A Perfect Great Basin National Park Itinerary for 2 or 3 Days Among the Pines
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I could say that Great Basin National Park is my favorite national park in Nevada… but it’s also the only national park in Nevada! Instead, I’ll say that it’s one of my favorite in the country: Great Basin is home to unusual geology and history, fantastic hiking trails and scenery, and off-the-beaten-path enough that you aren’t likely to end up waiting in line to snag a parking spot like you might at more popular parks like Arches and Yosemite.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Great Basin National Park twice in recent years: Mr. V and I stopped there during our cross-country move from California to Ohio in 2021, and I made a return trip as part of a larger Nevada road trip in 2022. Between these two (admittedly short) trips, I feel like I’ve seen and done enough in the park to put together a longer itinerary for those travelers who want to spend more time and enjoy all that Great Basin National Park has to offer.
In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know to plan a Great Basin National Park itinerary: how to get there, the best things to do in Great Basin, and suggestions for how to fill a two- or three-day itinerary in the park and surrounding region. After reading, you should be able to plan your own trip to this unique and delightfully un-crowded national park.
Ready to explore all Great Basin has to offer?
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Goshute people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Visiting Great Basin National Park
Great Basin is a great national park – but it isn’t the easiest to reach! No matter where you travel from, expect it’s going to take a few hours to get there. There are two main places you can fly into and drive to reach Great Basin National Park: Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.
- From Las Vegas to Great Basin, it’s a 4.5-hour drive primarily along US-93. This is the way I reached the park for my 2022 trip.
- From SLC to Great Basin, it’s a 4-hour drive along I-15, US-6, and US-50. I’ve never done this route, but I imagine it’s quite beautiful and diverse.
Though it’s part of the National Park system, Great Basin National Park is a no-fee park. This means you don’t need to pay to access the park!
Lastly, it’s worth noting that parking in Great Basin National Park is scarce, especially up on Wheeler Peak. I recommend arriving early – before 9am on weekends – if you want to have better odds of finding parking for some of the activities recommended below.
The 5 Best Things to Do in Great Basin
One of the things I love most about Great Basin National Park is how it’s relatively small compared to other parks. This means you can easily do most of the best things to do in Great Basin in a few days. Here are my top five recommended activities, to help you get a sense of what the park has to offer.
Visit Lehman Caves
While Great Basin National Park is named for the geographic region in which it sits, the park was initially established to protect a natural resource under the ground: Lehman Caves.
Lehman Caves was first (re)discovered by Absalom S. Lehman in 1885; there’s evidence that Native American groups in the area were aware of and used the caves long before that, and animal evidence in the cave dates back almost 50,000 years.
Today, you can book a tour of Lehman Caves when visiting Great Basin National Park. During the tour, a park ranger will take you into the caves on a guided experience; it’s easily one of the best things to do in Great Basin National Park and not to be missed if you want the complete experience of what makes this park special. (Be sure to book your tour in advance, as they do sell out – especially in the summer months!)
Drive Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
Like many national parks, Great Basin is designed for “autotouring” – driving to different scenic parts of the park. Like many of my favorite national parks, Great Basin has one main road in and out, called Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is a 12-mile out-and-back road that is only open during the summer months due to snowfall higher up; the road climbs from roughly 7,000 feet in elevation at Lehman Caves Visitor Center to over 10,000 feet at the parking area. From the parking area, you can set out on several of the hikes in Great Basin (more on that below), but the drive alone is worth doing whenever the road is open.
There are several pull-outs at different points of the drive where you can safely park and admire the views; at the beginning and end of each summer season, there are gates that close Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive at different elevation points near these pull-outs, so you may only be able to make it up to a certain point if visiting in the shoulder season. (This happened during my first visit in 2021; I was able to drive the entire road in 2022.)
Explore a Bristlecone Pine Grove
As you research visiting Great Basin National Park, you’ll likely learn about Bristlecone Pines, another unique(ish) part of Great Basin. Seeing the Bristlecone Pines is easily one of the best things to do.
