As the elevation changes from 5,000 to 13,000 feet at Nevada’s Great Basin National Park (GNBNP), so does the landscape, revealing subalpine lakes and streams, varied wildlife, lush forests and a fascinating system of caves. Near the park’s pinnacles, in the nation’s only cold desert, you’ll find ancient bristlecone pines — some more than 4,000 years old.
These unique mountain environments (a “series of oases,” as the park’s Chief of Interpretation Nichole Andler puts it) are known as “sky islands,” with glacier-topped Wheeler Peak towering above the rest.
Exploring them is like traveling through several of the world’s ecosystems, all within Nevada.
While part of the area was set aside as Lehman Caves National Monument 100 years ago, it was only expanded and made an official national park in 1986. It’s still unassuming, despite that elite status, located on only 77,180 acres in an isolated section of White Pine County in eastern Nevada — less than 10 miles from U.S. Highway 50, known as the “Loneliest Road in America.”
Given its location, it’s one of the country’s least-visited national parks, with only 120,248 visitors in 2020, and is rarely crowded. Here are some tips for getting the most from this quiet, beautiful place.
The nearest airport to GBNP is 142 miles southeast in Cedar City, Utah — and getting from there to the park’s closest gateway city of Baker (population 60) requires driving along at least a small portion of the remote U.S. 50. There are more flights in and out of Las Vegas, but then you must drive 300 miles north to Baker, on U.S. Highway 93, another desolate drive. From Baker, it’s a short 5 miles to the park on Nevada State Route 488. Note that Baker is the last place to pick up food and limited supplies or get gas before entering the park. Also before heading to GBNP from Baker, stop in the Great Basin Visitor Center for park information, educational exhibits, a gift shop, a bookstore and restrooms. If you bypass that center, a second one with similar offerings is inside the park at Lehman Caves.(See below for more information on where to stop en route to the park.)
There is no Wi-Fi in the park, making cell reception spotty throughout.
Location: Eastern Nevada, near the Utah border
Highest point: Wheeler Peak summit, 13,060 feet above sea level
Lowest point: Mountain View Nature Trail, 6,825 feet above sea level
Main attraction: Bristlecone pines, Wheeler Peak Glacier and Lehman Caves
Entry fee: None
Best way to see it: By car or by foot
Peak season: May to October
When to go
The park is open year-round, but the weather conditions vary dramatically by seasonal, with an average winter low of 18 degrees in January and an average high of 86 in July. Unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms sometimes catch summer visitors off guard, while snow blankets the park as early as October and through May in some years. June through September provide the most diverse options for visitors as melting snow gives way to bubbling creeks and hundreds of species of colorful blooms at the varied elevations, some endemic to the park. On hot days in the valley there still may be snow at the higher elevations; skin protection is crucial at all elevations, so don’t forget sunscreen.
Where to stay
Campgrounds. You won’t find any hotels in GBNP, but there are five developed campgrounds, three with accessible sites, and all with vault toilets, picnic tables, tent pads and campfire grills. Reservations are necessary during peak season ($20 to $30 per night, recreation.gov).
Not far from Lehman Caves, among aspens, fir and a snow-fed creek, Lower Lehman Creek Campground, off Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, is the only campground that’s open year-round. Undeveloped campsites along the Snake Creek River were inherited from the U.S. Forest Service. These are no-frills primitive sites without drinkable water, toilets, tent pads or grills, but they are free to campers. The park also allows backcountry camping in much of its wilderness areas for free. Registration is not required but strongly encouraged for campers’ safety.
Baker. Outside the park, the closest lodging option is the funky Stargazer Inn, which sits along Nevada State Route 487 in Baker, a sleepy little artist community.The pet-friendly motel houses 10 simple, motel-style rooms and suites complemented in front by a quaint courtyard with seating, a garden and potted flowers, and in back by patios. The inn’s new owners recently opened the Bristlecone General Store — with groceries, books, hardware and all the “things travelers need” — in the former restaurant space. About 8 miles north of Baker, slot machines leave no doubt that the Border Inn Casino — with 29 rooms, an RV park, arcade and pool table — sits on the Nevada side of the state border.
