The AFT Guide to Great Basin National Park

Great Basin is one of the most vertically stunning parks in the system. From deep underground in Lehman Caves, up through thousands of feet of elevation and a different ecosystem in each climate along the way, all the way up to some of the darkest night skies in the country and star-gazing that’s pretty much impossible to beat, Great Basin is an under-the-radar gem of the NPS. (Read about our first visit to Great Basin here!)

sunset over wheeler peak in great basin national park

Where Great Basin is located:

Great Basin is located in Eastern Nevada, near the Utah border. 

Getting to Great Basin: 

The park is about 290 miles from Las Vegas, 390 from Reno, and 230 miles from Salt Lake City, all of which have major airports. Take I-80 from Reno or I-15 from Las Vegas or Salt Lake. Eventually you’ll turn onto US 50, dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America”.

There is no public transportation into the park—you’ll definitely need a car for this one.

driving into great basin national park

Where to stay in or near Great Basin:

There are several motel options in Baker, the gateway town to the park. The park also has five developed campgrounds, and we highly recommend camping out under the open skies. Only one of the campgrounds, Lower Lehman Creek, is open year-round.

There are several backcountry camping options along Snake Creek Road.

How long to stay at Great Basin: 

You can cover the highlights of the park in a full 2 days. A longer visit will allow for more hiking, some forays into the backcountry, and a better shot at crystal-clear night skies.

family with kids hiking in great basin national park

When to go to Great Basin: 

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the park are fantastic. Otherwise, a great time to visit is June to October, as the high country stays closed until the roads are clear (usually some time in June.) Early summer brings wildflowers to many areas, and fall sees stunning foliage break out all over the mountains.

Best for:

  • Caving
  • Hiking
  • History
  • Scenery
  • Star-gazing

Pair with:

There are several state parks in the area worth a visit on your way in or out. If you’re coming from the south, stop to check out the mudstone spires of Cathedral Gorge State Park and the multi-hued Rainbow Canyon south of Kershaw-Ryan State Park.

You could also make time for some hiking or boating and fishing at Spring Valley and Echo Canyon State Parks. Coming from the north, make a stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats and Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park

Activities:

Caving:

The spectacular Lehman Cave should be high on any Great Basin visitors to-do list. The cave is intricately decorated and allows visitors to get up-close views of formations (just don’t touch anything!!!) 

There are two options for seeing the cave: the 60-minute Lodge Room tour and the 90-minute Grand Palace tour. Children under 5 are not allowed on the Grand Palace tour from March to October. Both tours regularly sell out in advance; make reservations in advance here.

The rangers do a fantastic job of explaining the history of the cave, both its geology and its human history. Bring a jacket—the cave is a brisk 50 degrees year-round.

More advanced cavers can explore one of the other 40 caves in the park: Little Muddy. Those interested can submit a Cave Permit Application to access the cave from October through March.

Winter activities:

The park sees far fewer visitors in the winter. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers might feel like they have the place to themselves! 

Bring you own skis. Snowshoes are available for rent at the visitor center. There are no groomed trails.

Star-gazing:

Great Basin’s designation as an International Dark Sky Park means it is one of the best places in the world for star-gazing. Far from any sources of light pollution, with a high elevation and little humidity means very clear skies. You can see satellites, meteors, five planets and the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye, plus even more with the park’s stellar telescope.

Join a ranger-led astronomy program on Saturday nights from April through September (additional programs are offered during the summer, too.) There are also guided full-moon hikes and the possibility of using the park’s solar telescope to view the sun.

Hiking:

Hiking is the best way to experience Great Basin, especially in the high alpine area. Trails range from short wheelchair-accessible routes to extensive tromps into the backcountry.

Here are a few of the park’s stars:

Sky Islands Forest Trail

More of a stroll than a hike, this 0.4-mile trail has lots of interpretive signs and makes for a great introduction to the high-alpine zone of the park.

Bristlecone Trail

This 2.8-mile moderate trail is the best way to see the park’s iconic bristlecone pines. Some of these gnarled trees are 6000 years old; the oldest living ones are around 4000 years old. 

Glacier Trail

Continuing past the Bristlecone Trail for about a mile will lead you to a view of Nevada’s only glacier.

