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A visit to Great Basin National Park


In the United States, a country with dozens of great national parks, it makes sense that there would be some “orphan” parks that are only rarely visited. Such is the case with Great Basin National Park in Nevada.  Great Basin gets 90,000 visitors annually compared with 3,500,000 for Yellowstone National Park. Part of the reason for this is the park’s remoteness; you REALLY have to want to visit it as there’s nothing else around for several hundred miles.



(Great Basin Desert, Nevada)


We traveled to Baker, Nevada from Twin Falls, Idaho, the drive taking us through one of the most unpopulated portions of the lower 48 states. This region is known as the Great Basin desert — a large stretch of land extending from the rain-shadow of the Sierra Nevada in California into southeastern Oregon and southern Idaho, encompassing most of Nevada and western Utah — almost 200,000 square miles.  It’s characterized by mountain ranges and flat valleys, hot summers, cold winters, and the lack of any of its precipitation draining to an ocean (all the moisture that falls here is absorbed by plants or the ground, or evaporates). The scenery is nice but not the breathtaking beauty of the Rockies or Cascades.  There are pretty mountain ranges dotted with pines and junipers, and desert valleys filled with an endless sea of sage plants. Some might call it desolate but if you do then you’re just not looking hard enough. So an important part of the experience of visiting this park is the journey through the vast Great Basin desert to get there.



(Wheeler Peak, Nevada, viewed from the east)


Great Basin National Park lies in eastern Nevada and protects 77,000 acres of the South Snake Range near Utah.  Created in 1986, it's an excellent example of a mountain “island” ecosystem.  Before the end of the last Ice Age, the Great Basin was a lush area filled with many lakes and a rich growth of plants.  As the glaciers melted, a desert environment developed. The cooler environment provided by the mountain range allowed forests of pine and even a small glacier to persist below Wheeler Peak, one of the park’s iconic symbols and, at just over 13000 feet high (4000 m), the tallest peak in the area.


Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone PinesGreat Basin National Park -- Bristlecone PinesGreat Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Pines


Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Pines(Bristlecone Pines, Great Basin National Park)


The best way to explore the area is to first stop at the Visitor Center for an introduction to the Park.  From here it’s just a few miles into the park, where you begin the Wheeler Peak Scenic drive, a 12 mile road that gains almost 3500 feet (1070 m) altitude and which takes you through varied habitats, from desert sage to pinyon pine-juniper forest, then into lush forest of Engleman spruce and Douglas fir. The road ends in a subalpine forest of limber pine, aspen, spruce, and even a few stands of rare Bristlecone pines, the oldest trees on the planet (some almost 5,000 years old).  


There are at least half dozen trails worth hiking, including the Bristlecone-Glacier trail that takes you into an impressive stand of ancient Bristlecone pines.  The trail ends at a glacier remnant, the last in Nevada.  Another trail takes you to a string of beautiful alpine lakes, and another steep hike takes you up the spine of the mountain to top of Wheeler Peak. The trails are in excellent condition and offer wonderful views of the basin desert and the jagged mountain peaks. The park is at high altitude and the most interesting trails lie above 10,000 feet so be prepared for the risks and adventure altitude poses.




(Great Basin National Park -- Teresa Lake) 


Also in the park is Leahman Cave, accessible year round with an ambient temperature of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 deg C), so dress warmly if visiting. The cave has beautiful formations including stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and shield formations. There are several different tours available but as we were traveling with my wheel-chaired mother-in-law, we did not visit the cave this time around. Still I’d recommend the cave tour because it seems to be a beautiful sight.


The park also offers trout fishing in its streams, bird and wildlife watching, and a clear night sky which is excellent for star gazing and basic astronomy.  It’s worth walking around after dark to see a night sky or to participate in one of the ranger star-gazing programs (it's cool in the desert night sky so be sure to have a warm coat at hand). Whenever I’m in a remote place on a clear night I love to head out and gaze at that star filled sky!



(Moonrise over the Great Basin, Nevada) 


Somewhat of a drawback to your visit here is a relative lack of travel services. Baker, Nevada, is a small town close to the park with few hotel rooms or restaurants. There’s one gas station. The park has four lovely spacious campgrounds, set in the beautiful mountains and forests. I’ll stay at one of these during my next visit.



 For an extended high resolution slide show of Great Basin National Park, please go to this link.  The slide show is at the bottom of the post.  Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.



Images (27)
  • Great Basin National Park -- Visitor Center: Situated on the outskirts of the small town of Baker, near the turnoff to the park.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Wheeler Peak: Viewed from the east, across a broad sage-covered plain.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Mather View Point: This turnout provides great views of much of the park's scenery.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Wheeler Peak: The remnants of Nevada's last glacier nestle in the mountain's cirque.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Wheeler Peak: Closer view of the permant ice and snow on this Nevada peak
  • Great Basin National Park -- creek: There was still a lot of snow melt in August. The water was crystal clear
  • Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Trail: An excellent quality trail through the beautiful forest on the slopes of this park.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Brown Lake: Viewed from Bristlecone Trail.  It's not exactly the image most people have of Nevada.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Jeff Davis Peak: A rugged peak east of Wheeler Peak.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Pines: Glacier Trail winds it way towards the remains of Nevada's last Glacier.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Pines
  • Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Pines: Bristlecone pines are long lived, and often die slowly.  They are the oldest living things on the planet, some almost 5000 years old.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Pines
  • Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Pines: Bristlecones are identified by their branches, which are long and deep green.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Bristlecone Pines: he pattern on the trunk of these trees is fascinating to me -- almost a work of art.
  • Great Basin National Park -- Teresa Lake: A beautiful subalpine lake -- one of several in the park.
  • View from Great Basin National Park: Thousands of square kilometers of desert stretch beyond the park
  • Great Basin National Park -- viewed from Baker
  • Great Basin National Park -- viewed from Baker: Sage predominates and there's always a wiff of it in the air.
  • Moonrise over the Great Basin
  • Downtown, Baker, Nevada: This is most of the town.
  • T & D's Restaurant, Baker, Nevada: A pretty good place to eat
  • Antler art: Entrance to a private ranch along the road into Great Basin. Elk shed their antlers every year and most such collections are of shed antlers
  • Great Basin region, Nevada: Desert and mountains are the features of this region.
  • Great Basin region
  • Great Basin region
  • Great Basin salt flat

