Camp, hike, and stargaze at Great Basin National Park

Discover Nevada’s Only National Park

Earlier this summer in mid-July, I had the opportunity to visit Great Basin National Park. It’s the only National Park in the Silver State, and as a native Nevadan, I have been remiss in not previously visiting. Great Basin is in eastern Nevada, near the Utah border, arguably in the “middle of nowhere”, and as such, it is one of the least visited National Parks. Another advantage of its location is that there is very little light pollution from humans, which allows it to be designated as an “International Dark Sky Park” with “Dark Sky Rangers” (yes, that’s a real job title!).

My partner and I arrived at the Visitors’ Center, located in the town of Baker, NV, before the entrance to the park. We went inside the welcoming air-conditioned center and spoke with the helpful rangers to figure out our game plan for the weekend.

From there, we headed into the park (no entrance fee, FYI), and drove up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive to the Wheeler Peak Campground. Most campgrounds at the park are first-come, first-serve, so our primary objective was to secure a campsite. After winding up the narrow, 12-mile road to the Wheeler Peak Campground (elev. 9,886 ft, $16/night), we had good luck and found the best campsite, (also the last one available) – giving rides to random through-hikers must have upped our karma points.

Green tent in forest at a campsite in Wheeler Peak Campground.

Wheeler Peak Campground.

Instead of using the obvious cleared ground for a (slanted) tent site, we went further and deeper into the ample campsite to find a location for our tent, nestled amid the pines. We set up our new Kelty Low-Love Seat with a view of Wheeler Peak and the surrounding cirque. The forest at this campground is a beautiful mixture of mature Aspens and evergreens (my tree ID skills are paltry and I’m not sure what species predominates this forest). It was one of the prettiest campgrounds I’ve ever been in. Campsites were equipped with picnic tables and firepits, with pit toilets nearby.

Sunrise on mountains at Great Basin National Park

A view of Wheeler Peak cirque from the best campsite ever.

From here, we needed to get some movement after being in a car all day and were able to get on trails at the entrance of the campground. Chris went on a short 3-mile run (Alpine Lakes Loop Trail), and I took a noticing walk on the adaptive trail – wide and flat enough for those in wheelchairs, and then went on a short hike to get a better view of Wheeler Peak. Another option from this trailhead is to hike to the Bristlecone Forest (3 miles, 1200 feet elevation gain) and onto the Wheeler Peak Glacier (5 miles, more vert), but given the approaching sunset and my growing hunger, we didn’t have time to explore these options. Next time!

After an easy camp dinner, we enjoyed tea with a view of the plentiful stars, and the Milky Way gleaming down upon us. We enjoyed a delightful sleep with whispering aspen leaves and soughing pine branches, waking to bird song. Morning also brought coffee with a view of the cirque. We took our time with a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the peace and beauty at this campsite before packing up.

Weathered trees at Great Basin National Park.

Aspens and pines thriving together in the alpine environment at Great Basin NP.

The day’s main objective was Wheeler Peak, Nevada’s second highest mountain (13,064 ft). We started up the trail, which began with a gentle grade amid aspens. No problem.

The author Coral, hiking among aspens in Great Basin National Park.

Hiking in aspens is my happy place!

The trail is 4.3 miles (one way), and as it gained elevation, we moved above the tree line. Here, patches of snow became more plentiful and the soil changed to rocks. I began feeling the effects of elevation, and my pace slowed down, although salt tablets and water helped mitigate this. As I was questioning my ability to proceed above 12,000 ft, we entered sky pilot habitat, which elevated my mood and put some energy in my steps. The wildflowers were plentiful and noticing how they have their own niche in this environment was interesting and helped distract me enough to keep moving.

Sky pilot wildflowers growing in the alpine.
Rocky boulderfield in the alpine.

Sky pilots and other wildflowers were plentiful on the hike to Wheeler Peak. And that blue sky! So bright it hurts your eyes!

