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.
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.
from the underground
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.
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
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.
For those particularly interested in the stars, take
advantage of the park’s weekly
astronomy programs, where rangers offer star-themed talks and viewing
opportunities through park-provided telescopes, or workshops
offered during the summer Astronomy
Compared to the height of Wheeler Peak and the age of
the bristlecone pines, Great Basin National Park has a way of making a person
feel small and young. But before too long, it will be time to pack up, start
your car again and drive another 200 or more miles back into a world where
someone collects money for firewood, reservations are a must and the night sky
is just that thing above your head.