Great Basin NP: An Alpine Oasis in the Desert
Great Basin National Park is not a place that you will run across accidentally. You have to want to go there. And you should want to go there. Mountains, caves, a glacier, fabulous night skies and trees older than Jesus… There’s some seriously cool stuff at Great Basin NP. It may not be the biggest or grandest national park, but it has a lot of variety and is worth a visit, even if it is in the middle of nowhere.
Great Basin NP started its federal land designation as Lehman Caves National Monument in 1922. Local rancher and miner Absolam Lehman discovered the caves in 1885 and tours started almost immediately. There is so much more to this area than just the caves, though. Accordingly, in 1986 Congress expanded the National Monument into Great Basin National Park, recognizing the surrounding landscape of this alpine oasis.
The Great Basin
The “Great Basin” is a huge area that covers most of Nevada and parts of the surrounding states. It extends from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California to the Wasatch Mountains in central Utah. This region includes many mountain ranges and high desert valleys. It gets the name “Great Basin” because water here does not run into either ocean, but instead just seeps into the ground.
Sagebrush covers the desert valleys and, seemingly, not much else. Meanwhile, the various high-elevation mountains are home to cooler air and a large variety of plants and animals. These areas are often referred to as desert mountain islands since each mountain forms its own habitat and they are all separated by the desert.
Most folks have probably never heard of this park. It certainly does not have the majestic views of Yosemite, the geothermal features of Yellowstone or the awe of the Grand Canyon. But it still deserves its place as a National Park.
What struck me as the highlight of this park is its life in the middle of the desert. There are alpine lakes that don’t look out-of-place. Trees stand stall and live, seemingly, forever. The limestone cave drips with water. You can just see and feel the life here, which you may not necessarily see or feel just 20 or 30 minutes away.
Located in Baker, Nevada, Great Basin NP is not far from the Utah border. Baker truly is the middle of nowhere. Locals think there are about 60 residents, not including the park service employees. And that number drops drastically, down to maybe 10 or 15, in the winter.
During my trip planning, I read about how small and isolated Baker is, so I really wasn’t surprised at what we found (or, rather, didn’t find). In the not-quite 48 hours that we were in Baker, we visited all but one of the commercial buildings. And that includes a repeat at one of the restaurants.
Most everything here has two or three purposes. For instance, the gas station is the “Baker Fuel and RV.” There is no store and no attendant, just two pumps for gas. Behind the pumps are four or five hookups for RVs.
If you are visiting Great Basin NP, know that you will drive through a whole lot of nothing to get there and you won’t find much when you arrive. No bank, no medical services, no tourist center. More on that later.
Also important to note…we had GREAT cell service (AT&T), but absolutely no data coverage. The WiFi at our campground sometimes worked, but not really. We did not find anywhere else which had WiFi.
Dominating the park is 13,063 foot Wheeler Peak, the highest Peak in the area and second-tallest mountain in Nevada. After stopping at the Great Basin visitor center in Baker, we drove the 12-mile scenic road to the Wheeler Peak parking lot.
The road has a 8% grade and is closed to trailers more than 24 feet. On this scenic drive, you’ll wind your way up the mountain, with your ears popping as the altitude changes. The drive offers spectacular views of the surrounding area and the various peaks along the way. As you drive, you really get the sense that you are entering a special place in the middle of the desert.
Alas, the parking lot is not actually at the top. The elevation of the parking lot is right around 10,000 feet, meaning if you want to reach the peak you’ll have to work for it. A strenuous four-mile hike up the mountain, gaining an additional 3,000 feet of elevation will take you to the summit. And, remember, all of that hike will be above 10,000 feet, where the air is much thinner!
I have had some trouble with altitude sickness in the past. Symptoms include a headache and mild nausea at high altitudes, generally above about 9,000 feet (for me). Thankfully, this time I did not experience any of that. I attribute the non-sickness to being better acclimated to high elevation since we’ve been traveling in this general area for several weeks. If you have recently flown in to this area, be prepared that you could feel some ill-effects of the high altitude.
