One of the things our family loves about visiting America’s National Parks is the sense of wonder we feel from seeing something spectacular for the first time in person. We have plenty of books on National Parks sitting on our coffee table at home, but nothing really prepares you for seeing a National Park in person.
Great Basin is one of those National Parks that isn’t on most people’s radars. It hides in the shadows without the name recognition of some of its neighbors like Zion or Bryce Canyon. Even so, I suspect fans of the park like it that way. After all, it’s why Great Basin is an International Dark Sky Park and has relatively few visitors.
Despite its small size, you’ll find lots of awesome things to do in Great Basin National Park. The oldest living organisms on Earth live here. In the highest elevations, you’ll find Nevada’s only glacier. At its lowest point, Lehman Caves are a subterranean maze of active geology. There’s a lot going on at Great Basin!
We made a short visit to Great Basin National Park as part of our Utah road trip, and we’re glad we made the drive. It’s such a cool park, and we hope this guide will help you plan a visit in the near future.
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Things to do in Great Basin National Park
Touring Lehman Caves was a highlight of our trip, and because we visited in March when other parts of the park were closed due to snowfall, we were able to enjoy this cool aspect of Great Basin National Park. There are a couple of tours offered, and you’ll want to book ahead of time at Recreation.gov to make sure you get a spot on the tour.
We’ve visited spectacular Mammoth Cave National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park, both of which are amazing. What stood out to us about Lehman Caves were the smaller spaces that allowed us to see the unique geology of the caves in a way that felt a little more personal and less commercial.
Tours of Lehman Caves are offered all year, which means you can visit the park in winter like we did and still have a great experience. There were hardly any people visiting during our trip, and we felt like we had the place to ourselves.
You definitively don’t want to miss a tour of the caves, so be sure to book here before your trip.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
The Wheeler Park Scenic drive is a steep, 12-mile paved road that winds its way up towards 13,063 ft. Wheeler Peak, the highest point in the park. Along the drive are pull-outs, overlooks, picnic areas, and campgrounds that you can explore and view the gorgeous scenery and wildlife.
When you get to the top, enjoy one of the hikes to Stella or Teresa Lakes, or hike the 2.8 mile Bristlecone Trail and get a look at the oldest living things on the planet – the bristlecone pine trees. This parking lot is also the trail head to get to the summit of Wheeler Peak and to see the Wheeler Peak Rock Glacier. If you aren’t up for the strenuous hike to the glacier, it can be viewed from the road at the Wheeler Peak Overlook.
Wheeler Peak Road isn’t plowed, so depending on snowfall, it may not be open until June. During our visit in March, it wasn’t even close to open, but there are other winter activities you can do if you like. While we were a little disappointed we couldn’t drive to the top to see the bristlecones, we still enjoyed hiking up the road a bit to enjoy the views.
Astronomy and Campfire Programs
The International Dark Sky Association has recognized Great Basin National Park as an International Dark Skies Park, and with that comes some really cool programming to enjoy during your visit. One of the perks of being in the middle of nowhere is little to no light pollution, and Great Basin definitely fits the bill.
Stargazers can do their own viewing from places like Mather Overlook along Wheeler Peak drive, or you can check the event calendar and join a Park Ranger on one of their astronomy programs that take place throughout the year.
I really love their slogan “Half the park is after dark.” Go enjoy it!
Hiking Great Basin National Park
From short hikes around the Visitor Center to challenging summits to Wheeler Peak, there is a hike for everyone at Great Basin National Park. Many of the most popular trails can be found at the top of Wheeler Peak Drive, like the Bristlecone Trail, Sky Islands Forest Trail, and the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail. The Sky Islands Forest Trail is wheelchair accessible.
For those wanting to attempt the Wheeler Peak Summit, the trail is 8.6 miles round trip from the Wheeler Peak parking area. Be sure to start early in the day to avoid developing weather, carry plenty of water, and be sure to wear sunscreen (we carry SunBum with us).
For more information about hiking in Great Basin National Park, click here.
Find the Bristlecone Pine Groves
Typically each National Park has a signature reason for visiting – something that’s unique and worth protecting. For Great Basin, one of those is its ancient bristlecone pine trees. These sturdy trees have been growing here for thousands of years – like 5,000 years.
Unfortunately for our visit, the road was not yet open, and we couldn’t hike to the grove, but if you are visiting during the warmer months, don’t miss a trip up Wheeler Peak road to see them. The Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) only grows in higher elevations of eastern California, Utah, and Nevada. Bryce Canyon National Park is another good place to see them.
Winter in Great Basin National Park
Because of the park’s elevation, many of Great Basin’s roads are closed for several months due to snowfall. That doesn’t mean the adventure has to end though. The park has lots of opportunities to explore in the winter, including skiing and snowshoeing, along with touring Lehman Caves which are open all year.
Snowshoes are available to rent at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center for free if you’d like to give that a try, and ski and show shoe trails are open throughout the park.
If you want, you can also do some winter camping at either Lower Lehman Creek Campground (open all year) or set up in the backcountry.
For more information on experiencing Great Basin National Park in winter, click here.
Great Basin National Park weather changes rapidly, so be sure to keep an eye on it before and during your visit.
Camping at Great Basin National Park
If you’re interested in camping in Great Basin National Park, the park can accommodate RVs, trailers, primitive, and even backcountry camping. There are five campgrounds in the park that are open seasonally, but not all of them have RV hook-ups, so be sure to check first.
For more information on Great Basin National Park camping, click here.
Gather Pinyon Pine Nuts
During the fall, visitors are allowed to gather pine nuts from the pinyon pines in the park. These unique trees are the only pines on the continent that have a single needle leaf. The nuts are delicious, and can be used for many different things, including some of our favorite candies.
Be sure to read the guidelines here before you gather, and enjoy your harvest! Be sure to post pics of the tasty things you create with them (hopefully you don’t eat them all before you get home).
Getting to Great Basin National Park
Great Basin isn’t close to much of anything, so it will take some planning to get here. For our trip, we drove from Bryce Canyon National Park about 3 hours each direction to get to the park. That’s a little intense, but it worked best for our schedule, and driving State Highway 50 west into Nevada was a pretty cool drive.
The closest major airports are Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. However you arrive, be sure to fuel up before driving the final leg into the park. There are no services nearby and there is no public transportation.
Las Vegas to Great Basin National Park: 286 miles
Salt Lake City to Great Basin National Park: 234 miles
Places to stay near Great Basin National Park
If you’re not camping in Great Basin National Park, you’re overnight options are fairly limited. Nearby Baker doesn’t have much so you’d be better off staying somewhere a little further away. The largest town with the most options will be Provo, UT to the northeast or St. George, UT to the southeast – both about 3 hours away.
The town of Delta, UT is about one and half hours away and has a few options.
Great Basin is much more than we thought!
If you though that Nevada was nothing but flat desert, think again! With mountains, glaciers, and caves all in the same park, Great Basin has a lot to offer, so check it out.
Have you visited this out-of-the-way National Park?
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