The Great Basin Bristlecone is considered the oldest living organism on the planet; the oldest ever recorder was over 5,000 years old and the oldest alive today is over 4,800 years old. The Great Basin Bristlecone, as the name suggests, can only be found in the Great Basin region, specifically Nevada, California, and Utah. It grows high on mountain slopes in harsh climates other trees can’t survive in.
Within Great Basin National Park, there’s one famous grove; it’s along the Bristlecone Pine Glacier Trail, which is 2.8 miles out and back with 500 feet of elevation change. Be sure to do the short loop with informational signs that will teach you more about these incredible trees.
See Nevada’s Only Glacier
Lehman Caves isn’t all that Great Basin has to offer now; it’s also home to Nevada’s only glacier, called Wheeler Peak Glacier for the sheer mountain slopes it rests at the bottom of. Wheeler Peak Glacier is actually quite small, estimated to be only two acres in total area, and mostly covered with rock debris.
Speaking of rocks, there’s also a “Rock Glacier” adjacent to Wheeler Peak Glacier. These rocks behave much like a glacier – flowing down the mountain like slow-moving water (or ice, in the case of glaciers).
Rock Glacier in Great Basin is generally considered THE “Rock Glacier,” (by name) and you can hike up onto it. The 5-mile out-and-back Bristlecone Pine Glacier Trail is a challenging but dynamic hike, and one of the most popular in Great Basin, but not for the faint of heart, with 1,200 feet of elevation change – starting above 10,000 feet, to begin with – in the 2.5 miles one way.
Take a Hike (or Several!)
I’ve already mentioned one main trail in Great Basin – the Bristlecone Pine Glacier Trail – but there are tons of other trails within the national park; that makes hiking one of the best things to do in Great Basin if you love being active.
Here are some of my favorite other trails:
- The Alpine Lakes Loop is a 2.7-mile loop with about 425 feet in elevation change over the course of the hike. Along the way, you pass two alpine lakes – Teresa Lake and Stella Lake – which are actually glacial “tarns,” that is, depressions left by cirque glaciers, much like Wheeler Peak Glacier.
- Osceola Ditch Trail is good for those who love history; it is a 2.8-mile out-and-back trail that takes you along part of the Osceola Ditch, which was built to support gold and silver mining operations in the area before it became a park.
- If you want to escape what little crowds there are in Great Basin, plan to make the off-road drive and hike to Lexington Arch. This 6.3-mile hike takes you to a scenic view of the one rock arch in Great Basin National Park, and is far less hiked than trails in other parts of the park.
There are other, more challenging hikes in Great Basin too, if you’re up for the elevation change and have plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated at elevation.
How Many Days in Great Basin National Park
You know the logistics of reaching Great Basin National Park, and what to do once you get there – now it’s time to decide how long you’ll visit.
I think the best number of days to spend in Great Basin National Park is two days. With two days, you can see all of the main sites, explore a bit off the beaten path, and feel like you’ve really “seen” the park. If you have a third day, you can go even further away from the “crowds” in this park (there aren’t really crowds) and see other sites in the area around the park.
If you only have one day to visit Great Basin, I have a separate post to help you make the most of your short time there.
A 2- or 3-Day Great Basin National Park Itinerary
Okay, now let’s do a quick run-through of how to spend those two (or three) days in Great Basin.
Day 1: Lehman Caves & Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
On your first day in Great Basin, it’s good to start out with the greatest hits: stopping by the Visitor Center(s), taking a tour in Lehman Caves, and driving up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive to get oriented with the park and take in the sights.
Lehman Caves is a great first-day activity since it’s the reason the park was protected in the first place – and it’s open rain or shine (caves are great like that!). Be sure to reserve your tour in advance.
After your cave tour, hop in the car and make the drive up Wheeler Peak; this will give you a sense of where different trailheads, parking areas, and scenic pull-outs are along the way. You can certainly stop to take pictures and admire the views – but the goal here is just to get a sense of what you want to do (aka where you want to hike!) tomorrow.
