Our Visit to Great Basin National Park:
Lonely drive to Great Basin National Park
After a couple of days at Salt Lake City, we started our drive to Great Basin National Park, on the eastern side of Nevada, on a bright sunny day. We turned off of I-80 shortly after Salt Lake City and went down two-lane highways towards Nevada. These were very boring drives. The roads were straight as an arrow with flat plains and sage bush on both sides and the occasional lake with white salt banks. There were only a few very small towns along the way. Great Basin National Park is far away from any interstate highway. It is 3.5 hours from Salt Lake City, 6 hours from Reno, and 4.5 hours from Las Vegas.
Cave and food
So, what’s special about Great Basin National Park? Cave, Bristlecone Pine, and Stars. Lehman cave is not the biggest, that honor belongs to Mammoth Cave. It is, however, very pretty, especially with column formations. We took the 90 minute Grand Palace tour, which went through several rooms and along some very pretty formations. This cave felt more intimate than Mammoth Cave or Carlsbad Caverns and more relatable. Our ranger tour guide was very enthusiastic and told us about the formation and history, including early days tourism when the prize was to take a chunk of stalactite home with you and to use candle smoke to inscribe your initials on the cave ceiling!
It seemed the cave formations were often associated with food! There was the popcorn formation, the soda straw formation, and the bacon formation. The shield formation, which looked like a flat disk, is unique to this cave. Cave scientists don’t really know how shields are formed. The most famous formation is a “shield curtain”, which has a round disk with the draperies flowing from it. It’s a very interesting formation. Another formation unique to Lehman is the bulbous formation, which looked like an onion growing from the side of the cave wall.
Get your tour tickets early
The only way to access the cave is with a ranger-led tour. The tours are often booked well in advance, so make sure you get on recreation.gov to book your tickets. Booking starts a month before the tour date. If you don’t have a reservation, don’t fret. Show up at the Lehman Cave Visitor Center shortly after 8 am for last minute cancellations or the extra tour they often put on for people without reservations. On the mid-September day, all tours were sold out by 10 AM.
There are other caves in these hills but only the Lehman cave is open to the public. The others are closed to protect and preserve the cave environments.
More than a cave
Great Basin National Park is a lot more than Lehman Cave, which planted the initial seed for a national park as Lehman Cave National Monument in 1922, but did not become a national park until 1986, when tourism prevailed over mining and ranching interests in the region. Wheeler Peak, over 13,000 feet above sea level, is a jagged peak well above the tree line. Wheeler Peak Road ascends to 10,000 feet of elevation through several climate zones with a fantastic view of the flats below. In the fall, the golden foliage of the aspen trees rivals any maple of Vermont. It intermixes with evergreen conifers on the hillside to present a stunning contrast between green, gold, and red.
Sequoia is the largest tree by volume, Redwood is the tallest tree, but Bristlecone Pine is the oldest tree and perhaps the oldest living thing on earth. It lives at higher elevations of Great Basin National Park, just below the tree line, around 10,000 feet in elevation. The oldest tree discovered is over 5000 years old! These are dense trees that grow very little each year because the growing season is so short. Bristlecone Pine lives for so long because of several ways to stay alive.
Since they are slow growers, it is very dense and protected from rots or insects. They can partition root sections for particular parts of the tree so that if a section of the root system dies, it only affects that part of the tree and let the rest of the tree survive. It lives in such a harsh climate it has few competitors for sunlight or nutrients. Even when the tree dies, unlike most trees, the wood decomposes very slowly due to its density, resistance to moisture, and the very dry climate. Thus, trees remain standing for centuries after they die.
The harsh weather also twists the branches of the Bristlecone Pine. Some may call it grotesque but I call it unusual. The shape gives the tree it’s signature, making it very recognizable.
Must see sight: Bristlecone Trail
We set out on the Bristlecone Trail after our Grand Palace cave tour on a beautiful sunny afternoon, the temperature in the 60s at 9,800 feet elevation. The trail was consistently uphill through a beautiful pine forest but the path was very rocky. Then, the trail opens up as trees became sparser and the rocks became bigger and bigger. Then the Bristlecone Pines appear, a few at first, then a grove of living and dead Bristlecones. At 1.4 miles and 600 feet of elevation gain, the Bristlecone Interpretive Trail is a loop through a grove of Bristlecone trees with excellent interpretive signs. While 600 feet of elevation gain doesn’t seem a lot, at 10,000 feet of altitude, this was at least a moderate hike.
There were many plaques that showed the various aspects of these unique trees with one in the grove that was 3,700 years old. This really puts a perspective on time. These trees have been here before Christ and will be here long after we are gone! We are talking about the geological timescale for a living thing! How they survive in such a harsh environment and poor soil condition is simply amazing.
The Bristlecone trail is a must do at Great Basin National Park.
Lake and peak hikes
We drove down a gravel road for about 7 miles to a very nice Baker Lake Trail that went up a hill through dense forest before it opened up and returned in a loop. We heard the constant babbling of the creek along the way, saw a few deer checking us out and heard plenty of birds. There were very few people on this trail and it was just serene.
