Date published: Tuesday, June 16, 2009
By Sara Benson
West of the Rocky Mountains, solitary Wheeler Peak (elevation 13,063 feet) rises above the Great Basin Desert in the rural outback of eastern Nevada, just shy of the Utah state line. Here ancient bristlecone pine trees, with their gnarled branches and torn-looking heartwood, grow at the edge of one of the southernmost glaciers in the USA. Down on the desert valley floor, meandering streams and rivers carve small lakes, a network of unique caves and even a singular limestone arch.
There’s no better place for getting away from it all than Great Basin National Park. In fact, you have to go out of your way just to find it, flung almost 300 miles away from the neon lights of Las Vegas. Just how isolated is Nevada’s outback cowboy country? The main access route, US Highway 50, was nicknamed “The Loneliest Road in America” by a Life magazine article in 1986. Today the highway even has its own tongue-in-cheek survival guide, available for free online.
If wide-open horizons and scarce crowds—of humans, that is, not wildlife—appeal, this place is for you. Some days your only company will be pygmy rabbits running through the sagebrush, which smells so sweetly after a thunderstorm, or the fearless yellow-bellied marmots and agile bighorn sheep that make their homes higher up in the granite talus slopes, reached via the 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Hardy hikers can even summit the peak in a day. Back down below, marbled Lehman Caves are another star attraction, with stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, flowstone and unusual shield formations. Ranger-guided cave tours are offered almost daily year-round; reservations are strongly recommended.
Given the 8,000 foot difference in elevation between the desert valley floor and the park’s mountainous heights, an enormous variety of life zones—grasslands, juniper-piñon pine forest, riparian, alpine—await exploration. Birding is a big draw along the scenic drive, where a varied palette of wildflowers bloom at higher elevations even into the summer months. New moon nights are perfect for stargazing, as Great Basin has some of the darkest night skies anywhere in the country. Given that two-thirds of Americans today can’t see the Milky Way from their own backyards, that may be reason enough to plan your next outdoor adventure here.
If You Go
Entry to Great Basin National Park is free. The park is open year-round, although few people visit during winter. Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is open as far as Upper Lehman Creek Campground all year long, with the final 9 miles up the mountain usually only open from June to October, depending on the weather. Come prepared for every kind of weather at any time of year. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in summer, when snow occasionally falls at higher elevations. Overnight lows regularly dip below freezing throughout winter and spring.
There is no public transportation to the park, which has four developed and two primitive campgrounds accessible by car. Campsites cost $12 per night and are first-come, first-served, so arrive early in the day during the busy summer season. Lower Lehman Creek Campground is open year-round; other campgrounds are generally open only from May to October, weather permitting. Bring your own water during late spring and early fall. The nearest gas, supplies, eateries and motels are in the tiny gateway town of Baker, Nevada. A 75-minute drive northwest, the city of Ely has more accommodations, restaurants and visitor services.
Photo of the Great Basin night sky courtesy of National Park Service