Nevada's Gem: A Complete Guide to Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park | Introduction

Great Basin National Park (Great Basin National Park), located in Nevada, was established in 1986 and spans over 77,000 acres. This park displays the geological and ecological features of the Great Basin region in North America. However, in reality, the park itself only makes up a small portion of the entire Great Basin area. The boundaries of the Great Basin in North America extend west from the Sierra Nevada to the east, east to the Wasatch Mountains, south to the Snake River Plain, and north to the Mojave Desert, covering an area from California to Utah, and from Idaho to Mexico. The entire region is actually about 200,000 square miles, making it a vast basin. This basin is unique because it is not adjacent to any ocean but has formed its own river system and ecosystem. The best season to visit Great Basin National Park is in the fall when the autumn scenery is exceptionally beautiful.

Some of the highlights in Great Basin National Park include:

  • The most well-known Wheeler Peak, standing at 13,063 feet, is the highest mountain in the park.
  • The oldest tree in North America - Bristlecone, these trees can be thousands of years old.
  • The vast Lehman Cave limestone cave system.
  • Due to its distance from urban light pollution, the park boasts one of the darkest night skies in the United States, making it an excellent spot for stargazing.

Great Basin National Park | Transportation

Compared to some famous national parks that see millions of visitors each year, Great Basin National Park has a relatively low visitor count. It lacks public transportation or tour groups, making it suitable for those who prefer a quiet enjoyment of nature. Visitors need to drive themselves to Great Basin National Park. The nearest major cities are Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. It's about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Las Vegas and around four hours from Salt Lake City.

Although it's a bit farther, actually, driving to Great Basin National Park also offers many scenic spots to stop at along the way. This article provides a road trip itinerary for reference.

Great Basin National Park | Accommodations

Within The Park

The only accommodation option within Great Basin National Park is camping. While the Lower Lehman Creek Campground is open year-round, other campsites are closed during the colder seasons.

Off-site Accommodation

The nearest small town to the park is Baker, which has a few small hotels and bed and breakfasts, such as Stargazer Inn, Hidden Canyon Retreat, and others, offering more comfortable accommodation options near the park. If you're looking for more or higher-end hotels and restaurants, consider heading to the town of Ely, which is about an hour's drive away.

Looking for a stay in Baker?

Looking for a stay in Ely?

Recommended Accommodation | Hidden Canyon Retreat

Hidden Canyon Retreat is located near Baker but not in the town center. It's a bit further away, nestled in a secluded canyon. However, due to its well-equipped guest rooms, it has an especially high rating among accommodation options in Baker and is one of the most popular hotels in the area.

We originally planned to camp on this trip, but due to the cold weather, we decided to look for accommodation in Baker instead. Since other rooms were fully booked, we chose to stay in a cabin. The cabin, different from other rooms, is a more modest and relatively cheaper option. Our stay cost less than 100 US dollars per night. With only four cabins available, the room facilities are quite basic, but considering the price, I have a very good opinion of this lodging. Given the remote location of Great Basin National Park and the limited number of restaurants in Baker, it was convenient that, although the cabins don't include breakfast like the other rooms, there's a small store on-site to buy groceries. There's also a BBQ area in front of the cabins, which made it comfortable and convenient for us to solve our meal problems each day. In the evening, we could sit by the fire and stargaze, and in the morning, we could see herds of deer. It's a place very suitable for getting close to nature. However, if you're very particular about sleep quality, I recommend choosing a regular room, as the beds in the cabins are not very comfortable.

Recommended Accommodation: Hidden Canyon Retreat

Great Basin National Park | Itinerary

The main attractions of Great Basin National Park are centered around Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and Lehman Cave, both accessible from the entrance near Baker. At the fork in the road, turn left for Lehman Cave and right for Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. For reference, see the National Park Map. The attractions are quite concentrated and not far from the entrance, so they don't require much travel time. Typically, visitors can plan a day trip if they are only considering the mandatory Bristlecone/Alpine Lakes Trail at the end of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. However, considering the travel time to and from the park and the need to schedule the Lehman Cave Tour, a two-day, one-night trip would be more relaxed. If you want to summit Wheeler Peak, it's advisable to add an extra day.

For your itinerary, it's recommended to divide your plan into three areas. Apart from Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and Lehman Cave, if you have extra time, consider visiting the beautiful hiking trails in the Snake Creek area, which is another distinct section of the park.

Great Basin National Park | Sights and Trails

Baker | Visitor Center

Before entering the national park, you can stop at the visitor center in the town of Baker, where all information related to Great Basin National Park is organized and available.

Must See | Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive

Entering from the Baker entrance, a right turn leads you onto Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. This scenic route winds up the mountain, passing by some major viewpoints. In summer, the route ends at Wheeler Creek Campground, where the park's main attraction, the Bristlecone-Alpine Lake Trailhead, is located. Even if you don't plan to hike the trails, this scenic drive is definitely worth spending an hour driving on, as you can see the magnificent Wheeler Peak along the way. The fall colors along the road are exceptionally beautiful when autumn arrives.

