Five Days on the Great Basin Highway

Plan your journey to Nevada’s Great Basin Highway, the quintessential road trip.

jeep driving through nevada

We recently returned from a road trip through Eastern Nevada, from Great Basin National Park to Las Vegas. This is quintessential road trip country: wide open spaces, sprawling vistas, and loads of under-the-radar gems to stop at along the way.

Here’s how we spent our five days along the Great Basin Highway, along with some tips on getting the most out of your own road trip experience!

white jeep in nevada

Day 1 on the Great Basin Highway

The closest major airport to Great Basin National Park is in Salt Lake City, Utah. That’s where we flew in, picked up our rental car for the week, and hit the open road.

If you come this way, you’ll get to see the sparkling ancient lake bed of the Bonneville Salt Flats, one of our favorite spots in the area. Then, once you cross into Nevada, you’ll be welcomed to the state by Nevada icon Wendover Will.

bonneville salt flats

Day 1 Highlights:

Start getting a handle on Nevada’s history in Ely.

Stop in at the Renaissance Village to learn about the many cultures drawn to this area during its mining boom. Then head to the Nevada Northern Railway to continue the history lesson and grab a ride on a historic steam train.

Before you head out, grab some lunch and spend a few minutes spotting the 22 murals around town, each of them recounting a bit of Ely’s story.

mural in ely, nevada
Stretch your legs and find out how early settlers made fuel at Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park.

These beehive-shaped structures are enormous and it’s great fun to poke around inside. Side bonus: the acoustics inside the ovens are great! Our kids did a little impromptu concert to test this out, featuring music from “Mulan” :). 

boy in front of charcoal oven
Continue on to Baker, the gateway town to Great Basin National Park.

Grab dinner at the delicious Kerouac’s in town and settle in for the night. Our two meals at Kerouac’s were our favorite from the trip! Fresh, solid takes on burgers and pizza, and the owners are great sources of tips on the park. 

On Saturday nights during the high season, the national park puts on astronomy programs; check their calendar to see if you can catch one!

Even if you can’t, be sure to spend some time star-gazing. Great Basin has one of the darkest, clearest night skies in the country.

After a late flight the night before, a day spent driving and a hefty dose of jet lag, our kids were hammered at the end of the day. So we put them to bed and I did a little star-gazing from our motel, the Border Inn. David headed back into the park to take pictures of the stars—both of us had terrific views!

night sky in great basin national park

Day 2 on the Great Basin Highway

Spend the day exploring Great Basin National Park. This area of high desert wilderness is home to Nevada’s second-highest peak, an intricately decorated cave system, lush forests, sage foothills, and the oldest trees in the world.

ancient bristlecone pine in great basin national park

Day 2 Highlights:

Before your visit, be sure to book a tour of Lehman Caves.

There are two tour options: the shorter Lodge Room Tour and the more extensive Grand Palace Tour. A ranger will guide you through the beautifully decorated cave system and relate the fascinating story of the caves. Bring a jacket—the cave is 50 degrees F year-round.

There are several caves protected in the national park system and we’ve visited many of them in the last few years. Lehman Caves is one of our favorites! You can get so close to the formations here (although you should NEVER touch them!) And there are several bits of the tour where you have to duck or squeeze. It all makes the tour feel like an adventure :).

lehman cave in great basin national park
Hit the trail.

Great Basin has more than 60 miles of developed hiking trails. Everything from multi-day backcountry routes to short and easy campground loops is on offer here.

Take in the woods, wildflowers and mountain streams of the Baker Creek Loop, or get high on the Alpine Lakes Loop. Bag Nevada’s second-highest point with the 9-mile climb up Wheeler Peak, or explore a stand of the world’s oldest trees on the Bristlecone Trail.

During our trip, the road was still snowed in at the very top of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, so we couldn’t do any of the high alpine hikes without tacking on several miles and strapping on snowshoes. We visited Great Basin in August a few years ago and were able to combine loops for the Alpine Lakes, the Bristlecone Trail and Nevada’s only glacier, located high on the mountain. This big loop was our favorite hike in the park!

This time, we stuck to lower elevations, hiking around Baker Creek Campground and the Grey Cliffs area. The fields were erupting in wildflowers, the streams were gushing and everywhere we went was lovely!

  • hiking with kids in great basin national park
  • hiking with kids in great basin national park
  • mom and kids hiking in great basin national park
Whether or not you hike in the alpine region of the park, you should take a few hours to cruise up the Wheeler Peak Scenic Road and absorb the breathtaking views of the Great Basin Desert from above.

Our favorite time to go is late in the afternoon, so you can watch the sunset’s light spilling over the mountains and onto the valley floor. I’m sure sunrise is incredible—we’ve just never quite woken up to catch it here ;).

light hitting wheeler peak in great basin national park
For our complete guide to Great Basin National Park, see this post here.

Day 3 on the Great Basin Highway

Time to check out a few more high desert stunners: Eastern Nevada’s state parks!

Day 3 Highlights:

Cathedral Gorge State Park

Cathedral Gorge State Park is a wonderland of volcanic tuff molded into spires and fins by erosion. There are several trails in the park, or you can just spend your time getting lost in the many slot canyons of the Cathedral Caves, Canyon Caves or Moon Caves areas.