We did enjoy some hiking on the mountain, but we did not hike to the peak. That just really isn’t our thing, especially at this elevation.
The great part about hiking in this area, though, is that the temperatures are generally much cooler than in the valley. This allowed us to do some hiking at 2:00 in the afternoon. The temperatures down at the bottom were in the 90s, but only the mid-70s up on the mountain!
Alpine Lakes Loop Trail
Our first hike was the Alpine Lakes Loop, which takes you past two alpine lakes. The trailhead is at the Wheeler Peak Campground/Parking Lot. We actually decided to hike the loop “backwards” from the recommendation. We did this because we didn’t want to miss a directional marker and end up half-way to Wheeler Peak before we realized it.
Alas, the trail was well-marked and that was not something we really needed to worry about, but we liked the way we did the hike none-the-less.
The first part of the trail for us was rocky, wet from snowmelt, contained small pockets of snow and a good amount of uphill, but it was well-shaded and not terribly difficult. It was about 3/4 mile to Teresa Lake. With Wheeler Peak as the backdrop and pockets of snow surrounding the greenish water, Teresa Lake provided a serene backcountry oasis.
After a few pictures, we continued on to our second stop, Stella Lake. We lost the trail briefly at an area with a large amount of snow on the ground. Just as we were retracing our steps to make sure we were still on the trail, we saw another hiker coming toward us. You do have to consider that high-elevation trails do have the potential for snow to still be on the ground in June!
Stella Lake was a bit bigger and definitely had more people hanging around, including some folks swimming. The water was cool, but not ice-cold. There were also a few people walking through some of the snow remaining on the shoreline.
The hike back to the parking lot from there was a lot easier, with a smooth trail that was pretty much all downhill.
Just before reaching the parking lot we did the 0.4-mile Island Forest Nature Trail. With matting and benches, this is a great loop for wheelchairs, strollers or anyone with limited mobility.
Bristlecone Pine Trail
The Bristlecone Pine Trail starts at the same trailhead as the Alpine Lakes Loop, so we were retracing our steps from the first hike for the first 1/2 mile or so. An additional mile took us to the Bristlecone Pine Grove.
Bristlecone Pine trees thrive in high elevations, typically between 9,500 and 11,000 feet. They can live thousands of years. In fact, the grove here contains trees that are 2,000-3,000 years old. The oldest living tree in this grove was “born” in 1230 BC!
The longevity of the Bristlecone Pine is due to the fact that the high-resin content in the wood prevents rot. Instead, the wood erodes, meaning even dead trees can last hundreds of years. Walking amongst these gnarled, twisted, almost driftwood-like trees is a feeling that can’t be described. They have a beauty to them that is unique, and based more on their resilience than looks. It’s just incredible to think about what these trees have endured over the MANY years!
Astonishingly, the trees tend to thrive at the higher elevations where survival is most difficult. They literally thrive in the face of adversity. At lower elevations, with less-harsh conditions, the trees tend to only live 300 to 400 years.
From the Bristlecone Grove, we continued on the Glacier Trail. This is where things really got fun trying to find the trail through the snow! It was still relatively early in the day, so the trail of footprints was not obvious as it would be later in the day. We crossed several snow-covered sections of the trail that were slippery, frustrating and fun all at the same time.
It was not all covered in snow though. Ironically, as we got closer to the glacier, we found less snow on the trail. Instead, the trail was very rocky.
Great Basin NP is home to Nevada’s only glacier and one of the southernmost glaciers in the US. It’s a tiny glacier, at about 300 feet by 400 feet, but it’s still a glacier.
We did not take the trail all the way to the end. We just went far enough to get a good look at the glacier and surrounding area and take some pictures.
The hike back was far easier, as we could follow our previous footsteps. If visiting early in the season, you might want to wait later in the day and let someone else forge the trail through the snow for you. And make sure you have waterproof shoes with good traction!
