Nevada’s forgotten national park
Wheeler Peak towers above Great Basin's alpine lakes. (JoAnna Haugen)
Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is a long way from anywhere. It is 234 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah (the closest big city), 183 miles from Bryce Canyon (the closest national park) and seemingly just as far off most traveller’s radars. Located near Highway 50 -- called “the loneliest road in America” -- this isolation is also what makes Nevada’s only national park a special place to visit.
The 90,000 people who visit the park annually (compared to the 3,394,321 people who visit the more famous Yellowstone National Park) are welcomed by groves of 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines, alpine glaciers, miles of deserted hiking trails and Wheeler Peak, Nevada’s second highest mountain at 13,063ft -- all under one of the darkest skies in the lower 48.
Unlike other many national parks, there is no entrance fee, and campgrounds are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, although finding an empty space is rarely a problem. The only firewood is provided by Ferg’s Firewood, a company that leaves bundles of wood at two 24-hour stations in nearby Baker and simply asks that people leave a $5 payment in good faith.
Notes from the underground
Lehman Caves is arguably the most popular attraction in the park. This stunning limestone cave is a very fragile natural environment of stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and more than 300 rare shield formations -- two round or oval parallel plates with a thin medial crack between them. Formations like this are only found in a handful of caves nationwide, such as Crystal Cave in California’s Sequoia National Park and Grand Caverns in Virginia. A limited number of people are allowed on the three cave tours, and purchasing tickets in advance is strongly suggested (775-234-7331 ext 242).
With a campsite and cave tour secured, you can explore Great Basin at your leisure. The Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, a 12-mile drive that winds through the park to Upper Lehman Campground, passes through several of the park’s ecological zones. In 4,000ft of gained elevation, visitors pass from the Great Basin Desert through the sagebrush oceans into mahogany tree wilderness. Higher still, there are groves of conifers and aspens, until, at 10,000ft of elevation, you are within the sub-alpine forests of the Snake mountain range.
On nature’s trail
Hiking in the Great Basin’s diverse eco-systems is one of the best ways to explore the park, because each of the 13 trails is different. Most range from two-and-a-half to nine miles round trip and though it may not feel like it, Great Basin National Park sits in a desert region, so frequent hydration is essential on any excursion.
The Mountain View Nature Trail is a short, leisurely walk through the fresh, pine-scented pinyon-juniper forest. With the trail guide in hand (on loan from the visitor centre), hikers get a quick overview of the geology and ecology of the area. The Lexington Arch Trail leads to a six-story limestone arch, while the Bristlecone Trail offers insight into the ancient trees that have resided in the Great Basin for thousands of years. Do not miss the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, which passes by the Stella and Teresa Lakes. This 2.7-mile loop is relatively simple to hike, but the views of Wheeler Peak towering overhead and the incredible stillness of the alpine lakes are awe-inspiring. For those seeking a true challenge, the strenuous 8.6-mile hike up to the summit of Wheeler Peak should be started early in the morning to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
In addition to hiking, the park has spectacular bird watching. A working checklist of the 136 bird species found in the park is available from the visitor centre. Fishing, climbing, horseback riding and wildflower viewing are also popular. Great Basin National Park is open year round, and visiting in the winter offers an even more intimate experience, one that few people have. From November to early May, the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and Backer Creek Road close to vehicle traffic and open to cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Trails are ungroomed but marked, and visitors must bring all their own equipment.
The night sky
Regardless of what time of year you visit, you will definitely see a night sky rarely experienced in the lower 48 states. Great Basin National Park’s isolated location, far from light pollution from cities and towns, has one of the darkest skies in America. On a clear, moonless night, visitors have a sweeping view of thousands of stars, star clusters, planets, meteors, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way, all of which are poured across nature’s largest canvas.