How to Make the Most of One Day in Great Basin National Park
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Ever since I learned about Great Basin National Park, I became fascinated and driven to visit. From the ancient Bristlecone Pines to the naturally stunning Lehman Caves to the incredible dark skies overhead each night – Great Basin packs a lot in despite being the only national park in Nevada. I always knew though: because of its remoteness, I would probably visit as part of a road trip and only have one day in Great Basin National Park.
As part of our move from California to the Midwest this year, I decided to extend our cross-country road trip to include a stop at Great Basin National Park. We didn’t have much time – had to get back on the road – so I had to make the most of it.
Based on my experience visiting Great Basin in May 2021, I’ve put together this guide. Like me, you may be short on time when traveling through this remote part of the Western U.S. To make the most of one day in Great Basin National Park, read on for a guide on how to pack in the wonders of this park even when your time is limited.
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.
Planning Your Visit to Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park is one of the more remote parks in the continental U.S. So, it’s important to cover some of the basics about visiting this remote area as you plan your trip.
How to Get to Great Basin National Park
Ely, Nevada is the nearest major town (and airport) to Great Basin National Park. It’s a 62-mile, one-hour drive from Ely to Baker, Nevada – the nearest town to Great Basin. The nearest large city to Great Basin is Salt Lake City; it’s a 3.5-hour drive from SLC to Baker. In short, Great Basin National Park is very rural; you’ll need a rental car to reach it and explore the park!
Many people visit Great Basin National Park on a cross-country road trip along U.S. Highway 50, the “Loneliest Road in America”. This highway stretches roughly 400 miles across Nevada from Carson City to Baker – and is a gorgeous drive.
When to Visit Great Basin National Park
On my recent visit to Great Basin, I was reminded strongly of Acadia National Park and the seasonality there. While Great Basin National Park is open year-round (like Acadia), parts of the park are closed or inaccessible during the winter season (also like Acadia). That means that summer (late May to September) is the best season to visit Great Basin National Park if you want to experience as much of the park as possible.
If you find yourself visiting in autumn, winter, or spring, you might find that the Great Basin National Park Visitor Center is closed for the season, and that Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is closed after a certain point due to snow. Lehman Caves Visitor Center is open year-round though; there’s at least one visitor center open no matter when you visit. Be sure to swing by this visitor center to learn what’s open or closed during your time; the Great Basin NPS website also keeps this info updated.
Great Basin National Park Entrance Fees
Want some good news? It’s free to enter Great Basin National Park! There are no entrance fees for Great Basin; you don’t need to show an American the Beautiful Pass or any other pass to enter the park.
There are some other fees you may have to pay depending on what you choose to do during your visit:
- Lehman Caves tours have various costs per person, depending on which chore you do. (More on that below!)
- It’s $20 per night for a spot in the developed campgrounds throughout the park.
Other than that, there are no costs for visiting Great Basin National Park.
Driving & Parking in Great Basin National Park
There is one main paved road in Great Basin National Park: Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (and the spur that takes you to Lehman Caves). Along Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, there are pull-outs and larger parking areas at different scenic spots. There’s also a parking area near the Wheeler Peak campground and Wheelerp Peak Trailheads.
During the summer months, it’s possible that parking might become limited at some parts of the park; it’s always a good practice to arrive early especially on weekends when most visitors will be there.
All of the other roads in Great Basin are unpaved and/or require a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. You’ll need to bring a car capable of handling those roads to visit those other parts of the park. That said, those areas are far less visited, and you won’t need to worry about parking or crowds.
Where to Stay near Great Basin National Park
You have two options for accommodation near Great Basin: camping in the park or hotels in the nearby town of Baker, Nevada.
Camping in Great Basin National Park
There are five campgrounds in Great Basin National Park:
- 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.
Hotels near Great Basin National Park
There are two hotels in Baker, Nevada, the nearest town to the entrance to Great Basin National Park. Baker is a town of roughly 60 people – but they are ready to welcome guests to the park!
- Stargazer Inn – Where we stayed during our overnight in Baker, rooms start from $82/night. The NYC transplant owners have cute, rustic rooms in a couple of different buildings around town. They also have a well-regarded bar and restaurant in the town’s former General Store. Book on Booking.com
- Whispering Elms Motel & RV Park – Located at the other end of town, this motel has a restaurant and nearby food truck open to non-guests too. Rooms start from $72/night. Book on Booking.com
I also see a couple of vacation rentals but they vary widely in quality and price; I’d stick with one of these two hotels if you can!
What to Do in Great Basin National Park (When You Only Have One Day)
If you have only one day in Great Basin, here’s what I recommend:
- Visit the Visitor Centers to learn more about what you’ll see in Great Basin National Park
- Take a tour of Lehman Caves
- Drive Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
- Go Hiking
- Visit a Bristlecone Pine Grove
- Watch the sunset and go stargazing
Here are more details on each of those activities and how to do them.
Visit the Visitor Center(s)
As I mentioned, there are two visitor centers at Great Basin: the Great Basin Visitor Center and the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
Both are worth a visit – the primary visitor center has exhibits and info about the entire park whereas the Lehman Caves visitor center has info specifically about the caves and is where you can book a spot on a ranger-led tour of the caves.
Tour Lehman Caves
Speaking of Lehman Caves, they are one of the must-see spots in Great Basin National Park. Lehman Caves is actually a single cave system which stretches 2 miles back into the Snake Mountains. It’s the longest cave system in Nevada, and home to a huge number of rare shield cave formations.
