Great Basin National Park is one of the best kept secrets of the park system. If you’re scratching your head wondering where exactly this park is, you’re not alone. Even once you know about it, it becomes quickly apparent that Great Basin is in the middle of nowhere. But with incredible cave formations, alpine vistas, desert floor, and bright night skies, the only thing missing is people. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Located in rural White Pine County in east-central Nevada near the Utah border, Great Basin is a landscape of big contrasts: long stretches of empty desert vie for attention with high alpine forests and underground caves. Arriving via Highway 50, aka the "Loneliest Highway in America," visitors are greeted by nothing but a four-way stop and a few scattered businesses. There’s a budget motel with rooms more closely resembling cargo containers than guest lodging, a gas station and convenience store, and a few roadside diners. Just around the corner, the entrance to Great Basin beckons with the familiar brown national park signage.
Once in the park, you’ll want to stop at Lehman Caves, adjacent to the park’s main visitor center (another center with additional exhibits for kids is below the park near Baker). Visitors must sign up for a guided tour to explore, and it’s recommended that you reserve tickets prior to arrival in the summer months (despite the low crowds, we saw people being turned away). Guides make it fun by offering geology lessons, historical anecdotes, and spooky stories as you explore the massive, tunneling caverns. Afterwards, take the short hike around the side of the visitor’s center to see the site of the original entrance.
High Alpine Views
Once you're ready for some altitude, head to Mt. Wheeler. This peak rises above the Great Basin and can be accessed by a scenic paved road. Be prepared to go slowly as it’s windy, and there are often RVs and trailers winding their way to the top along with you. Campgrounds are located along the way, so if you intend to sleep under the stars, you’ll be making this drive regardless. (Note: while the entrance to Great Basin is on the desert floor, campgrounds are at much higher elevation, plan accordingly).
The top of Mt. Wheeler road stops at 13,000 feet, at the Bristlecone Parking Area and Wheeler Peak Campground. This is a great place to get out and take the 2.7 mile Alpine Lakes Loop Trail. It’s fairly strenuous, but rewards hikers with two pristine bodies of water and plenty of shade through the forests.
That Sky Though
Visitors can see most, if not all, of Great Basin National Park in two days, but definitely plan to stay at least two nights to take advantage of one of the park’s biggest draws: the night sky. Stargazing is so big here, in fact, that multiple nighttime events and classes are held daily during peak season, including Junior Ranger activities. Thanks to very low light pollution in this part of rural Nevada, Great Basin enjoys stunningly bright stars.
Where to stay: If you don’t camp, the Border Inn is a funky, fun choice. It’s not much to look at (which is part of its charm), and attached to the area’s gas station. The owners and fellow visitors are friendly, however, and you’ll definitely feel like you’re getting the full desert road trip experience, from the dimly lit diner to the motorcycle groups rolling off Highway 50.