An Overlander’s Guide to Great Basin National Park 

 October 23, 2023

By  Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

Great Basin National ParkNestled within the peaks of Nevada’s Snake Mountains, just a stone’s throw from the Utah border, lies a hidden outdoor paradise – Great Basin National Park. Far from the bustling cities, this remote park remains an unspoiled wilderness filled with natural wonders waiting to be explored.

Ancient bristlecone pines, whose gnarled trunks have weathered thousands of years, dot the slopes. Down below, the mystical Lehman Caves beckon you to uncover their subterranean secrets. When night falls, some of the darkest skies in the country open up to a celestial showcase of stars.

For overlanders seeking adventure, discovery and breathtaking scenery, Great Basin National Park delivers. Grab your camping gear and hiking boots, because in this comprehensive guide, I’ll provide everything you need to know to plan your visit to this incredible park.

From the must-see sights to the hidden gems, you’ll have an unforgettable overlanding experience in this rugged corner of Nevada. Let’s hit the road and dive into the magic of Great Basin!

Getting to Great Basin National Park

Road into Great Basin National ParkThe nearest major town and airport to Great Basin National Park is Ely, Nevada, located about 120 miles east. While the park can be reached by car, one of the best parts of visiting is the scenic drives that connect it to major cities like Las Vegas, Reno, and Salt Lake City.

Driving from Las Vegas, take Highway 93 north through the Extraterrestrial Highway (Nevada State Route 375), famous for its otherworldly desert landscapes and proximity to the legendary Area 51. Make sure to stop at the quirky Alien Research Center in Hiko on your way.

Coming from Reno or Salt Lake City, take I-80 east until reaching Highway 93, then head south. This route winds through the desolate beauty of Nevada’s Snake Mountains, passing natural landmarks like Sacramento Pass and Connors Pass that hint at the geological wonders found in the park.

No matter which direction you come from, the scenic highways leading to Great Basin National Park build anticipation, passing through breathtaking deserts, mountain ranges, and high valley landscapes. After the majestic approach, you’ll be ready to explore the ancient bristlecones, Lehman Caves, and starry nights the park is known for.

Best Time to Visit Great Basin National Park

Stella Lake at Great Basin National ParkWith its range of elevations and seasonal variations, Great Basin National Park offers ever-changing beauty depending on when you visit.

Summer is peak season, when all areas of the park are accessible. Between June and August, daytime temperatures range from the 70s to 90s Fahrenheit.

Hiking trails open up for exploring bristlecone pine forests and mountain peaks. Wildflowers bloom in vivid colors across the meadows. Stargazing events run weekly during new moons. Just be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms.

Fall, from September to mid-November, brings fewer crowds and cooler weather, with daily highs from the 60s down to the 40s. Trees burst into brilliant shades of gold and red, making photography captivating.

Crisp sunny days are perfect for hiking the trails to see fall foliage against scenic backdrops. Stargazing events continue with much cooler nights. Some areas may become inaccessible due to snow at high elevations.

Spring, from mid-March to May, is the transitional season, with lingering snow at high elevations. Hiking trails at middle elevations offer wildflowers, rushing streams, and views of distant snow-capped peaks.

Daytime temperatures range from 40s to 60s. Cave tours run on limited hours. Stargazing events may be impacted by wet weather.

Winter activities from December into March center around snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, with plentiful powder at high elevations. Temperatures plunge below freezing, and significant snowfall can lead to road closures.

Stargazing events are cancelled. But the frosted forests and mountains create uniquely beautiful scenes.

Camping Options at Great Basin National Park

Sunrise at Great Basin National ParkWith 5 developed campgrounds to choose from, Great Basin National Park offers numerous scenic and convenient places for overlanders to pitch a tent under the stars.

The Lower Lehman Creek Campground is open year-round with about 30 sites located alongside a flowing creek. Reservations are recommended in summer.

Amenities include flush toilets, drinking water, and picnic tables. Walking trails connect to the park’s main attractions.

The other 4 campgrounds – Baker Creek, Wheeler Peak, Grey Cliffs, and Snake Creek – operate on a first-come, first-served basis typically from late spring to early fall.

