My western adventure was a fairly loose mess—willy-nilly and largely unplanned. After my exit from the surprisingly wintry experience at Overland Expo, I ventured into the Silver State and moseyed 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. Watching the drama play out at Great Basin was captivating.
Great Basin basics
Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada is one of the least-visited national parks. Just a handful of miles from the Utah boundary, 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. They are your connection to current maps, event schedules, special notices about road closures and park conditions. Take the opportunity to chat with park rangers about how best to spend your time. They are a fabulous resource.
Created in 1986, Great Basin is home to surprisingly diverse ecosystems including desert, grassland, alpine, several types of forest communities, and a 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine forest. From about 5,300 feet above sea level at the visitor center in Baker, the park reaches 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 trails climbing above 10,000 feet. High-clearance vehicles are necessary to access many areas of the 77,000-acre park. In addition to all of that, Great Basin is also home to the spectacular Lehman Caves and the famous “Parachute” shield formation.
Lehman Caves is carved from the soft limestone of the Snake Range and is a great choice if you have limited time at the park. 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 even though I was edgy about it on Frankenleg, I made it through just fine. Due to the delicate nature of the caves there are limits on what visitors can bring on the tours. You’ll want a coat, a handheld camera, and a flashlight or headlamp. No backpacks, food or drink, or tripods allowed.
There are a couple of different cave tours to chose from. I took the Grand Palace Tour and really enjoyed it even though I’m not really much of a cave enthusiast. It’s a well-done tour and I appreciated the balance of humor, seriousness, and information that appealed across age ranges. With my experience in becoming a Certified Southern Appalachian Naturalist I know that creating a good interpretive program is a lot harder than it seems. Congratulations to the park service on their work here.
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. 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, the first director of the National Park Service, 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 attempted some time-lapse photography until incoming snow urged me back to the warmth of camp.
The Baker Creek area is what made me fall in love with Great Basin National Park. Accessible by a well-maintained gravel road, the area offers campgrounds and hiking trails sprinkled in aspen and pine forests. This is where I had virtually all of my wildlife encounters.
I took a small hike up the trail towards Baker Lake. Battling inclement weather, a late start, and a gimpy leg, 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.
Pressing further into the pine woodlands I had 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 cautious. 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.
For me, and many other hikers on the trail that day, the basic maps the park service gives away are somewhat confusing. They just don’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
I arrived at Great Basin National Park much later in the day than I had hoped to. I was tired. A storm was pushing in. And it takes me a lot longer to set up camp than it used to. I didn’t have time to explore the different campground options, so I just dove into Upper Lehman Creek Campground, found a site, and pitched my tent.
There are 22 campsites, with a wide variety of shapes and sizes, tucked into the trees along Upper Lehman Creek. I loved the privacy the trees provide. 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 basic sites with picnic tables and fire rings. The campground has vault toilets, trash cans, and recycling disposal. Water is only available seasonally and was still turned off during my visit in late May. Fortunately, my inquiry with a ranger pointed me toward a water spigot at the Lehman Visitor Center where I could refill my containers.
It turned out to be really nice camping. During my stormy visit, brief breaks in the cloud cover delivered great starwatching. And, in my book, there’s nothing better than camping with 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 feels 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.
Great Basin offers a broad, deep, and wide selection of hikes. Short or long, easy or challenging, you should be able to find something that suits your style, mood, or the day’s conditions. When I saw what was available I was nearly overwhelmed by the choices. Then my reality check set in and I realized my personal situation left me with only a couple of options. Between the inclement weather, the road to Wheeler Peak still closed 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.
Things 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 but don’t expect huge choices and vast quantities.
Great Basin National Park is well worth a visit. Its remoteness means it is often overlooked. That’s 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. But I saw improvements in my abilities so that also counts as a win.
Those challenges impacted my photography and my ability to capture the magnificence of this special place. 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 Zenfolio album.
And in the meantime, here’s a little video of my time at Great Basin National Park. Enjoy!