Ely. An hour’s drive west of the park, there are several places to stay in Ely (population 3,924), the largest town in Nevada’s White Pine County. The six-story Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall, a Prohibition-era hangout that opened in 1929, was once the state’s tallest building. Other options include the locally owned Bristlecone Motel and a handful of chain motels.
Where to eat
In the park. Great Basin Cafe and Gift Shop, conveniently located next to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center inside the park, is open April through October and serves up a full menu of comfort food, ranging from a simple house salad to the stacked smokehouse nacho fries. For dessert, treat yourself to an ice cream float or a sundae, topped with a cherry. The park’s picnic options are plentiful, with six picnic areas, all with restrooms. Mather Overlook, 8 miles into Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, is an especially inviting picnic setting with a wooden deck, viewing telescopes and sweeping views of the valley below.
Baker. Whether it’s the full-service grill at the Border Inn or the build-your-own burger bar at the 487 Grill (open seasonally), dining in and around Baker is scarce but scrumptious. Across from the Stargazer, the menu changes daily at the chef-helmed Sugar, Salt & Malt, but the restaurant closes from November through March.
Ely. For a casual meal, dine at the 24-hour Denny’s inside the Hotel Nevada or the 1950s-era soda fountain at the Economy Drug store, serving deli sandwiches and lime rickeys. For a more upscale experience, fill up on a juicy steak inside a fabricated jail cell at the quirky Cellblock Steakhouse (once home to Ely’s first city hall).
Things to do
Soak up the scenery. The 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive starts near the park entrance, prior to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, winding up the mountain through numerous ecological zones, up to 10,000 feet above sea level, and back. As the narrow road climbs toward the sky, the landscape of low-lying shrubs transforms into taller trees such as fir, juniper and pinyon before reaching isolated groves of bristlecones. From your car along the way, you’ll see plenty of beauty, possibly even a glimpse of wildlife, such as mule deer and marmot. Pullouts and parking lots make it easy to take in scenic views and snap Instagram-worthy photos, and many provide access to hiking trails.
While the drive remains open year-round for the first three miles, up to Upper Lehman Campground, much of it is closed in the winter, with closing and reopening dates variable. “We can get snow in October that will shut us down at the higher elevations for the rest of the year,” Andler says. “Most years, if we’ve had even average snow, the road won’t open until Memorial Day; sometimes even July 4, though that’s extreme.” There wasn’t much snow until January one year, she says, so the road didn’t close as usual and some visitors made it north of Wheeler Peak and went ice skating on Stella Lake.
Take a hike. Hiking opportunities are plentiful, with 12 trails of varied length and difficulty, from a leisurely stroll or roll on the wheelchair-accessible, 0.3-mile Sky Island Forest Trail, starting at the end of Wheeler Peak Summit Drive, to strenuous climbs, such as the steep, 5-mile Dead Lake Loop, off Snake Creek Road. Bird-watching abounds on the family-friendly, 2.7-mile Alpine Lake Loop. Spot a bald eagle, a great horned owl or one of the other 136 known species in the park; pick up bird-spotting checklists at either visitor center. You can reach most trailheads by foot or car, but the moderately difficult trail to the park’s six-story, limestone Lexington Arch is accessible only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Altitude and timing are important considerations when hiking here. Some visitors experience altitude sickness on trails reaching beyond 10,000 feet. Others have been caught in afternoon storms or the darkness of night, without a source of light.
In winter, the park lends out snowshoes to hikers for free at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
Stargaze. With no pesky light pollution to obscure the night sky, stargazing is superior at this International Dark Sky Park. In 2021, to enhance the gazing even more, GBNP opened a new Astronomy Amphitheater for ranger-led telescope viewings, astronomy talks and other programs such as full-moon hikes. To get there, follow a short walking path from the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
If you’re planning a September visit, you’ll want to take part in the Great Basin Astronomy Festival, an annual event that includes stargazing presentations, night-sky photography workshops and telescope viewings. For something a little different, the Nevada Northern Railway in Ely (63 miles away) invites passengers aboard its nighttime Star Train for a ride along its historic route ($56). Though the diesel locomotive doesn’t reach GBNP, the ride is led by the park’s knowledgeable “dark sky” rangers.