If you aren’t up for a lot of hiking, or just want some nice cool temperatures in the hot desert summer, head into the caves. As most caves are, Lehman Caves is only accessible by a ranger-guided tour.
Despite the name, Lehman Caves is a single cavern, though there are many other caves in the area that are not open to the public.
Tours typically sell out, especially in the summer, so be sure to reserve your spot in advance at recreation.gov. We made our reservations about a week in advance and found surprisingly few spaces left. There are two options for tours in the summer: the 60-minute Lodge Room Tour ($8/adult) or 90-minute Grand Palace Tour ($10/adult).
We did the Grand Palace Tour, which includes everything on the shorter tour plus a little more. The tour took us through all areas of the limestone cave that are open to the public.
One of the somewhat unique features of Lehman Caves are shields. Cave shields are two roughly circular parallel plates with a thin space between them. Shields grow at many different angles from the ceiling, floor or walls and are often adorned with stalactites hanging from the lower plate. While cave shields are not as uncommon as once thought, Lehman Caves has an unusually large concentration of shields.
The cave tour was great! All caves have their unique features and no two are alike. While there are a few tight areas, cave visitors will find many open spaces. I highly recommend a cave tour when you visit Great Basin NP.
Like many caves, Lehman Caves is home to a colony of bats. White-nose syndrome is a fungal growth that can grow on hibernating bats. There is no obvious treatment for white-nose syndrome and it has caused up to a 90% reduction in bat populations in some areas.
The National Park Service works hard to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome by screening all cave tour participants at Great Basin and other parks with caves. This is a process that we are familiar with, having visited several other caves in the past.
We think the last time we were in a cave was about five years ago. And we weren’t sure if we were wearing the same shoes. Regardless, they had us disinfect our shoes just in case. They take this stuff seriously, which we are ok with.
You will likely be screened for white-nose syndrome when entering and/or exiting any cave in the U.S., especially any within the National Park Service.
Due to its remote location, Great Basin NP is one of the best places in the US to view the night sky. In fact, in 2016 the International Day Sky Association designated it an International Dark Sky Park. During the summer, rangers lead an astronomy program on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights.
The program starts with a presentation and ends with a telescope viewing. When we attended, the ranger doing the presentation had to leave to respond to a medical emergency (that’s what happens in a small park), so we got an “alternate” program.
The program we saw was on Life in the Universe and focused on the potential for life off Earth and how we explore that possibility. While a little rough (understandable given the situation), the presentation was interesting and thought-provoking.
Honestly, though, the telescope viewing was the best part! Clouds moved through the sky, limiting our view of the stars. First we looked at Jupiter. You could clearly see the reddish lines and four of its moons.
Next, we viewed M-57, a ring nebula. This basically just looked like a blob to me…maybe I didn’t get the focus quite right as I was looking through the telescope. According to Solar System Quick, a ring nebula is “created when a small star sheds its mass at the end of its life span.” I don’t really know what all that means, but it sounds pretty cool!
The rangers kept the viewing going, but we didn’t have the energy or patience to wait on the clouds, so we headed home.
Night Sky Viewing and Photography
We did make a point our second night in Baker to do some extended night sky viewing and photography. We chose the Baker Archeological Site, which is 5-10 minutes outside of the town of Baker. This area has a small exhibit and interpretive trail about the excavations done in the early-90s, which found evidence of a village.
We set up our chairs and tripod on the trail through the open field before sunset and waited. It takes a while to let the sun get completely below the horizon and for your eyes to adjust to the dark. You should not look at bright white light during this time. If you do need a flashlight, use one with a red filter.
It was really surreal to watch the stars appear one-by-one until there were too many to count. The number of stars visible was astonishing! Looking up at the star-covered sky truly makes you feel insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe!
There were a few clouds off to the West, but where we needed to look to see the Milky Way, to the East, was clear! The Star Walk app provided a great map of the sky so that we’d know where to look. The Milky Way was somewhat difficult to see with the naked eye, but was visible and Grant got to experiment with some night sky photography.