Wheeler Peak Summit Trail

This 8.6-mile trail involves an intense 2900-foot elevation gain. The reward is the unparalleled panoramic view from the summit, Nevada’s 2nd-highest peak. Start as early in the day as you can to avoid thunderstorms and heavy winds, especially in the late summer.

Alpine Lakes Loop Trail

This straightforward 2.7-mile trail leads past glistening lakes filled with snowmelt. The hike can easily be combined with a hike to the bristlecone pine area.

Grey Cliffs Trail

Hike into the canyon as far as you’d like, checking out a few pictograph caves along the way.

Baker Creek Trail

You can hike from the campground here to the Grey Cliffs campground, or head the other direction for a pleasant stroll along Timber and South Fork Baker Creeks.

Bringing Kids:

Great Basin is a great park for kids. Ours especially loved exploring Lehman Caves and learning about the ancient bristlecone pines. 

Be sure to pick up a jr. ranger book for your little people to work on throughout your time at the park. The book does a great job of teaching about the park and implementing new knowledge with the included activities. 

Barring the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail and backcountry trails, most of the hikes in the park are appropriate for kids accustomed to hiking (ask rangers for advice specific to your family’s skill level.) Be aware that hikes in the alpine zone of the park start above 10,000 feet. You’ll need more water, more breaks and more sunscreen when hiking at high elevation. 

Remember that while Great Basin is in the desert, it’s a cold desert. Be prepared for chilly weather, even in summer, especially at high elevations. You’ll definitely want jackets in Lehman Caves, too.

FAQ’s

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Great Basin National Park:

What are the best stargazing spots in the park? Also sunrise/sunset views?

The best stargazing spot is with a ranger and the park’s telescope at a Night Sky program. If the program isn’t on while you’re there, you honestly can’t go wrong—just find a clear view and take it all in!

Sunrise is amazing from the Wheeler Peak trailhead area, since you can get a great view of the light coming up over the valley. If you want to watch the sunset behind the peak, aim to be at the bottom near Baker late in the day. First you’ll get the last rays of light hitting the top of the peak, then sometime later you’ll get the colors hitting the sky from behind the mountain.

What are your recommendations for best family-friendly hikes?

Hiking around Grey Cliffs and Baker Creek is easy and pretty. The Bristlecone Trail and Alpine Lakes Loop are both appropriate for kids that have done some hiking before.

The high altitudes of some trails mean you’ll need more water than usual!

Are the campgrounds first-come, first-served? What are the chances of getting a campground with a reservation in advance?

Grey Cliffs is the only campground that accepts reservations. In general, you shouldn’t have a problem getting a spot in one of the other campgrounds. Try to get your spot in the morning if you’re coming on a summer weekend.

It’s always worth calling ahead to the visitors center and asking about typical visitation during the time you’re visiting. They can give you specific advice about when you should show up to make sure you get a spot—better safe than sorry!

What was the hardest part with this park and your littles?

We think of Great Basin as a very kid friendly park and didn’t really encounter any challenges here. The closest thing to a challenge is the weather. Things change quickly in the desert. No matter what time of year you visit, you might hit very cold weather (especially at high elevations at night, and always in Lehman Caves!) Wheeler Peak can get extremely windy and see lightning storms on summer afternoons. And in the high summer, the park can be blisteringly hot at low elevations. If you’re prepared, though, you won’t need to worry.

a bristlecone pine tree in great basin national park

Tips from our Readers:

“Look through their solar telescope if it’s possible!”

“Sacramento Pass BLM land is super close to Great Basin and is a wonderful boondocking spot!”

“Hopefully you will have good weather. We saw a phenomenal night sky there. And of course the cave!”

Final tips:

Great Basin National Park is one of the more remote national parks in the lower 48; that’s a huge part of its charm. That remoteness also means that you should make sure you’re extra prepared.

Make reservations in advance, bring warm clothes and rain gear, and load up on snacks and picnic supplies. With a few basic preparations, you’ll be ready to fully immerse yourself in this expansive landscape and fully soak up its wildness.

***This content was produced in partnership with Travel Mindset and Travel Nevada.

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