Explore the Lehman Caves. Before GBNP, there was Lehman Caves National Monument — established a century ago, in 1922, by the U.S. Forest Service. But 100 years seems like no time at all considering the cave system — Nevada’s longest — formed millions of years ago. The natural entrance to Lehman Caves was discovered around 1885 by a rancher, and people began infiltrating it soon after.
Now ranger-led tours ($12 to $15) put visitors up close and personal with stalactites, stalagmites and rare shields in various rooms throughout the cave system. Before entering Lehman Caves, visitors are screened for white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease, to protect the 10 species of resident bats living inside. Then, after a brief introduction, a ranger leads visitors single-file down a long, cold hallway — it’s about 59 degrees inside all year — deeper and deeper into the cave system, where an electrical lighting system and guardrails help keep everyone (and the caves) safe. It’s not uncommon to feel a bit like a bull in a china shop while traversing the cold, tiny passageways and tight spaces, inches away from intricate and delicate formations, formed from calcite and other minerals. The ranger, however, seems right at home while peppering the crowd with lessons on the cave system’s history, geology and ecology, even turning off the human-added lights to demonstrate true darkness for a heart-pounding minute.
Go fishing. With a Nevada fishing license, fish for brook, brown and rainbow trout in Lehman, Baker and Snake creeks as well as Johnson Lake. There is a catch-and-release caveat for Bonneville cutthroat trout. The native fish species has been around since the end of the last ice age and the park is one of the only spots in Nevada to find it. It was relegated to the cold, high-elevation streams of the north and south Snake Range as the Great Basin’s former Lake Bonneville receded and evaporated beyond the park. Biologists are working hard to conserve and restore this rare species.
Visit Ely. Ely, an hour’s drive away, was once a stop for the Pony Express. A former copper mining boomtown, it is home to the well-preserved Nevada Northern Railway, where you can ride on a historic steam or diesel train, explore a train yard and browse the museum. Murals and public art around town cover buildings on 11 city blocks, paying homage to Native American and contemporary Western culture. The nearly century-old Hotel Nevada & Gambling Hall, the tallest building in town, hosted stars such as Gary Cooper, Wayne Newton, Ann Rutherford and Jimmy Stewart in its heyday. Try your luck on its slot machines, play table games or do some wagering at the sports book. If you’re hungry, dine at its 24-hour restaurant.
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If you’re heading to GBNP from Vegas on U.S. 93, just before you reach Alamo, Nevada, consider a stop at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. It offers a restful respite from the road with walking trails and picnic areas. Thirty miles farther down the road, you’ll reach the junction for highways 318 and 375. The latter, officially known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, runs parallel to the infamous Area 51, a top-secret military facility and hotbed for alien conspiracy theorists. The state road sign at its entrance to the east of U.S. 93 is a good place to stop for photos and E.T. Fresh Jerky, on the west side of U.S. 93, has restrooms.
Stay on U.S. 93 for another 60 miles north until you reach Cathedral Gorge State Park. From walking trails, take in stunning views of dramatic towering spires, carved from the bentonite clay landscape by erosion. It’s another 123 miles to Baker and then five miles to the park.
The other route, Highway 318, takes you through Ely. It adds at least an hour to the drive but takes you past Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park, six miles south of Ely, on Cave Valley Road, off U.S. 50. Stop and explore six perfectly preserved beehive-shaped rock ovens used to process silver ore during the mining boom of the late 1800s.
Born, raised and based in Las Vegas, Aleza Freeman is a longtime travel, tourism and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in Haute Living, the Los Angeles Times, Nevada Magazine and other publications.