There’s something special about those towns that find themselves in the shadow of a national park. Think of Bar Harbor in Maine – Gateway to Acadia – or Seward in Alaska – Gateway to Kenai Fjords. To be a small town with a big attraction is tough; it’s easy to transform into a place that loses the character that made it special in the first place. Baker, Nevada, is one of those places too; it’s both the “Gateway to Great Basin National Park” while trying to stick to its Silver State heritage as a rural community in Nevada.
I’ve visited Baker and Great Basin National Park twice in the past few years: once at the beginning of the season in May 2021 as part of our cross-country move from California to Ohio, and again at the end of the season in October 2022. Both trips gave me an opportunity to experience a lot of what the national park has to offer – as well as to discover what things to do in Baker in addition to visiting the park.
In this post, you’ll find a guide based on my experiences; I was fortunate to have two very different trips and now am able to share the wide variety of experiences you can have during your time in Baker. Even if you only have one overnight and part of a day to explore Baker and Great Basin, you can fit a lot in – especially if you’re visiting in the peak of summer when everything is open and the days are longer.
So let’s get right into it; here are the best things to do in Baker as well as tips on where to eat and where to stay, to round out everything you need to know to plan your trip.
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.
1. Visit Great Basin National Park
Hands down, the best thing to do in Baker – called the Gateway to Great Basin – is visiting Great Basin National Park… as you might expect!
While I cover many of the things you can do in Great Basin is the rest of this post (#2-#9), you at least need to plan a visit to the two visitor centers: Great Basin Visitor Center is located along Nevada Highway 487 just north of town, and Lehman Caves Visitor Center is at the end of Lehman Caves Road, five miles west of town. Both visitor centers have information about the park; the Lehman Caves VC has more specific information about the caves compared with more general info at the Great Basin VC. They also both have gift shops, of course!
You can also stop into the visitor centers to learn about any hikes/trail closures, see the schedule of events in the park, and get your National Parks Passport stamped.
If you’re short on time, I have a guide on how to make the most of one day in Great Basin National Park, and will publish a 2-3 day itinerary soon.
2. Spelunk in Lehman Caves
I always love when a national park exists to protect something you aren’t expecting. For example, did you know that Denali National Park was established to protect the Dall Sheep – not the mountain, the bears, or anything else? The same is true for Great Basin National Park: it was established to protect the naturally impressive but incredibly fragile 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. After a few decades of unregulated human access and lots of damage to the cave formations, Lehman Caves became a national monument in 1922; in 1986, the protection was expanded to become Great Basin National Park.
Today, you can sign up for tours 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 that helps minimize the impact of visiting the caves and teaches you about all the different parts of the cave and special formations. In particular, Lehman Caves is known to be one of the caves with the most shield formations anywhere in the world.
3. Drive Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
If you’re short on time when visiting Baker or your schedule doesn’t line up for some of the other activities I recommend in Great Basin (like Lehman Caves), you at least need to try and drive Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.
This 12-mile out-and-back road 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, but the drive alone is worth doing whenever the road is open. Along the way, you’ll see sweeping views of the Great Basin below and the Snake Range mountains that comprise the national park all around you.
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.
4. Hike to 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” right next 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). I had never heard of a rock glacier before visiting Great Basin, but they are known to exist in mountainous regions around the globe – and even on Mars!
Rock Glacier in Great Basin is generally considered THE Rock Glacier, 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. After not getting to do this hike during my first trip, I challenged myself to it on my second trip – and it was a really cool experience to hike out onto the rock glacier and see Wheeler Peak Glacier in the distance.
5. Wander Among the World’s Oldest Trees
Speaking of Bristlecone Pines, as you research visiting Great Basin National Park, you’ll likely learn about them. If I had to choose a second-favorite tree – after the Redwoods, of course – it would be the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, one of three species in the Bristlecone Pine family.
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. (Take that, Redwoods!) 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 (kind of like Giant Sequoias).
Within Great Basin National Park, there’s one famous grove; it’s along the Bristlecone Pine Glacier Trail, so you can’t miss it if you hike all the way out to the Rock Glacier as I suggested already. Be sure to do the short loop with informational signs that will teach you more about these incredible trees.
(Also, if you’re not up for a hugely challenging hike, the hike to the Bristlecone Pine grove is a nice moderate 2.8-mile hike, with 500 feet of elevation change; contrast this to the 5-mile/1,100 feet in elevation change of the Glacier trail in total and you can see why most people turn around at the grove.)
6. Traverse the Alpine Lakes Loop
If you’re looking for another easy-ish hike – as easy as any hike can be above 10,000 feet in elevation, anyway – the Alpine Lakes Loop is a great option. I added this onto my Bristlecone Pine Glacier Trail hike for about 7.5 miles in total; the Alpine Lakes Loop is a 2.7-mile loop with about 425 feet in elevation change over the course of the hike (mostly at the beginning going up and end coming back down).
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. These lakes are evidence that what is now Great Basin National Park – and probably many of the other mountain ranges – were once far more glaciated than they are today.
7. Hike Along the Osceola Ditch
Okay, here’s another easy hike for you – this one for the history buffs. Nevada is called the Silver State because it’s so mineral rich; the Snake Range in Great Basin is no different, and it was ripe for mining before it became a national park. Gold was first discovered in the Snake Range in 1872, and the mining town of Osceola sprung up to take advantage of it. However there was a shortage of one important resource to help with the hydraulic mining operations: water.
To that end, a massive engineering project was undertaken: the Osceola Ditch. Two flumes were dug, running 16 and 18 miles respectively, to try and direct water from the mountains to the mining operations. While the project was expensive and the gold production underwhelming, you can still see evidence of the flumes on the Osceola Ditch Trail.