Overlook | Mather Overlook

One of only two viewpoints on Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, this is my preferred spot for enjoying the view. In autumn, you can see beautiful fall scenery here, as well as a distant view of Wheeler Peak.

Overlook | Wheeler Peak Overlook

The other viewpoint, Wheeler Peak Overlook, is closer to Wheeler Peak, allowing for a clearer view of the summit. However, most of the view from this overlook is obscured by trees. This photo was taken with a 5x zoom.

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Must See | Trails | Alpine Lakes - Bristle Cone - Glacier Loop

Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive leads directly to the Bristlecone-Alpine Lake Trailhead, which is the starting point for several trails and a highlight of Great Basin National Park. For a day trip, it's common to drive the entire Scenic Drive and then choose one or two trails to hike here.

The more popular trails starting from this trailhead include Alpine Lakes, Bristlecone Grove, and Glacier Trail. If walked separately, Alpine Lakes is a 2.7-mile round trip, Bristlecone Grove is 2.8 miles round trip, and the longer Glacier is 4.6 miles round trip. It's advisable to combine them to save time, either as Alpine Lakes + Bristlecone Grove or Alpine Lakes + Bristlecone Grove + Glacier in a loop trail. We eventually chose to combine all three trails in one day, making it a little over 5 miles for Alpine Lakes + Bristlecone Grove + Glacier.

Walking in a clockwise direction, we first headed to Alpine Lakes, a trail mainly featuring two lakes and relatively easy and flat. The beginning overlaps with the route to summit Wheeler Peak and offers some autumnal colors. Initially, the trail passes through pine and spruce forests with Wheeler Peak visible ahead. After a 400-foot ascent, we reached the first lake, Steller Lake. One mile past Steller Lake, we arrived at the second lake, Teresa Lake. Both lakes are quite shallow and don't have fish.

After passing through a relatively steep downhill section, we connected to the path leading to Bristle Cone and Glacier. Upon reaching the Ancient Bristle Cone Pines Grove, we saw a sign for an interpretive trail loop that goes around to view the Bristle Cone Pines. These plants grow in environments at altitudes of 9,000 to 11,500 feet. They are characterized by extremely slow growth and strong adaptability, contributing to their long lifespan, making them one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. The oldest living Bristle Cone Pines are over 5,000 years old. Some of the Bristlecone Pines we saw are prehistoric remnants, now dead.

After completing nearly a full loop of the Bristle Cone loop, there is a fork in the path that connects to the Glacier Trail to continue forward to see the glacier. If time is limited and the plan is only to walk the Bristle Cone and Alpine Lakes trails, you can continue on the loop to head back from here.

The Glacier Trail is a more challenging path, labeled as moderate difficulty by the national park. Although the slope is not steep, the trail is covered with large, loose rocks, making it difficult to navigate. The glacier still exists, but it's no longer visible. The rocky area we walked on was once part of a vast glacier, which has now receded to just a small portion, with the remaining ice buried beneath the gravel under our feet. At the end of the trail, even though we couldn't see the glacier, we felt an intensely cold breeze, as if standing in front of a refrigerator; that's where the glacier is. It's expected that within five years, the remaining glacier will completely disappear.

Although the glacier is nearly gone, the trail leading to it is directed towards Wheeler Peak. The round-trip journey through the glacier valley actually offers quite spectacular views.

Trails | Sky Island Forest Trail

If you're still not satisfied after returning to the Bristlecone-Alpine Lake trailhead, there's another very accessible nature trail nearby. The Sky Island Forest Trail, a mere 0.4-mile loop, is the only trail in the park that is wheelchair accessible.

Trails | Lehman Creek Trail

The trailhead for Lehman Creek Trail is located inside the Upper Lehman Creek Campground. Even if you're not camping, Upper Lehman Creek Campground is worth a visit to see the beautiful surrounding scenery, especially in autumn when the fall colors are stunning. You can park at the trailhead parking area.

The Lehman Creek Trail is a total of 6.2 miles round trip. If you walk the entire trail, you will pass by Osceola Ditch and Meadow Views. Osceola Ditch is a channel that was constructed in 1872 when gold was discovered near Baker. It was built to meet the water needs for gold panning, initially intending to divert water from Lehman Creek, but the project was ultimately unsuccessful.

Must See | Lehman Cave

Lehman Cave is a vast underground cave system. To enter Lehman Cave, you must join an official guided tour. The spots are limited and require advance online reservations. Generally, two types of tours are available. The Lodge Room Tour lasts 60 minutes and has a simpler route, suitable for children under five. The Grand Palace Tour lasts 90 minutes and is open to participants aged five and above. The meeting point is at the Lehman Cave Visitor Center. We participated in the Grand Palace Tour, which offered very thorough explanations.