We LOVED this park. When we arrived, it was quite hot in the sun so we were anxious to disappear into the slots. Once we had, the air cooled off immediately. Slot-wandering was such a pleasant way to spend this part of the day.

We actually went back the next day around noon to see the light coming straight down into the slots. Our best tip would be to arrive in mid-day to explore the slots. Then take a longer hike later in the day, and watch the sunset from one of the viewpoints.

  • mom and kid in cathedral gorge state park
  • woman walking in cathedral gorge state park
  • woman walking in cathedral gorge state park
  • slot canyon in cathedral gorge state park
Echo Canyon State Park

Nearby, Echo Canyon State Park features a large reservoir where you can boat, fish or swim. The drive through Echo Canyon was pretty, but we didn’t stop ‘til Spring Valley!

Spring Valley State Park

Spring Valley State Park has a pretty reservoir and huge sculpted formations of volcanic tuff, plus ranching history and lush fields. We were so surprised by the outcroppings of rock here! We hiked the trail up onto the rock from the historic stone cabin, which had the dual benefit of fun scrambling for the kids and beautiful views for us.

Day 4 on the Great Basin Highway

Continue south to Caliente. If you’re a mountain biker, you’ll be in heaven—Caliente is one of the top trail destinations in the state. 

Day 4 Highlights:

Shred some track at Caliente’s Bike Skills Park.
Soak in the giant, spring-fed baths at Caliente Hot Springs Motel and Spa.

These huge baths are housed separately from the rooms. First, choose your bath, then close the door and open the tap to hot water straight from the spring (there’s a cold-water faucet too, so you can temper things ;).  This is how we whiled away a lovely morning in Caliente.

Just south of Caliente, you’ll find Kershaw-Ryan State Park.

Enjoy a short hike, splash in the wading pool and let the kids loose on the playground. Ours were so happy to be here—between the pool, the playground, and stretches of green grass, it was the perfect place to spend a few hours and we wished we’d thought to bring a picnic!

From Kershaw-Ryan, head through the vibrant (and aptly named) Rainbow Canyon to Elgin Schoolhouse State Historic Park.

If you want a tour, you’ll have to make an appointment ahead. Without one, you can still read up on the history and get a sense of what this railroad town was like 100 years ago.

We didn’t get a chance to tour the schoolhouse, but we did have the most beautiful late-afternoon light in Rainbow Canyon. Try to go after noon, but before the sun gets too low so you still have light hitting the canyon walls (or go early in the morning!)

Day 5 on the Great Basin Highway

We included one more state park in our itinerary and it quickly became one of our new favorite places. Valley of Fire is the oldest and largest state park in Nevada. A wonderland of red rock and multi-hued sandstone, this is a place you could extend your itinerary indefinitely.

empty road leading through valley of fire state park

Day 5 Highlights:

Valley of Fire is a hiker’s paradise.

Stop in at the visitor’s center for a recommendation on a trail that suits your ability and the weather. It was VERY hot while we were there—over 100 degrees ‘til late in the day. So we were very glad for the ranger’s advice on shadier hikes AND the air-conditioned visitor’s center itself.

woman hiking in valley of fire state park
You can take in a lot of the park—and some iconic roadscapes—without leaving your vehicle.

Drive all the way out to White Domes, then head to the scenic loop in the Arch Rock area. The early morning and late afternoon light really brings out all the nuances in the colors here and those were our favorite times in the park, especially as it got closer to sunset.

The Ancestral Puebloans left petroglyphs all over this area.

Keep your eyes open to spot them, especially in the Atlatl Rock area and along the Mouse’s Tank Trail. You can learn much more about this people in the visitor’s center.

We loved this hike and it’s one of the shadier ones in the park, so it’s a good option on a hot day! Every time we took a shaded water break, we had petroglyphs right there to look at—that’s a hiking bonus we don’t often experience :). 

mom and kids hiking in valley of fire state park
One of our favorite hikes took us out to the Fire Wave formation.

An easy 1.5 miles round-trip led us across red-sand paths and slickrock to this gorgeous striped structure. The Fire Wave itself is incredible, and the trail getting out to it is almost as stunning. We didn’t know this beforehand, but you shouldn’t climb or walk on the wave itself—it hangs off the main butte there, so it’s delicate. 

woman hiking near fire wave in valley of fire state park

Final thoughts:

Nevada is a road tripping classic and the perfect place to get a feel for the desert’s diversity and a true sense of the American West. I grew up in the Great Basin desert of Idaho, and the landscape of the National Park has always felt like home to me.

We loved discovering how diverse this area is beyond the park—from the intricate spires of Cathedral Gorge, to the molded tuff of Spring Valley, to the colorful walls of Rainbow Canyon, to the Martian landscape of Valley of Fire. Nevada is such an expansive place, a perfect fit for that wide-open feeling of being on the road. This is a happy-making road trip, and we hope you get to experience it one day too.

empty road through nevada's great basin
This content was produced in partnership with Travel Mindset and Travel Nevada.

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