Great Basin National Park
My western adventure was a fairly loose mess; largely unplanned and willy-nilly. After my exit from the surprisingly wintry experience at Overland Expo, I ventured into the Silver State and mozied my way towards Great Basin National Park, a place I’ve long wanted to visit.
Nevada’s weather is notoriously volatile and proved it with conviction while I was there. I battled storms and chilly temperatures my entire stay but I will say there is something captivating about watching the drama play out at Great Basin.
Great Basin Basics…
Great Basin National Park is nestled in eastern Nevada and is one of the least-visited national parks. Just a handful of miles from the Utah border, the town of Baker is the gateway to the park and where you’ll find the main visitor center. I always recommend stopping into visitor centers to get current maps, event schedules, special notices about road closures and park conditions, as well as to chat with park rangers about how best to spend your time there. They are a fabulous resource.
Created in 1986, Great Basin is home to surprising diverse ecosystems including desert, grasslands, alpine, several types of forest communities, and 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine forest. From about 5,300 feet above sea level at the visitor center in Baker, the park stretches up to over 13,000 feet at Wheeler Peak. That elevation span, courtesy of the basin and range geology (insert Valgasm here…) of the area, is what makes for such dramatic ecology in the park. (For more info, check out these videos from the National Park Service.)
Great Basin is also very rugged (it is Nevada, after all) with many areas of the 77,000-acre park only accessible by high clearance vehicles and many trails over 10,000 feet. In addition to all of that, Great Basin is also home to the spectacular Lehman Caves and the famous “Parachute” shield.
Lehman Caves is carved from the soft limestone of the Snake Range and is one of the easiest experiences to have at the park if you have limited time. The cave tours cover largely smooth, paved surfaces, although the terrain can be slippery at times and there some narrow passages. That just how caves work. They’re wet, dark, cold, and often narrow.
There are lots of handrails to help and I can say that even though I was edgy about it on Frankenleg, I made it through just fine. Also be aware that because of the delicate nature of the caves, visitors are limited as to what they can bring into the caves. Basically you’ll want a coat, a handheld camera, and a flashlight or headlamp. No backpacks, food or drink, or tripods can be carried along.
Having said all that, there a couple of different tours you can take and I’d recommend taking one. I’ll admit to not really being that into caves and I really enjoyed this tour in spite of myself. It’s a well-done tour and I appreciated the balance of humor, seriousness, and information presented that appealed across age ranges. As you know, I’m a Certified Southern Appalachian Naturalist, and creating a good program is a lot harder than it seems. So props to the park service on that.
And if you’re a geocacher, don’t forget to nab the earthcache there. It’s excellent. Look it up before you take the tour so you can be sure to gather all of the information you need, although it isn’t necessary to take the tour to complete the cache.
The Lehman Visitor Center has a cafe, gift shop, and restrooms to make your visit more comfortable.
For many park visitors, a scenic drive is all they’re after or all they have time for as they breeze through. The drive to Mather Overlook from the park entrance delivers some spectacular views and insight into the landscape of the park.
The Overlook is named for Stephen Mather and offers a view of Wheeler Peak as well as a grand vista across Snake Valley. The overlook area is equipped with a picnic table, viewing scopes, and vault toilets. While I was there, I spent some time attempting time-lapses until incoming snow urged me back to the warmth of camp.
I only got to experience a small portion of the park for several reasons but the Baker Creek area is what made me fall in love with Great Basin National Park. It’s what helped me connect with its value as a park. Accessible by a well-maintained gravel road, the area is home to campgrounds and hiking trails sprinkled in aspen and pine forests. It was here that I had virtually all of my wildlife encounters.
I did a small hike up the trail towards Baker Lake. I was battling inclement weather, a late start, and a gimpy leg so I didn’t quite make it all the way there but what I did manage was excellent. It was a beautiful ascent through aspens to a meadow with a creek that was steaming as the sun broke through after a heavy rain.
And as I pressed further into the pine woodlands, I ended up having to traverse some snow patches before deciding I couldn’t make the whole loop and turning back. A couple of hefty jolts on Frankenleg as I slipped on the snow reminded me I still have substantial limitations and I needed to be smart. Yet in the midst of that, the beauty was startling. So I danced between navigating the difficulties of my situation and allowing myself to be enveloped by this remarkable place.
It should be noted that for me, and many other hikers on the trail that day, the basic maps were somewhat confusing. They just didn’t seem to jibe with the actual trails some of the time. At first I thought it was just me as I whipped out my compass to take bearings but everyone else I encountered was having the same issues. There are more detailed maps available for sale at the visitor center and, for this park, I highly recommend them even in the case of short, seemingly simple, hikes.
Upper Lehman Creek Campground…
When I arrived at Great Basin National Park, it was much later in the day as I’d hoped. I was tired. A storm was pushing in. And it takes me a lot longer to set up camp than it used to. That meant I didn’t have time to go exploring the different campground options so I just dove into Upper Lehman Creek campground, found a site, and threw up my tent.
Upper Lehman Creek has 22 campsites tucked into the trees along, you guessed it… Upper Lehman Creek. The effect is that the sites are highly variable in shape and size. I loved the visual privacy of the trees offered. The campground was surprisingly full when I arrived but I managed to find a site that I could cram my large tent on. There are larger sites that would have more easily accommodated the “condo” but they were occupied.
These are simple sites equipped with picnic tables and fire rings. The campground has vault toilets, trash cans, and recycling disposal. Water is only available seasonally and was still off during my visit in late May. Fortunately, my inquiry with a ranger pointed me toward a water spigot at the Lehman Visitor Center that I could refill my containers.
It proved to be really nice camping. In the brief breaks in cloud cover during my stormy visit, the star visibility was astounding. And, in my book, there’s nothing better than camping within earshot of the lullaby of a babbling creek.
There are a few campgrounds to choose from at Great Basin National Park. Now having a better feel for the park, I will most definitely camp at Baker Creek next time. Upper Lehman Creek was quite nice but Baker Creek just appeals to me more. The area felt more intimate and connected to the landscape.
As I mentioned, this is a very rugged park. Many areas are closed much of the year due to snow. And there are large swaths that are only accessible by high-clearance vehicles regardless of the time of year. IF you have that type of vehicle, the opportunities in this park expand exponentially.
There are a great many choices of excellent hikes at Great Basin of varying length and intensity. When I perused the offerings, I was like a kid in a candy store until my reality check set in and I realized my personal situation left me with only a couple of options. Between the inclement weather for the time I was there, the road to Wheeler Peak not yet open for the season, and Frankenleg only being good for a few miles, I was left with tackling a small section of the trail to Baker Lake. But there is so much more I look forward to exploring on my next visit.
Good to know…
As you can imagine, cell signal is spotty in this remote park so make sure you’re not relying on it.
And Baker, Nevada is a very small town. There are a couple of lodging, eating, and supply options to be had but be aware that the offerings are not extensive.
Great Basin National Park is well worth a visit. It’s out-of-the-way nature means it is often overlooked. Which is a shame. The diversity and opportunities here are akin to my beloved Great Smoky Mountains and the marvels of Death Valley National Park. Without the crowds.
Personally, the Baker Lake hike was a huge challenge for me but I consider it a success on many levels. The weather during my visit was also challenging, especially on the heels of Overland Expo, but I saw improvement in my ability to navigate my travel process so that also counts as a win.
But I realize those challenges impacted my photography and my ability to capture the magnificence of Great Basin. So I suppose I’ll just have to go back and try again. Until then, you can check out what I did manage to capture in my Great Basin Flickr album.
And in the meantime, here’s a little video of my time at Great Basin National Park. Enjoy!