Given the popularity of my other post on Great Basin National Park, I have decided to publish this second post. This article was originally intended for magazine publication, but without encountering luck in that market, I hope those seeking information on the park will find this article useful on my blog. For an account of my own road trip to Great Basin, as well as pictures, click here.
Located 234 miles west of Salt Lake City, 286 miles north of Las Vegas, 385 miles west of Reno, and just off the highway designated the “Loneliest Road in America,” one doesn’t visit Great Basin National Park simply because they’re passing through. You have to want to come here. With highlights including 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak in the backdrop, 5,000 year old bristlecone pine trees, the southernmost glacier in the United States, and the highest rock art concentration in the state of Nevada, Great Basin has plenty to see for visitors to make the trip worthwhile.
According to Ranger Katie Duncan, a member of Great Basin’s seasonal summer staff, “we love the seclusion.” 85,000 people on average visit the park annually and the vast majority visit in the summer. Although the park is open 362 days per year, some days in the winter months the park sees no visitors. In comparison, according to records kept by the National Park Service, approximately 4.4 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park annually, and 2.7 million people visit Zion National Park.
Lehman Caves, the centerpiece attraction of the park, was discovered in the early-1880s by Ab Lehman. Cave tours have been happening since the mid-1880s, when Ab Lehman would sit at the entrance to the cave, charge people $1 and give them a candle to explore the cave on their own for 24 hours. Things were different back then, as people would show up for tours in suits and dresses, the caves were pitch-black, and if your candle went out you would have to wait until your 24 hours were up and someone would come looking for you. While special 60-minute guided candlelight tours are now offered on weekends in the summer months, most people visiting the caves have the privilege seeing it lit by electricity.
Caves tours are available daily year round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Two options are available – the 60-minute Lodge Room tour and the 90-minute Grand Palace tour. Children under 5 are not allowed on the Grand Palace tour, and children under 12 are not permitted on the candlelight tour. Ticket prices are $10 adult/$5 child for the 90-minute tour and $8 adult/$4 child for the 60-minute tour. Advance reservations are recommended in the summer months, when tours have been known to sell out. Tours are limited to 20 people.
Our tour guide for the 90-minute Grand Palace tour was Alex Jones, a conservation biology major at Arizona State University. According to Jones, the Grand Palace room is his favorite because there are “so many really cool formations like the parachute shield and the bulbous formation.” If you have the time, and are not travelling with small children, the 90-minute tour is worth the extra $2.
In addition to Lehman Caves, 40 caves may be found in Great Basin National Park, 8 of which can be explored after acquiring a special permit one may obtain through the Visitor’s Center. Rangers recommend you apply online two weeks before your planned visit.
Hiking & Camping Opportunities
As the majority of trails are located above 9,000 feet and covered with snow most of the year, the hiking season is generally limited to June through September. Trails range in length from the 0.3 mile Mountain View Nature Trail, accessible from the Lehman Caves Visitor’s Center to the 13.1 mile Baker Lake/Johnson Lake Loop with an elevation gain of 3,290 feet. For moderate hikes, check out the 2.7 mile Alpine Lakes Loop Trail and the 4.6 mile Bristlecone and Glacier Trail. Both trailheads are accessible from the Wheeler Peak Campground. The later trail passes through a 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine forest and ends at the only glacier in the state of Nevada. At the southern end of the park, and 25 miles south of the town of Baker, is the 3.4 mile Lexington Arch Trail. This trail, only accessible via unpaved road, leads to a six-story limestone arch.
Lower Lehman Creek Campground is the only campground open year round. Weather permitting, Upper Lehman Creek Campground, Baker Creek Campground, and Wheeler Peak Campground are open mid-May through September. Camping spaces are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and advance reservations are not available. Camping fees are $12 per night, $6 for Golden Age/Golden Access cardholders or when water is not available. There are also two primitive campgrounds located along Snake Creek and Strawberry Creek Roads, with sites available free of charge. Be prepared for cold temperatures and the possibility of snow during the summer months.
Wildlife found in the park include mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, badgers, rabbits, rodents, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelopes, elk, and several species of bats. The park offers excellent opportunities for bird watching, and bird checklists may be obtained from the park’s visitor centers. Additionally, according to Park Superintendent Andy Ferguson, Great Basin is the home to “charismatic microfauna” – a scorpion with no sting, shrimp with no eyes, and six new fly species that had not been previously identified elsewhere.
Spring is the best time for wildflower viewing in the park. In general, wildflowers are at their peaks in early spring at lower elevations and late spring at higher elevations. Prime areas for wildflower viewing include the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, Island Forest Trail and Baker Creek Trail.
In summer the historic orchard planted by Ab Lehman, adjacent to where the Lehman Caves Visitor’s Center now stands, has apples, apricots, pears, and peaches. Visitors can pick their own and take home a basket of fruit if they would like. Campfire programs are offered on the weekends, with topics including caves, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and the pinyon pine.
The first annual Great Basin National Park Astronomy Festival was held in August 2010. Stargazing in the park is generally good year round; in 2005 the National Park Service Night Sky Team determined Great Basin National Park to be one of the darkest places in the country.
Pinyon pine nut collecting is allowed in the park in the fall only. Individual households can collect up to 25 pounds of pine nuts annually for personal use, but commercial gathering is not permissible. Collectors are not allowed to drive off paved roads, and breaking off branches or climbing on trees is forbidden.
Winter is by far the quietest season in the park. While Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and Baker Creek Road are both closed to vehicles during winter months, these routes are open for skiing and snowshoeing. A number of trails at lower elevations are popular for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Experts might challenge themselves to summit Wheeler Peak, Jeff Davis Peak or Bald Mountain, but the avalanche risk is high.
Andy Ferguson, Park Superintendent for the last two years, spoke of how Great Basin is the way national parks in the United States used to be. He’s made a career of working with the National Park Service at a number of sites and described his assignment at Great Basin as the park he’s “been looking for his whole career.”
For more information: Visit http://www.nps.gov.grba