Wheeler Peak is set among bristlecone pines with amazing views of Nevada’s second tallest peak. Baker and Snake Creek feature riverside sites with access to trails. Grey Cliffs has only 10 primitive sites but incredible valley panoramas.

For those desiring more comfort, Baker, the closest town, offers motels like the Historic Silver Jack Inn, and RV parks with full hook-ups. Staying in town allows you to enjoy home-cooked meals and hot showers while still experiencing the park’s natural beauty each day.

With options for both convenient drive-up sites and peaceful backcountry camping, Great Basin’s campgrounds enable overlanders to choose their ideal way to spend nights under the stars.

Must-See Attractions at Great Basin National Park

Bristlecone Pine Grove at Great Basin National ParkWith ancient bristlecone pines, an underground cave system, and stunning scenic drives, Great Basin National Park packs numerous must-see attractions into its remote Nevada location.

The Bristlecone Pine Grove allows you to stand amid some of the oldest living trees on Earth, with many over 4,000 years old. Their twisted, gnarled trunks and windswept branches tell the tale of centuries of survival. The interpretive trail through the grove leads up to Wheeler Peak, where you can see the southernmost glacier in the U.S.

Lehman Caves hide an alien underground world, with intricate stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, and rare shield formations sculpted over millennia. Knowledgeable park guides lead daily tours that last about an hour, taking you through chambers like The Lodge Room, with its towering mineral columns.

For awe-inspiring above-ground scenery, Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive offers panoramic views as it winds past alpine lakes, through pinyon-juniper forests, and over high mountain passes. Stop at overlooks like the Bristlecone Grove and Mather Overlook to fully take in the park’s rugged beauty.

Other highlights include Lexington Arch, one of the largest limestone arches in the western U.S., the Mountain View Nature Trail with its abundance of birds and wildflowers, and the Grey Cliffs area with scenic hiking trails along Baker and Snake creeks.

From ancient bristlecones to limestone caves, alpine lakes, and desert ecosystems, the diversity of attractions at Great Basin National Park let you experience many of Nevada’s natural wonders all in one place. Come ready to learn about the forces that have shaped this landscape over thousands of years.

Wildlife Encounters at Great Basin National Park

Wildlife at Great Basin National ParkFor wildlife enthusiasts, Great Basin National Park provides opportunities to spot a diversity of desert and mountain species in their natural habitats.

Bighorn sheep are frequently seen grazing near Wheeler Peak Campground and descending the slopes early in the morning. Listen for the clacking of their horns as males battle for dominance. Ensure you keep ample distance from these large mammals.

Mule deer also roam the park, so watch for their bounding gaits and large ears along trails and meadows. Other mammals like yellow-bellied marmots, golden-mantled ground squirrels, and least chipmunks reveal themselves around rocky outcroppings and campsites.

With luck, you may glimpse elusive mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats, though sightings are rare. Your best chance is near dawn or dusk around Lehman Creek and Baker Creek.

For birdwatchers, Lexington Arch, Grey Cliffs, and the Nature Trail offer sightings of species like American kestrel, mountain bluebird, Clark’s nutcracker, and sage thrasher.

By respecting wildlife and giving them space, you’ll have the chance to observe Great Basin’s diverse fauna undisturbed in their natural environment. The rare glimpses of bighorn sheep navigating sheer cliffs or a coyote streaking across the plains will create treasured memories.

Hiking Trails at Great Basin National Park

Hiking at Great Basin National ParkWith over 60 miles of hiking trails winding through diverse landscapes, Great Basin National Park is a paradise for hikers of all abilities.

The popular Bristlecone and Glacier Trail combines high-elevation bristlecone groves with lush mountain meadows. The 4.6 mile loop showcases ancient twisted trees and ends at a permanent ice field – the southernmost glacier in the U.S.

For peak-baggers, the strenuous 9-mile Wheeler Peak Summit Trail climbs over 3,000 feet to the top of Nevada’s second-highest mountain. The 360-degree views from the 13,063-foot summit are worth every step.

Families enjoy the easy 1-mile Sky Islands Forest Trail loop through pinyon-juniper woodlands filled with birds and flowers. Interpretive signs describe the unique island-like ecosystems found at this middle elevation.

