Great Basin National Park: The Complete Guide

A bristlecone pine in Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Photo: Kelly Carroll / Great Basin National Park

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Great Basin National Park

Address
Nevada, USA
Phone +1 775-234-7331

Nevada is so much more than just Las Vegas, even though around 75 percent of the population lives in Las Vegas’ Clark County. Fortunately, that means the rest of the state is nearly empty, and that’s doubly true for Great Basin National Park, one of the least-visited parks in the entire US national park system.

Of the country's 63 national parks, Great Basin ranks 52 in terms of visitation, which leaves the park’s trails through bristlecone pine forests, cave systems, summits, and lakes relatively empty, even on busy summer weekends. The park also has epic stargazing from nearly everywhere across its 77,000 acres; in fact, it became an International Dark Sky Park in 2016. If you're planning to visit, here's what to know to make the most of your time in Great Basin National Park.

Things To Do

Great Basin National Park looks a lot more like the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains (which stretch into the state of Nevada near Lake Tahoe) than it does the deserts of Las Vegas. The park is dotted with alpine lakes, forests, and valleys filled with wildflowers in the spring. And summits like Wheeler Peak, at more than 13,000 feet above sea level, often have snow year-round.  

One of the most popular activities to do in Great Basin is tour the Lehman Caves, which proves the dramatic landscapes aren't just above ground. Cave tours are offered nearly every day and are ranger-guided. They often sell out, so be sure to make your reservations online as soon as possible. Reservations open 30 days in advance. The Lehman Caves system is equally as beautiful as more well-known caves like those in Mammoth Cave or Carlsbad Caverns national parks, but they’re a bit tighter in places. While you won’t have to crawl, you may have to hunch over a bit to make it through some openings. 

If you’d prefer to stay above ground while exploring the park, take part in one of the most unique fall traditions in the state: collecting pine nuts through the park. Pine nuts are expensive to buy in stores, but during the fall, each household can collect up to 25 pounds of cones per year. They come from pinyon pines which are abundant in the park, but rangers should be able to tell you where the best spot to go is based on what time you visit. 

Of course, most people who visit Great Basin camp in the park, and that opens up a whole world of stargazing opportunities come sunset. There’s not a bad spot in the park from which to catch the night sky, but you’ll want to wait for a clear night with a waning moon to maximize the amount of stars and constellations you can see. If you’re stargazing on your own, download a night-sky viewing phone app or buy a star chart from the visitors center. You can also sign up for one of the park’s many astronomy events or catch a ride on the Star Train out to some of the park’s best viewing points, complete with telescopes and knowledgeable guides.  

Best Hikes and Trails

Great Basin National Park is probably best known for its trails through the ancient bristlecone pine forest. Bristlecone pines are short, hearty trees known for their distinctive gnarled trunks, which are often spiraled and twisted by years of wind and weather.

  • The Bristlecone Pine Trail is 2.5 miles long and gains about 500 feet of elevation, though it’s quite gradual. There are signs along the way about the history and biology of the trees, some of which are more than 3,500 years old. If you’d like a longer hike, continue to the Glacier Trail, which brings the total distance to 4.5 miles across 1,000 feet of elevation gain. 
  • The Lexington Arch Trail is also a stunning hike. The trailhead is just outside the park but leads into the park boundaries to the Lexington Arch. At more than 70 feet tall, it’s one of the largest limestone arches in the West. The trail is 5.6 miles long and gains around 1,000 feet of elevation. 
  • Experienced hikers will want to check Wheeler Peak off their hiking bucket list. It’s the highest point in the park and moderately difficult until the last half-mile or so when the trail turns into loose scree most of the way up the ridgeline, so don't underestimate the final push. It starts at the Summit Trail parking lot and you’ll want to arrive early to give yourself plenty of time and to ensure you can find a parking spot. Wheeler Peak is a popular hike.

If you have time, check out one of the park’s archeological or Indigenous sites. One especially interesting site is the Baker Archeological Site, a former village of the Fremont Native Americans (they’re named for a river; what they would have called themselves is unknown). You can also visit the abandoned Johnson Lake Mine (reached via a 7.5-mile hike) or check out ancient cave drawings at the Upper Pictograph Cave.

Where to Camp

There are no hotels in Great Basin National Park, so nearly everyone who stays overnight will camp. The park has five campsites with facilities like water, restrooms and picnic tables, and Snake Creek, which has no running water. Great Basin National Park has no official backcountry campgrounds, so multi-day backpackers can camp wherever they'd like, provided the site doesn't violate any park camping regulations.

