Ancient trees, glacial lakes, and space to be alone make Great Basin National Park worth the drive.
The remoteness of Great Basin National Park—on the eastern border of Nevada, 250 miles southwest of Salt Lake City and 320 miles north of Las Vegas—makes it one of the least-visited national parks. Consider that a good reason to make the trip.
Great Basin offers hikes to ancient pine forests and pristine mountain lakes where you can wander for hours without seeing a soul. Its isolation, elevation (6,825 feet at the visitor center), and desert air give the park some of the darkest night skies in the lower 48: You can see five planets, meteors, man-made satellites, and thousands of stars. As it happened, I had to wait until the end of my visit for the celestial display. No matter. By then I had enjoyed plenty of earthly wonders.
I began with a 12-mile scenic drive to the 10,000-foot mark on 13,065-foot Wheeler Peak. In the Snake River basin below, cattle grazed and giant swathes of sunlight and shadow slid across the plain to the purplish majesty of the range beyond. The Great Basin—so called because its waters don’t run to the sea—comprises hundreds of such landscapes between the Sierra Nevada and Utah’s Wasatch range. This park sums it up in just 77,100 acres. (Yosemite has 747,956.)
A trail at the end of the drive leads to one of the park’s marvels: a grove of ancient bristlecone pines, sculpted by wind and weather into shapes as sinuous as driftwood, some of them 5,000 years old. Farther on lie two of the park’s six small lakes, Stella and Teresa.
After a day of solitary hiking I joined 20 people—a crowd around these parts—in Lehman Caves, the underground chamber that has awed visitors since a local rancher, Absalom Lehman, began guiding tours through it in the 1880s. “Back then, people saw only what a candle lantern would show,” ranger Mason Danner told our group, his own lamp revealing just hints of nearby formations. Then he hit the spotlights, and we gasped. Intricate multihued formations suggesting drapery, terraced steps, and church spires, sculpted by water dripping through millennia, writhed into the distance.
Lehman Caves is the area’s most popular attraction. Lexington Arch is among the loneliest. To reach it I left the park, drove into Utah, then reentered Nevada on an unpaved road. At the end of a 1.7-mile hike, the six-story arch frames the narrow end of Lexington Canyon like an immense limestone wave. From its base you can gaze across the canyon and the basin beyond.
On a clear day, visibility in the park exceeds 100 miles. I wanted a clear night, but every evening, clouds closed ranks. When they finally opened for just a moment, there was the Milky Way, a crisp ribbon of stars and dust, and the brilliant reddish glow of Mars. I didn’t have time to count the planets, but I had seen enough of the dazzling display to know I’d be back.
Photography courtesy National Park Service
This article was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.