Once we got on the ridge to Wheeler Peak, we could look east and see the valley below, filled with giant windmills capturing the plentiful power of the wind. Close to the top of Wheeler Peak, the trail turned into more of a scramble, following cairns and moving up over large rocks to the top. Finally – the summit!!

USGS summit marker on Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park.

Summit marker at Wheeler Peak!

Coral and Chris smiling at the summit of Wheeler Peak.

At the summit of Wheeler Peak with my favorite hiking and life partner.

While replenishing calories, I enjoyed the 360° views. Great Basin NP is considered an “island”, due to its unique geography and topography, which supports unique flora and fauna, as well as migrating birds. We also saw large swaths of snow still left in various locations and began scheming for a winter visit to the park, complete with splitboards and snow gear. On our way down the trail, we took an adventure route, involving 500 ft of glissading down a snow field, hiking to Teresa and Stella Lakes, and walking back to the trailhead.

Tracks in snow patch from glissading.

Glissading always adds to the fun and adventure!

The next part of our trip involved heading down the road towards the park entrance and securing another camp site for the night. We were able to get a walk-in site at the Baker Creek Campground ($16/night). This campground is at a much lower elevation (7,530 ft), with different vegetation – mostly sagebrush, willows and cottonwood trees (near Baker Creek), and juniper trees. The walk-in sites at this campground also had picnic tables and fire pits. The drive-in sites had room for trailers and adventure vehicles to pull in and park as well. After getting our new camp site set up, Chris went on a training run from the Baker Creek Trailhead. However, the day’s efforts had satiated me, and jumping into Baker Creek to cool off, and then reading a book in the hammock sounded like a better plan for my body.

Green tent in campsite at Baker Creek campground.

Baker Creek Campground.

After dinner, we gathered our camp chair, some tea, and puffy coats and headed to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights in the summer, Great Basin National Park has a free astronomy program. It starts at 8 pm, but guests are recommended to arrive earlier – which I also recommend because it gives you a chance to set your chair or blanket up with a decent view of the screen. Before it got dark, Ranger Ben and his posse reminded us all to switch our head lamps to the red-light mode or put red tape over the head lamps. As a Dark Sky park, Great Basin has its exterior lights in red light mode and has glow-in-the-dark reflective tape on the edge of stairs and curbs. For those who view the night sky, red light won’t destroy your (or others’) night vision, so you can peep those stars better.

Once the program began, Ranger Ben (who is the BEST ranger ever and so amazing at his job), started off reminding us of the date – it was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing! His program shared the wonders of space and the wonder of this amazing planet Earth and how unique it is. After his talk, there were 3 telescopes, staffed by park rangers and an astronomer, set up to view various celestial objects. The rings of Saturn and the Medusa Nebula were the two that I viewed, and it was absolutely mind blowing. After the astronomy program, we drove the short drive back to Baker Creek Campground (thankful to not be driving up the dark, narrow, winding 12-mile road to Wheeler Peak Campground in our tired state). Another great night’s sleep, this time with smells of sagebrush (Nevada’s state flower!) and crickets chirping.

The next morning, we packed up camp, then went back to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. We had booked a 90-minute cave tour in Lehman Caves, and were excited to spelunk! (Note: these tours sell out, so advance tickets are highly recommended, and at $12/person, it’s well worth your money). Prior to the tour, all guests had to verify that they weren’t potential carriers of the fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome – a terrible disease that decimates every bat population it encounters. Once the tour started, we walked into the constructed cave entrance, then entered the first chamber. The tour included history of the park as well as history of the cave and its development. It was my first experience in a cave, and it was so amazing – it’s a whole other world!

Cave formations in Lehman Cave.

Lehman Cave.

Once we emerged from the cave, blinking in the light of the day, we filled up our water, got in the car, and headed onto our next adventure.

Overall, Great Basin National Park = 5/5! What a wonderful park – I can’t wait to go back. Next time: Bristlecone Pines, Wheeler Peak Glacier, and the Lexington Arch (a limestone arch located near the SW corner of the park). I’m looking forward to future adventures at Great Basin and fondly remembering those I’ve already had the pleasure of experiencing.

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