One of America's Least Visited National Parks Will Not Disappoint

My outstanding experience visiting Nevada's Great Basin NP.

By: Mayson + Save to a List


Great Basin National Park is a hidden gem surrounded by nothing but desert in one of the far reaching corners of the state of Nevada. It is one of the least visited of our 59 National Parks, but do not let it fool you, it is not one to be missed. The park is located in Nevada's White Pine County within the Great Basin region of dry mountainous area between the Sierra Nevada and Wasatch Mountains. It lies just over the Utah border about 5 hours northeast of Las Vegas, NV and 4 hours southwest of Salt Lake City, UT. Established in 1986, Great Basin was primarily created to protect the Bristlecone Pine Trees found within the park which live to be thousands of years old. The park is a sanctuary for these trees, which are some of the oldest living things on earth. The park also protects Lehman Caves - a large natural limestone cave system found below the park. Great Basin is also home to a large rock encased glacier known as the Wheeler Peak Glacier found near Wheeler Peak just above 13,000ft. 

One of the things that makes Great Basin so unique is that it is one of the darkest National Parks in the continental United States, since much of Nevada is the darkest area in the country. A tagline of the park is states, "see the Milky Way" because "half the park is after dark." When the sun sets over the park the night sky slowly takes hold and shines brightly in a magnificent display of stars and the Milky Way. 


After being a born and bred Nevadan, living here my entire life, I have to say I am embarrassed to admit I had never been to Great Basin National Park until this past Memorial Day (2017). I finally set my sights on visiting my home state's only national park accompanied by my father. I planned the trip when the moon was in some of its darkest phases just after a New Moon. Being an avid photographer, and interested in the stars and space since a young age, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring together two of my longtime passions. 

Leaving from Las Vegas I was surprised at how the eastern part of Nevada differs from the western portion I am used to traveling through on my way north to Reno, NV. The eastern sections of Alamo, Caliente, and near Great Basin were just as mountainous as I expected, with Nevada being the most mountainous state in the Union, but I was surprised at how green parts of the landscape are. As we approached the outer limits of the park and the visitor center at the beginning of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive I found myself constantly looking around at the various shades of vibrant green colors on the mountains that lay ahead and made up the high reaching areas within the park. 

While the park's visitor center is very small, I enjoyed stopping at it to see displays that teach you more about the park, its unique features, and the hidden features that can be found within it. Driving up into the mountains of the park from the valley floor, several thousand feet below, I was marveling at how Wheeler Peak and the surrounding mountain range rose above the landscape to dominate it for miles around. 

After searching for a few minutes, my Dad and I found a camping spot at the Baker Creek Campground near the lower portion of the park, but we later found a new site in the Upper Lehman Creek Campground along the scenic drive that takes you up into the park. This campground was phenomenal. It is surrounded by pine trees in and out and bordered by Lehman Creek and its pleasing sound of rushing water as it flows through the small creek.

During our stay we explored the entirety of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive stopping at the Mather and Wheeler Peak Overlooks, while constantly takes pictures of the surrounding mountains and their plethora of green brush, pine trees, and more. Wheeler Peak rose highest of them all, still blanketed with snow from the winter which had not yet melted. This made it dominate the landscape and draw my eye back to it again and again. 

One morning we hiked the Alpine Lakes Trail hiking near the base of Wheeler Peak over hard packed snow still on much of the mountain grades. Stella and Teresa Lakes near located in valley below Wheeler Peak Summit were astonishing. While not large or deep, they were crystal clear and reflected the snow covered Wheeler and Jeff Davis Peaks in an outstanding mirror like fashion of white, granite grays, and greens of the surrounding trees and brush. We knew we were some of the only people for hundreds of miles and could not hear another sound when remaining still and silent. I felt truly in the thick of nature's raw beauty and was reminded of why I love the outdoors and exploring all it has to offer.

Since Great Basin is world renowned for its Bristlecone Pine trees, which are found in few other places on earth and are some of the oldest living things on its surface, we could not pass up the opportunity to hike to the park's Bristlecone Pine Grove also found near the Wheeler Peak Summit and its Alpine Lakes. Hiking to the grove was very difficult and strenuous due to the snow still on the ground which essentially hid the entire trail. The steep grades throughout the entire area also made the hike rather difficult to manage. We would not have been successful without a GPS unit at our side. Nonetheless once we made it to the grove we were rewarded for our efforts as we found ourselves surrounded by magnificent Bristlecone Pines in various states of their lifespans. I got the distinct impression that I was looking back in time hundreds and in some cases thousands of years as I photographed these ancient trees. 

Both nights at the park we spent hours photographing and enjoying being under the desert night sky. After the sun set in the late hours of the night through the early hours of the morning more stars than I have seen in my life burst through the night and lay above me on full display against the deep blue and black backdrop of the night sky. The Milky Way rose over surrounding hills and mountains in yet a further amazing display of oranges, greens, blues, and purples both nights. I marveled at this display above me and was mesmerized. Looking back in time at stars, planets, and galaxies not as they were then, but as they were days, weeks, and years, ago was a magical experience not all of our national parks can offer and we do not get to experience in our light polluted cities we all live in or near. I will always treasure and remember those nights under the starry desert sky and eagerly await being under it again. 

Lastly, I will mention the park's rare attraction, Lehman Caves. Touring the cave over 90 minutes and exploring nearly everything it has to offer deep in the depths of the earth I was yet again inspired and amazed at how beautiful this park was in the middle of the sublime Nevada desert. Seeing endless stalagmites, stalactites, cave shields, and other limestone creations found in few other places in the U.S. or the world was fantastic. It was yet another experience I value from my time at Great Basin and adds to the allure of the park and why I think it should not be overlooked.

Overall Great Basin National Park is one I think anyone who truly enjoys our national parks and the outdoors should venture to if given the opportunity. It may not be as large as some of the other national parks, or as easily accessible, but it offers some unique experiences that are seldom found elsewhere within the national parks system, the United States, and in many cases the world. Great Basin National Park is truly a hidden gem within the seemingly desert nothingness of Nevada. It will not disappoint.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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