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Great Basin National Park

5 Reasons It’s Different From the Rest

Gail Newbold | Photos by Ethan Kiernan Apr 30, 2018

You’re going where this weekend? Don’t be surprised if this is the response to news that your getaway is to Great Basin National Park. This, in spite of its close proximity to Salt Lake City — a quick four-hour drive east and just across the Nevada border.

Designated a national park by congress in 1986, Great Basin (nps.gov/grba) offers streams, lakes, wildlife, an ancient bristlecone pine forest, Wheeler Peak and the beautiful Lehman Caves.

Read on for a quick primer on why this tiny gem of a national park flies so low under the radar, and the five things that make it different from many of the nation’s other 57 parks.

View from Wheeler Peak Campground

1. No one knows it’s there

It’s an exaggeration to say no one knows it’s there. But Great Basin’s location on Nevada’s Highway 50, nicknamed “the loneliest road in America,” and in one of the lowest-populated regions of the lower 48 U.S. states, probably accounts for its ranking as one of the least-visited national parks. The visitation rate in 2017 was the highest yet at more than 140,000, as compared to an estimated 4 million at Zion National Park. Perhaps another reason for its least-visited ranking is that in national park terms, it’s the new kid on the block. For example, Yellowstone was established in 1872 — 114 years before Great Basin. 

Teresa Lake on the Alpine Lakes Loop
View from Wheeler Peak Campground

2. It’s not crowded even on the Fourth of July

You know something is different about this national park when you visit during the Fourth of July weekend and still have the place almost to yourself. 

Lehman Caves

3. It contains a massive cave

Only five U.S. national parks boast natural caverns, and one of these is Great Basin. Book early for a ranger-led 60- or 90-minute tour through this underground gem. Only 20 visitors are allowed in at a time and tours can book up fast, especially through summer and holiday weekends (recreation.gov) We saw a lot of disappointed tourists get turned away.

Our guide, Ranger Mark Kirtley, made a special effort to include the kids in the group, asking them questions, telling one to kick the door so we could hear earthquake sounds, letting them turn lights on and off and hold his flashlight. In one of the rooms, the ceiling is marred by black initials made with candle smoke during the 1880s and into the 1920s.

“How do you feel about these?” Kirtley asks. “Let’s talk about them.” Comments varied from, “I like them. It’s history.” To, “I think they’re disgusting.”

“What should we name this room?” he asked. “Place of deface!” someone responded. He also reassured visitors prior to entering the caves that the door wasn’t locked and they could leave any time they liked. This was comforting for those with claustrophobia.

The limestone cave features a variety of spectacular and beautiful formations in its various rooms named the Gothic Palace, Music Room, Lodge Room, Grand Palace and Inscription Room. Be sure to visit nps.gov/grba/planyourvisit/lehman-caves-tours.htm for details about booking, types of tours, prices, temperature, what to wear and so forth.

Lehman Caves
Lehman Caves
Lehman Caves
Bristlecone Pines
Bristlecone Pines

4. It has 3,000-year-old trees

Don’t be thinking you can gaze at these 3,000-year-old, trees-as-art from your car window. Like the Bristlecone Pines themselves, alive for so long because of the austere conditions in which they live, you’re going to have to “endure” a little hardship to see them. Plan on a moderate 2.8-mile roundtrip hike before immersing yourself in this beautiful grove of gnarled, naked trunks and twisted limbs topped with clusters of bristlecone needles. The ancient wonders thrive in adverse conditions at high elevations on exposed sites, unprotected from the lashing wind and hot sun — and with little rain or soil — testaments to the benefits of adversity.

5. There’s no entrance fee

If you’re used to paying an average of $25 to $30 per vehicle to enter a national park, you’ll be happily surprised to discover Great Basin offers free admittance. There is, however, a small fee for the Lehman Cave tours ranging from $4.50 to $11 per person.

Different though it may be, Great Basin also offers many of the things we know and love about national parks: mountains (Wheeler Peak stands at 13,065 feet), beautiful hikes, sub-alpine lakes, pristine streams, forests, camping, fishing, picnicking, visitors’ centers and astronomy programs. Great Basin was designated a Dark Sky Park in 2016 by the International Dark Sky Association, and has an annual astronomy festival every September.

There are no lodging facilities in the park, only camping. Motels and excellent restaurants like Kerouac’s at the Stargazer Inn (stargazernevada.com) are available in the nearby towns of Baker and Ely, Nevada. The newly remodeled Border Inn straddles both Utah and Nevada, offers 29 air-conditioned rooms, a gas station, restaurant and RV park (borderinncasino.com).

Wheeler Peak Campground

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