Other notable trails include the Lexington Arch Trail passing the park’s massive arch, the Osceola Ditch Trail following a 19th-century mining ditch, and the Baker and Johnson Lake Trails leading to scenic alpine lakes.

With trails catering to all hiking abilities and interests, Great Basin’s paths deliver stunning and varied scenery, from sagebrush deserts to conifer forests to alpine peaks. Follow them to discover secluded wilderness and panoramic vistas.

Stargazing in Great Basin National Park

Stargazing at Great Basin National ParkWith some of the darkest night skies in the country, Great Basin National Park is a mecca for stargazing. This remote desert park was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2016 for its minimal light pollution.

On moonless nights, thousands of stars blaze brightly overhead. Stretching from horizon to horizon, the cloudy band of the Milky Way reveals itself in sharp detail. You can even spot nebulas, star clusters, and faraway galaxies with the naked eye.

Join a new moon Night Sky Program to learn about astronomy from experts and view planets, star clusters, and constellations through high-powered telescopes. Or attend a Full Moon Hike to explore the wilderness under magical moonlight.

For photographers, Great Basin’s dark skies are perfect for capturing the Milky Way’s mesmerizing glow using long exposure and high ISO techniques. Set up at overlooks like Angels Landing or the Snake Creek Parking Area and experiment with dark sky photography.

Plan your visit around meteor showers like the Perseids or Leonids to witness dazzling cosmic displays of shooting stars streaking through the darkness.

With sparklingly clear night skies unspoiled by light pollution, Great Basin becomes an astronomical wonderland after sunset. Lookup and be amazed by the breadth of the starry universe revealed overhead.

Safety Precautions

Safety considerations while stargazing at Great Basin National ParkHere are some tips to safely enjoy Great Basin National Park:

  • Prepare for variable weather conditions. The high elevation means temperatures can shift suddenly, bringing rain, snow, lightning, and high winds. Check forecasts and pack layers, as well as rain and cold weather gear.
  • Stay on designated trails. It’s easy to get turned around in remote backcountry areas. Carry a trail map and know your route.
  • Bring plenty of water. Dehydration comes quickly at high elevations. Hydrate well before hikes and carry more water than you think you’ll need.
  • Watch your step. Trails can be rocky and uneven with loose gravel. Wear sturdy hiking shoes with good traction to avoid slips or ankle rolls. Trekking poles provide stability.
  • Avoid wildlife encounters. Give bighorn sheep, elk, and other large animals a wide berth. Never approach or feed them. Watch for rattlesnakes near creeks.
  • Know your limits. Altitude sickness is a real concern. Ascend gradually and be ready to turn around if you develop symptoms. The steep trails are strenuous; don’t overexert.
  • Tell someone your plans. Share your detailed itinerary with a friend or family member before heading into the backcountry.

Staying safe enhances the enjoyment of this incredible park. Follow park guidelines, plan ahead, and use caution to make the most of your Great Basin adventure.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace guidelines at Great Basin National ParkHere are some tips for practicing Leave No Trace ethics during your visit to Great Basin National Park:

  • Pack out all trash, even small items like food scraps or tissues. Use portable ashtrays if smoking. Recycle what you can in the park bins.
  • Stick to established trails and campsites to avoid trampling vegetation and causing erosion. Walk single file on trails to minimize impact.
  • Properly dispose of human and pet waste. Bury solid human waste at least 6 inches deep and pack out toilet paper.
  • Leave natural objects like rocks, plants, artifacts, and fossils undisturbed. Avoid damaging live trees by hammering nails or peeling bark.
  • Prevent fires outside of designated fire rings. Ensure any fires are completely extinguished before leaving.
  • Respect wildlife by observing from a distance. Never approach, feed, or follow animals.
  • Camp at least 200 feet from water sources like streams or lakes. Avoid using soap in water sources.
  • Keep noise levels down so as not to disturb wildlife or other visitors.

By following Leave No Trace guidelines, we can protect Great Basin National Park’s ecological health and beauty for future generations to enjoy. Do your part when visiting this natural wonder.