The trailhead sets out from along Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and is a 2.8-mile out-and-back trail that takes you along part of the Ditch; it’s a nice forested hike but does have a little elevation change (190 feet) in addition to starting at about 8,500 feet above sea level. Mr. V and I did this hike during our first visit, and it was a lovely way to stretch our legs even though we couldn’t do other hikes I had planned.
8. Explore Osceola Ghost Town
If the idea of exploring Nevada’s mining history sounds interesting, you might want to visit Osceola, which is now a ghost town. There are two ways to access Osceola from Baker, but here’s what I recommend: make the 30-minute drive west on US 50 to State Historic Marker #98 for Osceola. Then drive three miles up Osceola Road to the Osceola Cemetery.
The majority of Osceola ghost town is now on private property, but you can see some old buildings and evidence of the community that once stood here. It is a very mountainous and trecherous set of roads though, and I don’t recommend driving it.
Let me be more clear: I got my rental car stuck in a gully in Osceola, and it was not worth it. Instead, I recommend parking at the Osceola cemetery, and hiking in further if you want to look for the few remaining sites that show evidence of this ghost town.
9. Visit Upper Pictograph Cave
Since we’re stepping back in history, here’s another site that’s easier to visit: 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.
Upper Pictograph Cave is a very delicate archaeological site, and you can’t go inside – but you can see incredible rock art from the Fremont Indians group that inhabited this area; they also built a site called “Baker Village” further down in the valley near the town of Baker. Inside the cave, you can see pictographs (rock paintings) depicting human figures, animals, and a few abstract designs.
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.
Note: I haven’t been to Upper Pictograph Cave. It’s on my must-see list for my next visit so I can add pictures!
10. See the Baker Archaeological Site
Similarly, you can visit the Fremont Indians’ “Baker Village” – obviously not what they called it – at the Baker Archaeological Site. This is one of those things to do in Baker 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.
Today, you can’t see much of the original site, and the evidence that is visible is primarily reconstructions from the early 21st century; this was done after excavation to preserve the site. You may also spot artifacts on the ground from archaeological digs, but as the Baker Archaeological Site is on BLM-managed land, you should follow Leave No Trace principles and leave any evidence you find.
11. Traverse the Loneliest Road in America
Here’s one of the things you can do in Baker that almost everyone does automatically: U.S. Highway 50 is called the “Loneliest Road in America” due to the route it cuts across some of the most remote and least developed parts of the country – and it’s especially evident in the Great Basin where you’ll drive long stretches of highway with no buildings or other structures as far as the eye can see.
US-50 passes Baker north of town, and connects Ely, Nevada to Delta, Utah; Baker sits just west of the NV-UT border. It’s the most common route to reach Baker from, well, almost anywhere you might be coming from!
12. Drive the Solar System
While driving up to Lehman Caves Visitor Center, look to your right; you might notice small wooden signs hanging on the wire fence that runs beside the road. These signs mark the planets and dwarf planets in our solar system, and are space at a scientifically accurate distance.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out who made this solar system model, but it’s a really great way to gain perspective on just how big our solar system is. In addition to the eight planets, the five dwarf planets are also spaced along the fence, and the massive distances between them give you a sense on just how much space there is in space.
13. Go Stargazing
While we’re talking about space, Great Basin is one of my favorite national parks for stargazing – and stargazing is definitely one of the best things to do in Baker, too. You don’t have to drive up into the park to find dark skies; they’re literally all around town.
On our first trip, Mr. V and I parked out at the Baker Archaeological Site to shoot some astrophotography; more recently, I went about a quarter-mile up Lehman Caves Rd and pulled over on the side of the road to shoot the Milky Way.
You can also attend stargazing programs at the Astronomy Amphitheatre at Lehman Caves Visitor Center. Park Rangers give talks and lead group stargazing from this purpose-built site and they offer programs regularly throughout the summer months.
Where to Eat in Baker
Now that you know what to do in Baker, you can finish planning the rest of your trip. That includes two important details: where to eat (this section) and where to stay (next section). Here’s where to fuel up before and after your adventures in Baker and Great Basin:
- Bristlecone General Store is new on the scene but a welcome addition: you can buy snacks and ingredients here to prepare meals at your accommodation or while out on the trails. In the morning, they have coffee and pastries, and serve drinks later on in the day, too.
- Sandra’s Mexican Food is a small food truck with awesome homemade Mexican food. I’m addicted to birria tacos and had a really affordable, delicious dinner here on my recent trip.
- I haven’t been to Sugar, Salt & Malt Restaurant, a new restaurant, because they close pretty early in the season; their menu offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- 487Grill is another place I haven’t been but this food stand offers American staples like burgers, dogs, and cheesesteaks for dinner daily Wednesday through Saturday.
- Up at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, Great Basin Café is open for breakfast and lunch daily during the peak season. They have an awesome diner style and cool gift shop to compliment the visitor center gift shop next door.
Where to Stay in Baker
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 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.
There are also some vacation rental-style options, including Great Basin Bunkhouse and End of the Trail…er. For a funky option, check out Hobbit Hole Camping, which is a bit more rustic but certainly unique. There’s also Hidden Canyon Retreat if you decide to head down toward Lexington Arch* – it’s definitely not in town but easily accessed if you’re visiting that southern part of the park. Similarly, Border Inn Casino is over at the Utah border, but a good back-up option if everywhere else is sold out (which does happen in the summer months!).
*I didn’t mention Lexington Arch is this post as I haven’t been there, but there’s an ambitious yet rewarding long hike in the south part of Great Basin that I plan to do and will add after my next visit!
There you have it: a complete guide to Baker, including the best things to do, where to stay, and where to eat! Have any questions about things to do in Baker, or visiting Great Basin National Park? Let me know in the comments below!