Great Basin National Park
100 Great Basin National Park
Baker, NV 89311
Between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, in a corner of the vast territory that stretches across the West, an unexpectedly rugged landscape suddenly rises above the floor of the desert and into the blue sky of eastern Nevada. These mountain peaks are part of the Snake Range, one of the main attractions at Great Basin National Park. Visitors also enjoy candlelit tours through the fascinating cavern system of Lehman Caves. Great Basin is situated approximately halfway between the Las Vegas and Salt Lake City airports.
Entrance fees: Admission is free. There is a fee for cave tours.
Visitor center: The visitor center is open daily, except January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25.
- Lower Lehman Creek Campground. Open year-round. First-come, first-served.
- Baker Creek Campgound. Open mid-May through September. First-come, first-served.
- Grey Cliffs Campground. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day. First-come, first-served.
- Upper Lehman Creek Campground. Open From mid-May through September. First-come, first-served.
- Wheeler Peak Campground. Open June through September. First-come, first-served.
- Primitive campgrounds. Open year-round. First-come, first-served.
Visiting Great Basin National ParkFor decades before the Great Basin became a national park in 1986, the Snake Range of Nevada was known for its soaring peaks, bristlecone pine groves, and extensive natural caverns. The range is part of the extensive system of fault-block mountains -- more than 100 exist -- that sharply wrinkle the otherwise flattened landscape of the Great Basin Desert.
One of the main attractions for sightseers is the extensive labyrinth of underground tunnels and rooms that comprise Lehman Caves. To read about exploring the caverns and other Great Basin highlights, see the next page.
Sightseeing at Great Basin National Park
Most visitors to Great Basin National Park come to see either the soaring granitic spires of Wheeler Peak or the well-known Lehman Caves. These extensive caverns are something to see, with fantastic displays of stalactites, stalagmites, sculpted stone columns, rock curtains, and even mushroomlike rock formations.
The centerpiece of the park is Wheeler Peak, Nevada's second tallest mountain at 13,063 feet. The main park road travels up to its 10,000-foot level. From there, a trail leads to a stand of bristlecone pines, the world's oldest living trees.
While the surrounding lowlands of sagebrush and creosote receive only about ten inches of annual precipitation, the high country of Snake Range receives three times that, resulting in grassy meadows, thick forests, and lingering snowfields.
Hikes From Wheeler Peak
Great Basin's only glacier lies near the 13,063-foot summit of lovely Wheeler Peak, close to a stand of bristlecone pine trees. The summit can be reached by car and by foot.
From the main park road, visitors follow a trail that leads up the mountain to the Wheeler Peak Campground. Along the way the environment changes from a pinon and juniper forest, which is able to withstand drought, to a high-altitude world of spruce, pine, and aspen. At the 10,000-foot level, visitors have a choice of several trails into the park's backcountry or a trail to the peak's summit 3,000 feet above.
One of the most popular hikes is the 2.7-mile Alpine Lakes Loop Trail. It leads to a spectacularly scenic alpine setting, with a ragged mountain ridge rising high above a lake. Another trail follows the ridge up to the summit, which is populated by pikas and marmots and decorated with wildflowers poking out of niches in the rock.
Exploring Lehman Caves
Lehman Caves are on the lower slopes of Wheeler Peak, at an altitude of around 6,800 feet. The caverns are an underground wonderland filled with intricate and spectacular formations. Rangers lead visitors through approximately one and a half miles of trails.
The caverns are filled with latticed columns, undulating draperies, helicites, and stalactites. These formations are so dense that the caves' first explorers took along sledgehammers to clear a trail.
Great Basin National Park Photo Opportunities
The Snake Range provides an excellent backdrop for the sweeping meadows and alpine lakes scattered throughout Great Basin National Park. Here are some can't-miss photo opportunities:
- Lexington Arch: Rising from the floor of Lexington Canyon in the southeast corner of Great Basin, Lexington Arch is a stunning natural limestone formation. Because most arches in western America are formed from sandstone, there is speculation that the Lexington Arch may once have been part of an underground cave system.
- Wheeler Peak Summit: The trail to the summit of Wheeler Peak winds through five miles of rugged terrain and climbs 3,000 feet in elevation -- so only hearty sightseers should attempt this hike. But the panorama from 13,063 feet is stunning.
- Lehman Caves: With underground pools, latticed columns, and unusual cave shields, the Lehman Caves offer intriguing sights around every bend. Be sure to bring a camera with a flash.
The Lehman Caves contain a high concentration of cave shields, an unusual and fascinating rock formation. On the next page, we'll take a closer look at this unusual geological phenomenon. In addition, read about the park's bristlecone pine groves, where the oldest trees in the world grow.
Great Basin National Park Geology and Wildlife
Great Basin National Park was named by John C. Fremont, who led the first party of white explorers into this territory in the mid-19th century. Although maps make it look like a basin, the region actually consists of more than 100 valleys. One of the newest national parks within the 50 states -- it was established in 1986 -- Great Basin takes in only a small part of this vast expanse of land, which includes some of the nation's most geologically fascinating terrain as well as some fascinating plant life. Here are the highlights:
Among their many treasures, Lehman Caves contain excellent examples of cave shields. These large and somewhat rare disks grow out of ceiling cracks where seeping mineral-laden water deposits sediments in flat circular shapes. The shields grow at odd angles from the ceiling, floor and walls, and may be decorated with popcorn or helictites along a central crack.
The bristlecone pines look ancient indeed with their twisted, gnarled trunks and their bark carved and polished like rock by eons of wind, snow, and ice. The trees are vestiges of a Pleistocene forest that once covered the region.
Bristlecones are survivors; they continue to live even after most of their trunks and branches die, sustained by minuscule amounts of moisture. Scientists estimate that some of the bristlecone pines in the range are more than 4,000 years old.
Prior to the establishment of the park, one tree named Prometheus lived for 4,844 years, according to its annual growth rings, before it was cut down in 1964. That tree began its life a long time ago -- before Sargon of Akkad, Hammurabi, Ramses, Moses, or any other well-known individuals from early human history. Touch one of those primeval trees, and you are touching something exceedingly ancient from a human perspective.
Great Basin National Park offers visitors plenty of solitude, as well as sweeping views of the basin and range country that sit within and outside its boundaries. As numerous visitors find out each year, there are many wonders to behold in this desert-surrounded park.
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