There are several tours into Lehman Caves; you can only visit the caves on a ranger-led tour. There are a few different tour options that range in length from 0.4 to 0.6 miles. Since you only have one day in Great Basin, be sure to check which tours will be offered and book a reservation for the tour you want when you’re visiting.
Note: On my visit, I overheard one of the rangers sharing that for summer 2021, you definitely need reservations in advance for Lehman Caves tours. (It’s not uncommon for tours to sell out in normal years, too, so this year you will definitely need them!) You can make tour reservations on recreation.gov.
Autotour along Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
After touring Lehman Caves, hop back in your car and head up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. This 12-mile drive takes you up 3,500 feet in elevation (to over 10,000 feet). It ends at a parking area/Wheeler Peak Campground (which, as a reminder, is closed in summer 2021).
Since you’re only spending a day, I recommend driving up to the peak first and working your way back down. At Wheeler Peak parking area, you can go for a longer hike (more on that below) and then stop for scenic views and shorter hikes at overlooks (Mather Overlook) and pull-out areas (Osceola Ditch, Upper Lehman Creek) on the descent.
Hiking is definitely one of the best ways to experience Great Basin National Park; if you’re up for a hike or two, there are a number of options all available off Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive:
- Bristlecone and Glacier Trail is a 4.6-mile loop trail that connects two sections of trail to take you to the most easily accessible Bristlecone Pine grove in the park, and onto the moraine where you can see Nevada’s only glacier, Rock Glacier.
- Wheeler Peak Summit Trail is a longer, 8.6-mile out-and-back trail that takes you to the summit of Wheeler Peak at 13,036 feet.
- The Alpine Lakes Loop Trail is a shorter option from the Wheeler Peak parking area; it circuits two alpine lakes over 2.7 miles.
- Osceola Ditch Trail offers a different view of the park’s nature and history with ruins of old mine operations visible along the trail. The official trail is 0.3 miles each way, but you can extend it along the Osceola Ditch as far as you’re up for hiking.
- If you want a challenge and/or can’t find parking up on Wheeler Peak, you could choose to hike 6.8 miles (one way) on Lehman Creek Trail from Upper Lehman Creek to Wheeler Peak (or vice versa). (Note that there is no shuttle in Great Basin, so you’ll need to arrange transport for your return journey or plan to hike 6.8 miles back!)
With only one day in Great Basin National Park, start early to drive up to Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and hike the Bristlecone & Glacier Trail from the Wheeler Peak parking area. Then, have a picnic lunch in the parking area before working your way down for a scenic view at Mather Overlook and a shorter hike on Osceola Ditch Trail (1-2 miles depending on how far you go).
Visit a Bristlecone Pine Grove
In addition to Lehman Caves, visiting a Bristlecone Pine grove is the other must-see in Great Basin National Park. These trees are rare and groves can only be found in a narrow band of elevation (roughly 9,500 to 11,000 feet) on mountains in California and Nevada. What makes them special is that they can live thousands of years – some are believed to be almost 5,000 years old!
There are three main Bristlecone Pine groves in Great Basin National Park; the easiest is located a short hike from Wheeler Peak parking area. (I mentioned it as part of the Bristlecone and Glacier Trail, above). I definitely recommend visiting these rare trees on your visit – you know I’m a bit of a tree nerd based on my Redwoods and Joshua Tree resources!
End your one day in Great Basin National Park (or returning after dinner) with some world-class stargazing. Great Basin National Park is certified as an International Dark Sky Park – so you know it’s got incredible darkness to protect your view of the stars above.
You can stargaze throughout the park, but I recommend Mather Overlook if you’re willing to drive that far into the park. Also, if you’re camping in Great Basin, that’s another great option. The National Park Service also offers astronomy programs to consider if it works with your travel schedule.
If you’re staying in Baker and you’d rather stay closer to town, the Baker Archaeological Site outside town is a locally recommended spot.
Visiting Other Parts of Great Basin National Park
The Wheeler Peak/Lehman Caves part of Great Basin National Park is a small area within the whole park. If you have more than one day in Great Basin and want to visit other parts of the park, here are the areas and a bit about each:
- Grey Cliffs/Baker Creek is located on an unpaved road (roughly 2-3 miles long) that spurs off the Lehman Caves road near the Visitor Center. This area has some great hikes and incredible rock formations.
- The Snake Creek area and trail are about 12 miles up an unpaved road from Garrison, Nevada south of Baker. There are a number of primitive campsites here as well as incredible mountain hiking opportunities.
- Lexington Arch might be the most scenic part of the park that’s the hardest to reach. This rock formation and hiking area is in the southeast part of the park and about 15 miles along a high-clearance four-wheel-drive-only road.
- There are two Bristlecone Pine groves located in the west part of the park near Mount Washington. To visit these groves, you’ll need to have at least a day to drive around to access this part of the park on high-clearance roads from Utah Highway 894 – plus you have to hike into them too.
Additionally, there are other parts of the park you can explore that don’t have road or trail access; backcountry hiking is permitted in Great Basin National Park when trails aren’t permitted – but be careful as alpine ecosystems are fragile and take a long time to recover from irresponsible behavior.
Okay, that covers the basics for how to make the most of one day in Great Basin National Park, plus a little extra in case you want to explore even more… Do you have other questions about how to visit Great Basin? Let me know in the comments!
Great Basin doesn’t seem worth the long drive out of the way! Caves are everywhere and those in Missouri are the best!
Great Basin isn’t that far out of the way if you’re already planning to drive through Nevada. And to each their own on caves – there are formations at Great Basin you can’t find anywhere else on earth!
Great information! I love all the very detailed and specific recommendations.
This is now on my “to do” list.
Glad to inspire you, Rick! I hope you can make it soon.