Exploring Nevada’s Great Basin National Park
One of the least-visited national parks in the Continental U.S. is right in Utah’s backyard, and despite its grove of ancient bristlecone pine trees, dark skies, and massive limestone and marble cavern, many Utahns haven’t visited, or even heard of, Great Basin National Park.
At just four hours and 240 miles from Salt Lake City, you’ll find none of the crowds of Utah’s national parks, but plenty of epic wonders and fall colors. Getting there requires an easy (and albeit boring) drive that passes through Delta, Utah and empty desert to Baker, Nevada—just across the stateline.
Break up the road trip with a stop at Delta’s Topaz Museum, which honors Japanese Americans internees relocated here during World War II. Or go mining for ancient trilobite specimens at U-DIG Fossil quarry.
But don’t dally too long, Great Basin National Park awaits. Driving through empty desert and flatlands, it’s hard to believe this park exists, but once you turn into Baker, Nevada, the landscape shifts, 13,064-foot Wheeler Peak rises above, and golden and yellow aspens dot the autumn landscape. And in the quiet fall season, you’ll have this 77,000-acre park practically to yourself. Hike backcountry trails for hours without seeing a soul! Whether you visit for a day or a weekend, don’t skip these Great Basin adventures.
Hike to Ancient Bristlecone Pines & Alpine Lakes
See the world’s oldest living organisms on this 2.8-mile roundtrip trail with interpretive signage explaining the age and stories of these ancient trees. Continue on to see Nevada’s only glacier at the base of Wheeler Peak, or connect to the 2.7-mile Alpine Lakes Loop to visit Stella and Teresa Lakes, with views of Wheeler Peak.
Stargaze Under Dark Skies
‘Half the park is after dark’ is a popular slogan at Great Basin, an International Dark Sky Park with some of the nation’s darkest skies for stargazing. See the Milky Way, thousands of stars, five of our solar system’s planets, and meteors on moonless nights, or catch a free, ranger-led on Saturday evenings astronomy program.
Tour Lehman Caves
Great Basin National Park is home to 40 known caves, but just one—Lehman Caves—is open to the public. This massive limestone and marble cave was discovered in 1885 by a rancher and miner and was first protected as a national monument in 1922. Hear stories of the cave’s past and see impressive stalagmites, stalactites, and the rare Parachute Shield formation on ranger-led tours offered year round.
Choose from one-hour guided Lodge Room walk or 90-minute Grand Palace tour, which includes extra rooms and shield formations. Tours are $9–$11 for adults; discounted for kids and seniors.
Drive Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
Beginning at the Park boundary on Nevada Highway 488, take a 12-mile trip on paved Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive to climbs to climb 4,000 feet on this winding path that crosses numerous ecological zones, changing from desert landscape to sub-alpine forest in minutes. End at the base of Wheeler Peak at 10,000 feet where many hiking trails begin. The white-barked aspens found here put on a spectacular show in fall, and it’s a perfect time to visit as the route closes for winter at the end of October.
Dine at Kerouac’s
You’d never expect incredible eats in this middle-of-nowhere town, but two seasoned New York natives set up shop in Baker, Nevada after visiting on a cross-country road trip, and the food alone might be worth the drive. Kerouac’s Restaurant and the Stargazer Inn is just steps away from the national park and open seasonally April–October. Kick off your day with veggie-filled frittatas, buttermilk biscuits, or avocado toast, or come for wood-fired pizzas and from-scratch American fare by night. Hear stories of other travelers over craft cocktails at Kerouac’s bar. And hang your hat at the adjacent motel if camping’s not your jam.
Where to Stay
Camping is primarily first-come, first-served, and while Wheeler Peak campground is the largest, it can be a bit cold for tent camping in fall. Instead, pitch a tent at one of 12 free sites along lower-elevation Snake Creek Road. The path there is dirt and no water is available, but picnic tables and clean pit toilets make it a lovely place to stay. Other $15 sites available along Lehman Creek.
For an unforgettable fall getaway without the crowds, don’t miss Great Basin National Park.