Day 2: Hiking in Great Basin National Park
Since hiking is one of the primary activities you can enjoy in Great Basin National Park, I’ve dedicated a whole day to it. This is what I did on my 2022 visit and was an incredible way to spend a day. (You might want to swap the days around if the weather is iffy during your visit.)
If you’re up for the challenge, Bristlecone Pine Glacier Trail is the trail I most recommend; you can add on Alpine Lakes Loop to make it a really nice, scenic ~7.5-mile hike. For less effort, Osceola Ditch Trail is a lovely forested walk, or try the flat and accessible Sky Islands Forest Trail from Wheeler Peak parking area.
Don’t forget to bring plenty of water – more than you usually need – since the elevation and bright sun of the Great Basin will sap you dry. Drinking lots of water also helps prevent elevation sickness, which is a real possibility if you’re hiking in the park since almost all trails are at 7,000 feet in elevation or higher.
If the weather is good this night (or the night before), you could also try stargazing in the park.
Day 3: Geology & Archaeology Day!
If you are staying in Great Basin for a third day, there’s still plenty to do. If you enjoy hiking and have a high-clearance vehicle, head out to hike the Lexington Arch Trail; this is still on my list for a return trip.
You could also learn more about the history of human impact in this area by visiting both Upper Pictograph Cave and Baker Archaeological Site.
Upper Pictograph Cave is not far from Lehman Caves Visitor Center, but shows evidence of humans in the area dating back three millennia to roughly 1000-1300 CE. To reach Upper Pictograph Cave, drive two miles up Baker Creek Road and turn left at the Grey Cliffs sign, then left again at the fork. The cave is on the left side of the road.
Baker Archaeological Site, also called the “Baker Village,” is one of those things that many people miss; it’s a short drive down a dirt road off NV-487. This village shows evidence of human habitation dated to 1220 to 1295 CE. There’s a small, flat trail that takes you past some of the different building sites with interpretive signs.
Where to Stay in Great Basin
Baker, Nevada, is considered the “gateway” town for Great Basin National Park; you’ll pass through it to reach the park road. For a small town, Baker has a surprising diversity of places to stay. During my visits, I’ve always stayed at the Stargazer Inn, a local motel with a lovely homey character (it’s owned by the owner of the Bristlecone General Store, which is convenient!). For another option, check out the Whispering Elms Motel & RV Park.
Within Great Basin National Park, there are five campgrounds:
- Lower Lehman Creek
- Upper Lehman Creek
- Wheeler Peak
- Baker Creek
- Grey Cliffs
Each of these campgrounds varies in the number of sites and access you have to different parts of the park. I recommend checking out the official page from the National Park Service to compare them and make a reservation.
There you have it – an epic Great Basin National Park itinerary that helps you take advantage of almost all the park has to offer in two or three days. Have any other questions about planning your Great Basin National Park itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!
Thanks for ruining another great park. This is my favorite and people like you who expose it are going to ruin it like everywhere else. It’s getting harder and harder to find somewhere not overrun by idiots who just have to get that selfie and post it for the world to see (as if anyone cares). So please stop advertising these lesser known parks so we can continue to enjoy them.
How dare you, Darrell. The park does not belong to you, and you have no right to tell anyone that they shouldn’t visit or share about their experience. Some future advice I know you won’t take since you obviously think you’re more important than anyone else: keep your selfish, close-minded opinions to yourself.
Great post! It’s funny to me how this park is closer to Salt Lake City than a lot of the national and state parks people here flock to, but I don’t know anyone here who has been. I think the only national park in Utah that’s closer is Capitol Reef by maybe five minutes.
I love Great Basin though – it’s so underrated, and nothing can really compare to seeing this complete fish out of water landmark while driving through what’s essentially a desert.
And good call on the parking. I was actually pretty surprised when I got to the top (where most of the action is) to see how small the parking lot was. With that said, it was still only 3/4 of the way full when I came off the trails late in the day in late June.
Thanks for reading, Joey! Glad you enjoy Great Basin too!