  • Lower Lehman Creek: This is the closest site to Lehman Caves and sits at a relatively low elevation. It has 11 sites and is open year-round. Reservations are strongly recommended between June and October and can be made up to a month in advance. Site 1 is ADA accessible.
  • Upper Lehman Creek: The upper site is at an elevation of 7,200 feet and closer to the trailheads in the Snake Range, including Wheeler Peak. All 23 sites are first-come, first-served in the fall and spring but can be reserved up to a month in advance for dates between June and October. Small RVs are allowed and two sites are wheelchair-accessible.
  • Wheeler Peak: It's the highest campground in the park at 9,500 feet and gets cold at night, even in summer. There are 37 sites and all are first-come, first-served, except during July, August and early September, during which time reservations can be made in advance online. The campground closes at the first snowfall of the winter and is the closest campground to the trailhead for Wheeler Peak.
  • Baker Creek: Nice campground at a lower elevation near Baker Creek, and lots of trees make most campsites feel fairly private. Usually open until early winter, and all 37 sites are first-come, first-served year-round. Three sites are ADA-accessible and some sites can accomodate trailers or RVs up to 50 feet long.
  • Grey Cliffs: The closest campground to the entrance, Grey Cliffs has 16 sites. Reservations are required between mid-May and early September and should be made six months in advance with a minimum two-night stay. This campground does not have potable water and can't accomodate RVs or trailers.
  • Snake Creek: Pretty sites, but no running water. Not RV-accessible. 12 sites total, closed in winter.

Where to Stay Nearby

If you don't want to camp, your closest indoor-sleeping option will be in Baker. The small town has only a few hotel options, all of which are fairly no-frills—but that also makes them relatively affordable. Many businesses are seasonal in Baker, so don't expect to have open options for restaurants or services. Baker is one of the tiniest gateway towns to any of the national parks and cell service and Wi-Fi are spotty at best. Regardless of which hotel you choose, it should be easy to find rooms for well under $100 a night. Otherwise, your options are limited to Airbnbs, home rentals, or car camping on nearby public lands.

  • Try the Border Inn for simple rooms, an on-site restaurant, and a pool table; you'll need to call to make a reservation.
  • The Stargazer Motel is a no-frills, 10-room, dog-friendly option that would be a good choice for those traveling with pets.
  • Located at the base of Great Basin, Whispering Elms Motel has both motel rooms as well as tent and RV sites.

How to Get There

Great Basin National Park isn’t particularly close to anything. It’s six hours east of Reno and four hours west of Salt Lake City. Regardless of where you’re coming from, you’ll take Highway 50 to reach the town of Baker, then take Rte. 488 to the west to reach the park entrance. If you’re flying, the closest airport is Cedar City Regional Airport 150 miles to the east, which connects to Salt Lake City only. There's no public transportation near the park.

Accessibility

All public restrooms in the park and the entire Lehman Caves Visitor Center are wheelchair-friendly. Three campgrounds (Upper Lehman Creek, Wheeler Creek, and Baker Creek) have accessible campsites, though they’re first-come, first-served. Several of the park’s flatter trails are wheelchair accessible, though it's advisable to ask a ranger where they recommend heading as wildfires and snow/mud can sometimes block access to trailheads, requiring a short walk to reach the actual trail. Nearly all ranger-led programs are wheelchair-friendly, too.

And don’t panic if you have limited mobility but want to explore Lehman Caves: there’s  shorter accessible version of the tour that doesn’t require navigating stairs. Just ask the ranger when you arrive for details. 

Great Basin National Park also has assisted-listening devices for hard-of-hearing guests for cave tours and ranger programs—just be sure to request one before the tour or talk begins.

Tips For Your Visit

  • Great Basin National Park gets a lot of snow and many of the trails and roads are subject to weather-related closures. Check the road conditions in advance and come prepared with snowshoes, extra layers, and all the other items you may need for winter hiking. 
  • There’s only one place to eat in the park—the Lehman Caves Visitor Center cafe, and its closed from November to April, give or take. Come prepared with lots of snacks and water.
  • There’s no Wi-Fi in the park and cell service can be spotty. Download a GoogleMap of the park in advance for offline use, and be sure to get a park map (and know how to read it) when you enter the park. If you’re planning on an overnight backpacking trip, it’s a good idea to bring a satellite rescue device
  • It’s not necessary to register for backpacking trips, but it is incredibly dumb not to—registering lets the park know where you are and provide rescue in case of accident or wildfires. But regardless of whether you register, read up on the park’s policies regarding campfires, wildlife, environmental stewardship and more. 
  • Always practice Leave No Trace principles, or take it a step further and practice “leave it better than you found it” principles. You can carry trash out even if you didn’t bring it in. And be sure to make your visit a sustainable one. 
  • The only trail dogs are allowed on is the Lexington Arch Trail, and they have to be on a leash.
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Great Basin National Park: The Complete Guide