- I visited Great Basin, one of the least-visited national parks in the US, for the first time.
- To get there, I drove six hours on US 50, a highway nicknamed America’s “Loneliest Road.”
- Great Basin’s stunning night skies, hiking trails, and ancient artifacts made the trip worth it.
Getting to Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada requires quite the journey, no matter which direction you come from.
The nearest airport is over two hours away, there’s no public transportation, and cell service is limited in the area.
That may explain why it’s one of the US’ least visited national parks, getting a total of 144,875 visitors in 2021. However, there are plenty of reasons to head to this remote park.
My family went in the winter and loved our time there so much that we’re planning on heading back next summer. Here are some of the many reasons we found the trip worth it.
To reach the park, we drove six hours on America’s ‘Loneliest Road,’ which ended up being an experience in itself
Our journey to Great Basin involved a long drive west on US 50, a highway we picked up in Lake Tahoe and followed for six hours to Ely, the Nevada town where we based ourselves.
We quickly realized why this portion of US 50 is nicknamed America’s “Loneliest Road,” a moniker that dates back to a 1986 Life article that warned travelers to avoid the highway unless they were confident in their survival skills.
There were long stretches, some lasting up to an hour, when we didn’t see any signs of human life. Some people might think this drive sounds boring or a little scary, but what it lacks in human population, it makes up for in stunning scenery like snowcapped mountains.
It’s worth mapping out your points of interest ahead of time. We stopped at a couple of scenic areas along the way.
Amenities are few and far between on the way to the park, so people should go into the trip with food, water, and a plan for getting gas.
My family packed the same gear we would on any cold-weather road trip: a snow shovel, good tires, blankets, and plenty of food and water. Luckily, we didn’t have to put our survival skills to the test.
Even though the park is isolated, the small towns surrounding it are fascinating to visit
Great Basin is isolated, but there are several interesting small towns in the same vicinity as the park. If you want a glimpse into the historic West, the small towns in this area of Nevada have a lot to offer.
Baker has a population of around 40 people, a general store, and a handful of restaurants, though just one of them was open during our winter visit since hours vary by season.
Along US 50, Austin, a town with a population of around 100, offers one of the very few stops for refreshments and gas. The historic mining town is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, with popular activities like cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and hiking.
There’s also Ely, which is at the eastern edge of US 50, about an hour from the park. Founded as a stagecoach stop, the town has a population of around 4,000, which is bustling compared to most of the other towns. We visited the White Pine Public Museum, which features a historic jail cell, schoolhouse, and other artifacts.
Many of Great Basin’s hiking trails stay open in the winter and offer gorgeous views
Great Basin offers many hiking trails, with difficulty levels ranging from easy to strenuous. Many remain open throughout winter, but visitors should be prepared to hike through several feet of snow.
We brought our snowshoes and opted for the Baker Creek Loop, an easy 3.3-mile trail that was manageable for my 8-year-old. Though it wasn’t the park’s most scenic hike, the meadows, forest, and creek areas looked beautiful in the snow.
Wheeler Peak, a more adventurous hike, is on our list for next time. The 8.6-mile trail can be treacherous in the winter but promises stunning views from the Wheeler Peak summit. We plan to tackle this trail in the summer and also look out for the ancient bristlecones pines that the park is known for.
The tour of the Lehman Caves provides an up-close look at formations created over 500 million years ago
Our tour of the Lehman Caves, limestone-solution caverns that formed over 500 million years ago, was a highlight of our Great Basin visit.
I made reservations, which are available up to 30 days ahead of time and are an absolute must for visitors. On the day of our tour, several people without reservations showed up at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center and were disappointed to find that the day’s tours were all sold out.
A ranger taught us about formations including stalactites, stalagmites, cave bacon, and cave popcorn.
There’s evidence of human ventures into the cave from expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, too. Initials and messages burned with candle smoke are now protected artifacts. Fortunately, there are plenty of untouched parts of the caves that fall under park protection.
The caves are also home to a handful of endemic species, like the Great Basin Cave Pseudoscorpion we spotted during our tour.
While exploring the Lehman Caves, you should never wear clothing or footwear that you’ve worn into any other caves. This is to protect the bat population from white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that infects the skin of hibernating bats’ muzzles, ears, and wings.
The park has top-notch ranger programs for visitors of all ages
Like most national parks, Great Basin offers some brilliant ranger programs.
During our visit, the Junior Ranger Program was a priority for my 8-year-old, who loved working through the educational booklet, getting sworn in as a junior ranger, and adding another badge to her collection.
The program offers a variety of activities that get kids engaged in the park and help them develop an appreciation for it. My child was especially interested in learning about wildlife and spent a lot of her time trying to track down species, both large and small.
Great Basin is also known for its ranger-led astronomy programs. None were available during our visit, but it’s another activity we want to do when we return.
Pictographs and petroglyphs give travelers a glance into the area’s history
In Great Basin, the Upper Pictograph Cave has pictographs painted on its walls and petroglyphs cut into its surfaces that experts believe Fremont Indians created around 1,000 to 1,300 BCE. You can see this art from outside the cave, which is a short distance from the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
The Hickison Petroglyphs also offer a fascinating stop along US 50. Located a few miles east of Austin, Nevada, the area is free to visit and offers hiking trails and camping spots on a first-come, first-served basis.
The petroglyphs are around 10,000 years old, dating back to when the Western Shoshone lived in the area. We stopped for a couple of hours to hike and admire the petroglyphs, and I recommend doing the same to break up the long drive.
Great Basin has night skies that are nothing short of spectacular
Because of its geography and relative isolation, Great Basin has a lack of surrounding light pollution. The result is a pristine night environment with some of the best sky-watching in the country. The park was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2016.
During our visit, we hung out after dark using our own night-sky apps and books. However, the ranger-led astronomy programs are legendary here.
There’s even a Star Train that runs from Ely to Great Basin around sunset during the spring and summer. We’re planning on coming back to ride it and take photos of the sky.
Every September, Great Basin hosts its Astronomy Festival, with activities including Art in the Dark and Constellation Talks. It’s another attraction that we hope to experience on a future visit.