To the naked eye, the Milky Way almost looks like light clouds. But when they just don’t move at all, you realize that it is actually stars, not clouds! Night sky photography definitely takes patience. But your patience will pay off if you (at least sort of) know what you are doing!
Great Basin NP Itinerary
When visiting Great Basin NP, I would plan to spend the better part of a full day exploring, at a minimum. Must-dos are a cave tour and a drive to Wheeler Peak. I strongly encourage a hike or two.
One tip that we got from a ranger is that you can hike to Stella Lake from the Wheeler Peak trailhead. From here, a well-maintained trail with a gentle slope leads you directly to Stella Lake. There is also the wheelchair accessible loop at the top of Wheeler Peak and another fairly short and easy hike at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
If you want to do more hiking, especially if you plan to do Wheeler Peak, you could easily spend two or three days here. There are several remote parts of the park, accessible by gravel road. Some of these do require a high-clearance vehicle. If somewhat rough dirt roads are your thing, you’ve got several opportunities.
For us, a day and a half was enough time to see and do everything we wanted to. Honestly, though, the hardest part of an extended stay here is the high temperatures and the lack of services in the area.
Additional Services in Baker
As previously mentioned, Baker is not much of a town. There are a total of six commercial buildings, including the National Park visitor center.
I’ve already mentioned the Baker Fuel & RV. There is also T&D’s lounge, restaurant, and grocery. We were going to check it out and grab some drinks or snacks before heading out our last morning, but they were not open at 9:00 on Thursday morning. I would expect they only have the absolute bare essentials in terms of groceries
We stayed at Whispering Elms, which is a bar, motel and RV park. The bar is only open four hours a day and does not serve food. The motel has seven rooms and a limited number of RV and tent sites. The campground is adequate, but certainly nothing to get excited about.
The Stargazer Inn, from the outside, provides nicer accommodations. They have a total of nine rooms, including a few behind the gas station. They also run the few RV spots at the gas station.
The adjoining restaurant, Keroauc’s is a restaurant that I would recommend regardless of its location. They have a limited food menu, which we tend to appreciate, and an extensive drink menu, which we often appreciate even more! Everything about this place was fantastic… Drinks, salad, pizza, dessert, omelette, pancakes, service. We really enjoyed this place and HIGHLY recommend it when you visit Great Basin NP.
Baker does have a Post Office, which we used to mail home the last of our dads’ birthday cards. Yes, my dad, Grant’s dad, and Grant’s stepdad all have birthdays that typically fall within a week of Father’s Day.
Not included in the six buildings is the “coffee cart.” Alas, we also did not visit as it is not open on Wednesday or Thursday. It is just a cart in the middle of an empty lot that serves coffee and pastries.
Other Options Outside of Baker
In addition to the limited options in Baker, the park has four campgrounds. We heard the campgrounds are nice, but they have no hookups and no showers. While each campground has vault toilets, you will only find flush toilets at the visitor centers. There is also a small cafe at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
There is also the Border Inn, Casino and RV Park on US 50. This is about a 20-minute drive from the park. We drove by just to check it out. Everything looked clean from the outside. Another guest at Great Basin said the food was good. The RV park was basically just connections in a gravel parking lot.
If you want real civilization, you’ll need to drive about an hour west to Ely (pronounced E-lee). In Ely, you will find a McDonald’s, Subway, several hotels, including LaQuinta and Motel 6, and several gas stations, including a brand new Love’s (gas station) which looks as though it will open very soon. There’s even a couple of traffic lights there!
Final Thoughts on Great Basin NP
Great Basin NP truly is an alpine island oasis in the middle of the desert. It takes a bit of planning to get there and be comfortable once you arrive but it is a beautiful place with some amazing sights.
The variety of life in Great Basin NP is overwhelming compared to the life in the Great Basin area in general. While we were not overly impressed with the town of Baker, the park itself was welcoming and the sights were a nice change from the surrounding desert.
If it isn’t already, Great Basin NP should definitely be on your list of places to visit!