If you want to climb Wheeler Peak, there is an 8.6-mile round trip Wheeler Peak Summit trail that starts at 10,100 feet and ascends another 2,900 feet. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially at that altitude but it can be done on a day hike. Do start early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
Great Basin National Park has one of the darkest skies in the lower 48 at night. Because it is so far away from a major city and its light pollution, the high altitude, the typical very low humidity, and frequent clear sky, it’s one of the best places for stargazing. Plan your trip for a new moon when the sky is the darkest. Just drive into the park after dark and pick your turnout to stargaze. In early September, there is an astronomy festival for all you astronomers.
Experienced national park visitors
This park is not crowded, so even during peak season, you don’t have to worry about parking issues or tour buses. Everyone here is “national park” people. The few people we passed on the trails all said hello. Many people on our cave tour group have been to other caves or national parks. These are definitely nature loving people.
Interesting enough, the gift shop has a few items with maps or lists of all the US national parks, which is rare in other national parks. I wonder how many people who visit this park are like us – trying to see as many national parks as possible and had to visit Great Basin National Park to check it off the list.
Tiny Baker restaurant guide
The tiny town of Baker, population 68 in 2010, is the gateway community to Great Basin National Park. The next nearest town is Ely, a solid hour away. Baker is a town with two restaurants, one general store, one gas station, and a couple of hotels. You should either stay in Baker, or camp in the park because it’s just too far to drive anywhere else.
The two restaurants in town are polar opposites when it comes to style, and they complement each other nicely. T&D, which is a restaurant, a bar, and a general store, is homey and just what you’d expect for a small town next to a national park. They serve pasta, pizza, and Mexican for dinner and sandwiches for lunch. The bar is a friendly place that is old school.
Kerouac’s restaurant, next to Stargazers Inn is trendy, sophisticated, bordering on snobbish with a “fresh take on American classics” cuisine.” They have burgers and pizza on the menu. We had dinner one night at each place and frankly, we liked T&D better. The pizza at Kerouac’s tasted more like flatbread with some toppings and the burger was only average. I like my pizza with tons of gooey mozzarella cheese but Kerouac’s had only a smattering of cheese on it.
We had pasta at T&D the next night and they were just like the way pasta should be. The bread that came with the meal was hot and delicious with just the right crust and softness on the inside. The two restaurants reflect their owners. T&D has been there for 30 years, run by a couple that was all over the country with AT&T for 23 years before deciding to leave the corporate world and returned to their roots for a more relaxed lifestyle. The owners of Kerouac’s came from Brooklyn, New York and brought with them the trendy and sophistication of the restaurant with them. Both have their place and it’s refreshing to find the choice in such a small town.
Impressions of Great Basin National Park:
Great Basin National Park is a nice park to visit. I wasn’t sure what to expect before I got here, but I found the park to be fun with a cave, a unique tree, and the dark sky. The park is easy to visit, once you get here because the main road takes you all the way up the mountain for fantastic views. Lehman Caves and the Bristlecone Pine made this park multi-dimensional and the dark night sky made the stars shine.
National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5-star ratings as 1-star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Great Basin National Park:
Top Attractions at Great Basin National Park:
- Lehman Caves
- Bristlecone Pine Trail
- Wheeler Peak Roud
One Day Visit Plan:
One day is enough to see the park. Book the first Grand Palace tour of the day (typically 9:00) and take the 90-minute tour. After the tour, drive up the Wheeler Peak road, stop at pullouts along the way to view the beautiful scenery before getting to the Bristlecone parking lot. Hike the Bristlecone Trail to the grove, and if your stamina allows, continue on the Glacier trail for another mile. The total round trip for the Bristlecone and Glacier trail is 4.6 miles and 1200 feet in elevation gain. If you have enough time and energy left, head for Lexington Arch trail at the end of a gravel road in the southern end of the park. This would be a very full day.
Practical Info for Visiting Great Basin National Park:
- Book your cave tour ticket as early as possible (within a month of tour date) through recreation.gov.
- Plan your overnight stay, either at the campground in the park or at Baker. Reserve your hotel as early as possible. Stargazer Inn has rustic but clean rooms.
- There is a café at the Lehman Cave visitor center.
- T&D restaurant serves lunch and dinner.
- Kerouac’s serve breakfast and dinner.
- The season goes from April to October for the town of Baker.
- The park is open year round, but the road to Wheeler Peak is closed after snowfall in October or November.
- The cave is open year round.
- Plan to be at the park on moonless nights for the best view of the stars.
- Be aware of the high altitude when hiking or even just walking around. You will get winded more quickly so rest often.
Great Basin National Park Facts:
- Size: 77,180 acres, ranked 41st
- Visitors: 168,028 in 2017, ranked 50th. 2017 was a record year
- Peak Month in 2017: 30,982 visitors in July
- Low Month in 2017: 1,144 visitors in January
- Entrance Fee: None. Cave tours range from $5 to $11 per person
Date Visited: September 20 – 21, 2018