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As we initially descended into the cave, it felt quite narrow in many places, with some passages requiring us to duck our heads and be cautious of slippery, wet ground. The rock layers of Lehman Cave were formed over 500 million years ago, and the cave itself formed about 8 million years ago. Inside, we could see rare cave shields (Cave shield formations). Due to its unique terrain, in 1965, a sci-fi movie titled "The Wizard of Mars" was even filmed here.

We stopped in a large cave chamber known as the Inscription Room, where, if you look closely, you can see numerous inscriptions on the ceiling. These inscriptions were left by visitors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's said that back then, without any trails, people used to painstakingly climb through a narrow opening seen in old photos, carrying candles. Upon entering, they would use these candles to smoke-sign their names on the ceiling as a memento. After Lehman Cave became part of the national park, the park authorities once considered removing these inscriptions for aesthetic reasons. However, they later realized that cleaning them off would damage the rock layers and prevent the stalactites from continuing to form. So, they decided to leave them as is, and now these inscriptions have become a unique feature of the cave.

Continuing forward to the Lake Room, here we can see many stalactites hanging over the pools, creating a surreal scene. These pools are actually formed by the melting snow from the surface seeping into the rock layers and eventually accumulating underground. So, due to changes in external climate, the underground landscape gradually changes as well. One hundred years ago, the original pool area was much larger, but over time, due to dry weather, some of the pools disappeared. Because visitors at that time were disappointed, the park management once sent people to water the area in hopes of recreating the pool scene. However, it was soon discovered that the rock layers on the ground were being damaged by the use of external clean water. We can now see that the rocks on the ground here have become like crushed sand, so this practice was stopped

Finally, we will enter the Grand Palace. This is a considerably large stone chamber with enormous stalactites, stalagmites, and stone columns. You can also see a unique cave formation known as "Cave Bacon." Cave Bacon typically appears as thin slices with transparent edges and colorful centers, resembling slices of cooked bacon. The colors of the bacon can range from pale yellow to deep red or brown. These colors are a result of water droplets containing iron and other minerals evaporating and depositing on the cave ceiling.

After leaving the cave, we can continue walking along the trail in the direction of the exit towards the Visitor Center, which is 0.3 miles away. The entire landscape that we see along the trail used to be a large lake in ancient times. It was due to the continuous seepage of lake water into the ground that Lehman Cave was formed.

Learning about the history of Lehman Cave from the surface is also quite fascinating. First, we pass by the Original Entrance, which is a naturally formed entrance that allowed people and animals to enter and exit the cave long before it became a tourist attraction. The local indigenous people also used the chambers inside Lehman Cave as gathering places. Later, in 1900, due to the demand for tourism and other purposes, a new entrance was developed, and the Original Entrance was no longer used. The Original Entrance that we see today is enclosed to allow bats and other animals to come and go.

The beginning of white people operating businesses related to tourism in this area dates back to 1885 when Absalom Lehman discovered this cave. After discovering the cave, he initiated basic development here and even built his own home nearby. On the trail, we can still see remnants of his former orchard and irrigation channels. Eventually, the cave was named after him and became known as Lehman Cave.

Before walking back to Lehman Cave Visitor Center, you will see a small cabin, Rhode's Cabin, where Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes came after Lehman in 1920 and built a resort to operate the Lehman Cave sightseeing business. Lehman Caves National Monument was established in 1922, and became a national park in 1933. Inside the cabin, the price of the room was explained. In 1928, the cabin had no flooring, no electricity, only wood and a stove, and the price of a night's room was $1.00, and if you wanted Mrs. Rhodes to provide you with dinner, you would be charged an additional 0.6 USD.

Trails | Snake Creek Area | Serviceberry Trail

The Snake Creek area is indeed less frequented by tourists, and it's not prominently marked on the official National Park maps. It's only briefly mentioned in the Visitor Center introduction. However, this area offers some incredibly beautiful hiking trails, making it worth spending half a day here, especially if you're visiting to enjoy the autumn scenery. The entrance to this area is not in Baker but closer to the southern Garrison area.

We walked the Serviceberry Trail this time, which is 3.2 miles long, making a loop uphill and then downhill back to the starting point. Because we had to cross over the hill to the other side, the weather was sometimes cold and sometimes hot, so it's important to bring suitable clothing. At the beginning, we walked along the river, and then there was a one-mile uphill climb, ascending to an elevation of 8,000 feet. After crossing over the hill, the autumn colors were truly beautiful, with hills and valleys covered in yellow and orange trees. The uphill portion of the trail was moderately challenging, primarily due to the high altitude, but the path was sandy and easy to walk on.

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