace the peaceful ambiance of the surrounding wilderness.
- Ely KOA (Ely, NV): Ely KOA provides a comfortable and family-friendly camping experience with various site options, from tent camping to RV hookups, with amenities like a pool and a hot tub.
How to Get There
While it may seem remote, reaching the Great Basin from the east, west, north, or south is more accessible than you might think.
Here’s how to get there and navigate the beautiful landscapes within and around Great Basin National Park:
Both airports offer various domestic and international flight options.
From Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC):
You can rent a car at the airport and take a scenic drive through Utah and Nevada to reach Great Basin National Park after arriving at SLC. The journey will take you through picturesque landscapes and offer a taste of the diverse terrain that awaits you in the park.
- Distance to Great Basin National Park: Approximately 230 miles (370 km).
- Travel Time: Around 4.5 hours by car.
From McCarran International Airport (LAS):
Upon landing at LAS, rent a car to embark on a beautiful drive northeast into the heart of Nevada’s great wilderness. The route will take you through varying landscapes, from the desert plains of southern Nevada to the majestic mountains surrounding Great Basin National Park.
- Distance to Great Basin National Park: Approximately 290 miles (467 km).
- Travel Time: Approximately 4.5 to 5 hours by car.
Once you arrive at Great Basin National Park, having a vehicle is essential for exploring the park and its various attractions. While the park offers shuttle services during peak seasons, having your own transportation provides flexibility and convenience.
Scenic Drives: Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive: This 12-mile (19 km) drive takes you through diverse landscapes and offers access to numerous trailheads and viewpoints, including the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail.
Trekking the Trailheads: Most trailheads within the park are accessible by vehicle, allowing you to easily embark on your desired hiking adventures.
Great Basin National Park is a destination that offers something for everyone. From its pristine wilderness and captivating desert landscapes, the park provides an opportunity to appreciate nature’s beauty while engaging in activities like camping, hiking, and sightseeing.
Whether you’re looking for adventure or simply seeking some time away from it all, Great Basin Park is an ideal place to visit. Pack your bags and head for the hills.
Check out more exciting destinations in our National Park Guides section.