The words camping, Nevada, and national parks are not often mentioned in the same sentence. This sparsely populated western state is best known for places like Las Vegas and Reno, tourist cities filled with casinos and resorts. But there is much more to Nevada, a natural side that includes miles upon miles of high desert, many mountain ranges, and one of the least visited national parks, Great Basin National Park.
Great Basin National Park is located in remote eastern Nevada, near the Utah state line, about a 4.5-hour drive from Las Vegas. Very few visitors to so-called Sin City make the trek north along U.S. Highway 93. In the few years before the pandemic, the 120-square-mile park saw about 150,000 visitors per year. For comparison, Zion NP, which is about a 3-hour drive from Las Vegas, saw about 4.5 million people per year! And Death Valley NP, which is about 2 hours from Vegas, saw over 1.5 million annual visitors.
Great Basin National Park seems to fly under the tourist radar mostly due to its remote location on U.S. Highway 50, over a hundred miles from the nearest interstate, in a state not particularly known for outdoor adventures. Still, Great Basin offers national park buffs with several must-see attractions: the Lehman Caves, Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, a variety of hiking trails, bristlecone pine forest, and, of course, some excellent camping.
Camping at Great Basin National Park
The park has five developed campgrounds (Upper Lehman Creek, Lower Lehman Creek, Baker Creek, Grey Cliffs, and Wheeler Peak) and one primitive camping area along Snake Creek. Only Lower Lehman Creek Campground is open year-round—the remaining areas are closed from roughly November through April. During peak season, from roughly May through October, reservations must be made for camping at Upper and Lower Lehman and Wheeler Peak Campgrounds. In total, there are about 124 developed campsites available for tent or RV camping (but note, there are no hookups).
There are also some campgrounds outside the park, including private campgrounds in Nevada nearby, campgrounds on public lands, and dispersed (primitive) camping.
One of the biggest benefits of camping in Nevada at or around Great Basin N.P. is the low light pollution, which makes for some amazing stars at night. Interestingly, it is also known as the darkest place in the US.
If camping is not your thing, then a limited number of hotels and motels can be found in the area, with a few located near the park in or around Baker, NV, and more to be found in Ely, NV.
One of the most popular attractions in the park is visiting the Lehman Caves. At over two miles in length, this is the longest cave in Nevada. The caves are filled with many dramatic rock formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, and other rare speleothems—essentially unique shapes formed from mineralized limestone.
Entry to the caves is only allowed by guided tour, during which rangers explain the history, geology, and ecology of the caves. While tickets can be purchased at the visitor center, cave tours regularly sell out and reservations are recommended.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
Another popular attraction is the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. This 12-mile paved road (NV-488) is steep and winding with an average grade of 8%. The scenic drive starts near the Great Basin Visitor Center at an elevation around 5600 feet on the desert floor. Over the course of the 12-mile drive, visitors will ascend over 4,000 feet into the South Snake Range. The drive ends at just over 10,000 feet in elevation near Wheeler Peak Campground.
As you rise in elevation, the scenic drive passes through numerous ecological zones, and the landscape evolves from sagebrush to pinyon pine forest to mountain mahogany to mixed conifer forest and finally to alpine aspen groves.
From the Bristlecone Parking Area, near Wheeler Peak Campground, hikers can access several excellent trails. One easier hiking option is the Alpine Lakes Loop, a 2.7-mile round trip hike with about 440 feet in elevation gain. This trail passes a pair of beautiful alpine lakes and offers excellent views of Wheeler Peak. Though the trail is categorized as easy by the park service, it is located at very high elevation which carries added challenges.
Because of the high elevations reached on the scenic drive, it’s important to be aware of the dangers of altitude sickness. In general, if you plan to hike at the top of the scenic drive, try to acclimate by sleeping at least the night before at comparable elevation. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, nausea, shortness of breath, and a light-headed feeling. If you experience any of these symptoms while driving the scenic drive, or hiking on high elevation trails, it’s important to discontinue the activity and descend to a lower elevation immediately until symptoms abate.
For more adventurous hikers, there is a strenuous trail to the top of Wheeler Peak, the second-tallest mountain in Nevada. The trailhead is located at the Summit Trail Parking Area near the top of the scenic drive. The trail is 8.6 miles, round trip, with 3,100 feet in elevation gain! Hikers will want to make sure they’re in suitable physical shape and properly acclimated to the elevation before attempting this hike.
The above are just two hikes at Great Basin N.P., and there are plenty more trails in the park. Check out the NPS webpage for more information.
Another highlight of a visit to Great Basin N.P. is checking out a bristlecone pine grove. The Great Basin bristlecone pine is one of the oldest-living lifeforms and trees on Earth. Individual bristlecones have been estimated to live for thousands of years, with some specimens reaching over 4,000 years old. These hearty trees have dense wood and twisty trunks, growing out of improbable rocky cracks or on exposed ridgelines, challenging locations in harsh and windy environments where other trees can’t survive.
There are three bristlecone pine forests in Great Basin National Park, but only one of them is accessible by developed trail. The Wheeler Peak Grove can be reached by a 1.5-mile (one-way) trail from Wheeler Peak Campground.
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Cover image: Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Sschremp/Adobe