Road Trip to Great Basin National Park

This past Thursday my husband and I made the 6-hour trek up north from Las Vegas to Great Basin National Park, one of the newest and least visited national parks in the United States. Despite the surprisingly winter-like weather for the middle of June, it was well worth the trip. Here are some spots worth checking out along the journey:

Half-way between Las Vegas and Ely lies the town of Caliente, Nevada (population 1,123 – which makes it one of the largest towns we passed through along our journey). Several restaurants are situated along US-93 in town. We chose to eat at the Knotty Pine merely because of it’s name. We were so impressed by the quality of food and service in this typical American diner that we ate lunch here on our trip to Great Basin and stopped again for breakfast on our trip home. Standard diner fare is served up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had the ‘diet plate’ – a 4-ounce grilled chicken breast served with cottage cheese and raw veggies while my husband tried a mushroom Swiss burger and raved about the French fries. According to my husband, their biscuits and gravy are worth a special trip from Vegas as well. A small lounge is attached to the restaurant with a full bar and a handful of slot machines.

The Knotty Pine Restaurant in Caliente, Nevada serves up wholesome American diner fare with great service and great prices.

Arriving at Great Basin National Park in mid-afternoon on Thursday, we learned that their 2 lower campgrounds were already full for the night. We opted to stay at Wheeler Peak Campground at 10,000-feet elevation, which without running water, only cost $6 per night. The campground was sparsely populated and the scenery absolutely pristine, but we woke up the following morning to 30-degree Fahrenheit temperatures and later snow! A fast approaching storm cut our camping experience short, so we were only able to enjoy 1-full day in this great park.

The view we were blessed to wake up to at Wheeler Peak Campground, Great Basin National Park.

Friday morning we went on a 90-minute tour of Lehman Caves, the centerpiece of the park. I bought my tickets in advance over the telephone and I was glad I did. Although we would have likely been able to get on a tour later in the day, we learned that over 40,000 people visit the caves each summer and our tour was sold out with 21 people. I would definitely recommend the 90-minute tour over the 60-minute one. There is not much difference in price and you get to see far more of the cave.

Inside Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park

In the afternoon, we had hoped to hike the 2.6 mile Alpine Lakes Trail that passes by Stella and Teresa Lakes, or the 4.6 mile Bristlecone/Glacier Trail that passes by 4,000 year-old trees and the southernmost glacier in the United States. Both trails leave from near Wheeler Peak Campground and were covered in snow and nearly impossible to navigate. We met some other folks on the trail who were on snowshoes and commented that this had been a late winter. By June of last year, we would have had better luck hiking and being able to follow a trail.

Lehman Creek runs through Wheeler Peak Campground. Snow covered much of the hiking trails in mid-June.

The weather forced us down the mountain a day earlier than we had anticipated, and we were lucky to grab 1 of 3 rooms that was left at the Historic Hotel Nevada & Gambling Hall in Ely, Nevada, about 65 miles west of Great Basin National Park. This 63-room hotel, built in 1929, has rooms starting from $38.85 per night (tax included). The hospitality here reminded me of what Vegas used to be. Upon check-in we received coupons for 1 complimentary draft beer each, 1 complimentary margarita each, and $2 free blackjack play each. Two nights at this hotel meant twice as many coupons.

The historic Hotel Nevada & Gambling Hall, built in 1929 in Ely, Nevada.

The budget rooms are clean and comfortable, but nothing fancy. The more expensive suites are named after famous people who have stayed at the hotel over the years (Wayne Newton, Lyndon Johnson). The halls are decorated with historic Old West kitsch, pioneer inspired murals, and old newspaper clippings. The hotel’s cafe serves up decent food at reasonable prices. In the basement, I tried my hand at blackjack for the first time in my life and came out $5 ahead (I’m a pretty conservative gambler).

Friday night we walked nearly the entire length of Aultman Street, the main street in town and nearly 2 miles long, for dinner at the Prospector Cafe at the Prospector Hotel & Casino. The evening special was 1-pound of crab legs for $15.95, and includes soup or salad, starch and veggies. I opted for the chicken dinner, which I had been craving all week, and was suprisingly good for only $11. This was enough food for 2 people – half a fried chicken dipped in a honey batter, salad, corn on the cob, cole slaw, mashed potatoes and gravy, and bread rolls.

Saturday was raining nearly all day, so we bought tickets on the Northern Nevada Railway. This national historic landmark has the same designation as the White House and Independence Hall. For $24, one can take a 90-minute guided ride on the 100+ year stream train, followed by an optional hour tour of the shop/museum where they build and repair trains. Special trains are occassionally offered throughout the year – chocolate dessert trains, dinner trains, 4th of July fireworks trains, haunted Halloween trains, and a polar express train around the holidays.

The historic steam train we rode on at the Northern Nevada Railway in Ely, Nevada.

On the train ride back, we passed the Big 4 Ranch and Stardust brothels, the conductor proudly boasting that “prostitution is legal in Nevada.” One of the girls who works at Big 4 Ranch came outside to wave at the train, and my husband and I noticed the sign that read “Bar Open.” Our options still limited by rain to explore outdoor activities, we decided to give the brothel’s bar a try. We enjoyed several drinks here while chatting with one of the girls and the bartender.

This painting is the backdrop of the bar at the Big 4 Ranch, the oldest legal brothel still in use in the state of Nevada.

While the trip didn’t quite turn out as we had planned, it was a great escape from the craziness of Vegas into northern Nevada territory where people are much more friendly, life is much slower and simpler, and people are not overly obsessed with blackberries. This was also a great recession-proof trip, with the entire 4-day trip costing around $350 for two people.

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2 Responses to Road Trip to Great Basin National Park

  1. beckyajohnson says:

    For those interested, I posted a second blog about Great Basin National Park. This one was initially intended to be a magazine article, so has a bit different information. The post can be found at:

  2. Beth says:

    Becky, what a great post, loved the photos! Makes me wish I lived out west. Exploring more of the National Parks is high on my list of things to do. Beth

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