There are not many parks where you can experience as much diversity as you can in Great Basin National Park. From the hot desert floor to a glacier high on alpine slopes, the park has a drastic elevation change of about 8,000 feet. Because Great Basin National Park ranges in elevation from 5,000 feet above sea level to 13,000 feet, driving a few miles in the park is like driving hundreds of miles north.
This drastic change in biological communities is just one thing that makes this park in eastern Nevada so amazing and unique. Every life zone is beautiful in the park. From the sea of sagebrush on the desert floor to aspens high up on the mountain, the scenery at Great Basin is breathtaking.
Great Basin National Park is also home to Lehman Cave and is a Dark Sky Park. But one of my favorite things about the park is that it is home to groves of Bristlecone Pines, the oldest living organisms that are not clones.
The Bristlecone Pine lives higher than most trees – between 9,500-11,000 feet in elevation. These trees are estimated to be around 4,000 years old.
What is the Great Basin
The Great Basin is a massive geographic area where there is no outlet to the sea. That means what happens in the Great Basin stays in the Great Basin – well, sort of. Rain or snow that falls in the Great Basin follows from streams and rivers into shallow lakes, marshes, and mud flats where it evaporates.
Some say Great Basin is a misnomer because it is actually made up of several smaller basins separated by mountain ranges that run north to south. Looking at the topography of the Great Basin always reminds me of the ripples in the sand at the bank of a river, undulating with the water’s movement. On my trip to Great Basin National Park, I finally understood how these mountains formed.
Nevada is considered the most mountainous state, having more mountain ranges than any other state. It has more than 300 individual ranges. These mountains were formed because the earth’s crust under the Great Basin is being pulled to the east and west. Known as “fault-block mountains,” the valleys have slipped downward and been filled in by erosion as the crust is pulled in opposite directions.
Because of all of these faults, Nevada is the third most seismically active state, following California and Alaska.
Lehman Caves is one of the largest cave systems in Nevada. It is home to more than 300 shield formations and creatures found nowhere else on earth. The caves may only be entered via a ranger-led program, but the park offers several cave tours. Tours are offered daily with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
Cave tours can sell out, so you will want to book yours in advance, which can be done on Recreation.gov.
Hiking at Great Basin
There are numerous trails in Great Basin National Park with something for all abilities. They range in length from 0.1 miles to overnight backpacking. A free backcountry permit is required if you plan to camp out on the trail.
If you only do one trail, I would suggest hiking the Bristlecone Grove Trail. This 2.8-mile out-and-back showcases one of the groves and has interpretive signs. This is really the only Bristlecone Pine grove in the park that can easily be accessed. The trail climbs about 600 feet in elevation.
If you want to make it longer, hike the Glacier Trail, which includes the Bristlecone Grove Trail. This trail takes you to the base of the peak and the only glacier in Nevada.
Other great trails include the Alpine Lakes, Baker Creek, and Timber Creek Loops. The Lexington Arch Trail is another popular trail, but high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended.
You can also summit Wheeler Peak, which is the second-highest peak in Nevada. The Wheeler Peak trail is 8.4 miles roundtrip and climbs nearly 3,000 feet.
Camping at Great Basin
Great Basin National Park has six campgrounds, with four being reservable through recreation.gov during peak season. The park does not accept checks for campsites, so if you come without a reservation, have cash or a credit card handy.
There are no hookups, and only Baker Creek Campground has potable water available spring through fall if the weather is permitting.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
The Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is a 12-mile steep and winding road that takes you from the valley floor to about 10,000 feet near the base of the summit. By driving this road, you can experience all life zones in a short time.
The road is an eight percent grade and is closed to vehicles or trailers longer than 24 feet because of sharp turns. This section of the road is also closed during the winter and spring months because of snow. It is generally open from June through October.
Dark Sky Park
Great Basin National Park is also known for its night sky. Unfortunately, I visited during a full moon. However, I did get up at 2 a.m. one night after the moon had set, and it was well worth it. Some of the best places for viewing the night sky include Mather Overlook on the Scenic Drive, Wheeler Peak Campground, and the Baker Archaeological Site in the valley below.
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park was one of my favorite parks. I loved seeing the rich diversity of the different life zones as I climbed the mountain. The Bristlecone Pines are also extremely interesting and beautiful.