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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Comments (9)

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Well, for a start, make sure you visit Reno, Travel Luver.  It's a much small town than Vegas but still has all the casinos, restaurants, etc that you'd expect from a Nevada City.  From here it's easy to do a day trip to Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, or down to Carson City.


Reno is actually the closest major city to Great Basin National Park, say about a 3-4 hour drive.  Vegas is 6-7 hour drive away.  Salt Lake City is closer to Great Basin than Vegas.  But you really can't do it as a day trip unless you want it to be a L-O-N-G day, starting well before dawn and being on the go until midnight.  There are a few simple rooms in Baker, but within an hour of the park there are a few towns with some motels, so I'd look at staying at one of these if you don't want to camp.


It's very hot at Baker at the base of the park in the summer.  But in the summer the alpine areas is beautiful with nearly perfect weather.  In the winter you'll have snow around, and likely the road going to the top is closed (though the caves are open).  Would definitely recommend going sometime between late spring to fall, not winter.

Thanks for the note, PortMoresby.  I've visited a lot of the US parks, but Big Bend is still on my "to do" list.  They do white water rafting trips there, which appeals to me.  One of the things that a lot of folks enjoy about these "orphans" is that they are so sparsely peopled, with few tourists.  


I think the US Parks system is the USA's biggest tourist asset.  I'm certainly a huge fan.  Seems whenever I'm in a US Park, more German is spoken than English.  The German folks certainly are aware of this great legacy.

The comments on "orphan parks" made for some interesting thoughts. How do we (as a society) choose what to save for parks?


When you consider urban parkland, the point is obvious: people who have no land of their own need areas for public recreation. In other cases, individuals with wealth and influence have created parks in areas important to them personally (think of Acadia and the Rockefellers, Palisades Interstate Park and Morgan partners).


But setting aside and maintaining areas like Great Basin, or Big Bend, which seem to have little audience, but preserve areas and ecosystems that are important on their own and as examples of type: who will speak for them when increasing budget cuts will force NPS to consider whether to spend money there or collect the trash and maintain the trails in the "famous" parks?


I'm glad you're posting here about the less-known places; it may not send hordes of travelers there (and maybe shouldn't) but it will help keep up awareness of the diversity and importance of the parks.


Pheymont, you speak as if budget cuts are in the future when in fact the Park Service has been functioning with less and less for years now.  The Service has a mission to which they're dedicated but less funding has meant "deferred" maintenance on buildings, trails, you name it.  And when features of a park are deemed unsafe or there isn't personnel to oversee visitors then parts are closed.  I've experienced that myself recently when a trail I've visited in years past was closed.  I have no doubt that funds are allocated first to those parks most visited but all are suffering.  I hope a long-term solution is found but it seems a bit hopeless considering the short-sighted ways our taxes are used and who is doing the allocating.

Costs for the existing parks is mostly maintenance and salary.  In the face of a broke federal government, I would favor increased user fees.  $10-20 for a family to visit a national park for a week is the greatest bargain out there.  People who love the parks would happily pay twice as much and I don't think the extra cost would be a deterent.  Also, it's reasonable for those with concessions to pay up more than they are.  They are given a monopoly and some of those profits should go back to the parks.


Some parks generate a lot of revenue already, like the big name ones of Yosemite and Grand Canyon.  But often monies from these are shifted to the general treasury, rather than staying in the Park system.  That's the key.  Monies generated in the NPS need to stay in the NPS for their ongoing expenses.  The big name parks could help fund and protect the smaller orphan parks.  I think it would work if honestly applied.

No, I'm painfully aware of the past and present cuts...but I see more ahead.


My concern is that there are loud voices (my own included) to speak out against cuts to parks that have a big "fan base," including Gateway here in the NY area. Because so many speak out for those parks, I fear that NPS will increasingly "hide the damage" by even more drastic cuts to others--perhaps even outright abandonment.


And that's not so far-fetched an idea. For some 20 or more years here in New York, Prospect Park, my neighborhood gem, was starved of maintenance on the false idea that, after all, it's nature and needs little care. It's taken many years to recover from that debacle. Imagine the effect of NPS walking away from Great Basin and other less-visible parks with an "oh, they'll still be there someday when we have the money."

PHeymont, I don't believe we disagree.


I think the problem is that the park system relies on "federal handouts" and when a government is broke, there's less to hand out.  As I said, I sort of favor them being self-funded by their user and concession fees.  That's a lot of money already (if it was all kept in the parks) and people would be willing to pay more IF they knew the money stayed in the parks and didn't get diverted back into the Washington's general budget.  Orphan parks would be funded out of this general fund as well.  The purpose of the park system is to preserve ecosystems and to enhance human enjoyment and understanding of them.  The orphan parts are a vital component of this.

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