Nearby Attractions

Cathedral Gorge State Park, nearby attraction to Great Basin National ParkHere are some suggestions for nearby attractions to extend your Great Basin National Park adventure:

Just 30 minutes south, Cathedral Gorge State Park’s striking clay spires and cliffs make for great photo ops and short hikes. Catch magical sunbeams streaming through the aptly named Cathedral gorge at sunset.

Kershaw-Ryan State Park, about 90 minutes north, offers shady cottonwood groves and lush wetlands along the banks of Hendry’s Creek. Spot birds and wildlife from kayaks or take the hiking trails to old homestead ruins.

For a longer road trip adventure, head north into Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest with its epic rugged peaks begging to be climbed. Or go deeper into the national park system at Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks showcasing vibrantly colored hoodoos and massive sandstone cliffs.

Extend your Great Basin stargazing at the ultra-dark skies of Nevada’s Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area just across the border. Or soak in the otherworldly landscapes around Area 51’s Extraterrestrial Highway.

With so much natural beauty surrounding it, Great Basin makes an ideal starting point to explore Eastern Nevada and beyond. Use it as a gateway to plan an epic overlanding road trip through some of the American West’s most awe-inspiring wild places.

Frequently Asked Questions about Great Basin National Park

When is the best time of year to visit Great Basin National Park?

The most popular times are summer and fall when daytime temperatures are warm but comfortable for hiking. Summer wildflowers are beautiful but thunderstorms are common. Fall offers cooler weather and stunning changing leaves with fewer crowds. The park is open year-round but winter brings very cold temps and snow.

What is there to do in the park besides hiking?

Great Basin offers ranger-led cave tours, astronomy programs, guided wildlife watching, Junior Ranger programs for kids, and art classes. You can participate in a moonlight hike, take scenic drives, go horseback riding, or enjoy a picnic.

What type of clothing and gear should I pack?

Prepare for variable mountain weather. Bring layers, wind/rain jacket, warm clothing for evenings, and sun protection. Have sturdy hiking shoes with traction and plenty of water. Don’t forget photography gear for scenic vistas and night skies.

Can I see the Milky Way at night?

Yes! With dark, clear skies the Milky Way is visible arcing across the sky. New moon nights are ideal for stargazing. Avoid full moons which can make the Milky Way harder to see.

Are pets allowed in the park?

Leashed pets are welcome in developed areas like campgrounds, roads, parking areas, and viewpoints. But they are prohibited on hiking trails, in the backcountry, and in caves. Leave pets at home if planning more remote adventures in the park.

How strenuous are the hikes?

Trails range from easy nature walks to extremely strenuous mountain climbs. Know your limits. Wheeler Peak is a challenging all day hike. Carry proper supplies and pace yourself due to the high elevation.

Final Thoughts On Great Basin National Park

Nestled high in Nevada’s basin and range country, Great Basin National Park remains a remote outpost harboring natural treasures that harken back to the Earth’s distant past. After adventuring through its landscapes, one realizes the aptness of its name – this place is truly great.

Like a time capsule, Great Basin’s bristlecone pines have weathered thousands of years, its caverns speak of monumental geologic changes, and its night skies evoke deep wonder about our infinitesimal place in the universe. To explore here is to reconnect with the raw, wild essence of the world before modern life existed.

As you stand among the most ancient of living things, watch a meteor blaze across the Milky Way, or hear the eerie sounds of cave formations growing, you feel insignificantly small and significantly connected. A sense of enduring wisdom sinks in. Places like this are becoming rarer, so we must cherish and safeguard them.

For overlanders ready to be humbled, exhilarated and restored by nature’s power, Great Basin delivers. Let the sagebrush trails, starry nights and quiet moments of reflection in this remote corner of the Nevada desert refresh your spirit. Then continue forth, taking the wonder of Great Basin with you.

Have you visited Great Basin National Park? If so, what did I miss in this overlander’s guide?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thank you for your input! It is greatly appreciated!

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

Dark Sky Overland is an overland lifestyle brand that was created to support the various trips I take to National Parks and other designated Dark Sky Parks within the United States. It was also born out of a strong desire to simplify life after my wife of over 24 years passed away from a three year battle with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). You can learn more about my story at https://darkskyoverland.com/about/.

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

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