Nevada's only national park, Great Basin, lies in the lofty Snake Range in White Pine County nearly 300 miles from Las Vegas. The park boasts many superlatives, including some of the world's oldest trees, Lehman Caves and about 40 more caverns, nearly 50 miles of fishable streams, 60 miles of developed hiking trails, Nevada's only glacier, the state's second highest mountain peak and some of the nation's darkest skies. This diverse park appeals to visitors with wide-ranging interests.
To reach Great Basin National Park, head north from Las Vegas on Interstate 15 to the U.S. Highway 93 turnoff near Apex. Follow scenic U.S. 93 through Lincoln County to junction with U.S. 6/50. Turn right and drive 30 miles toward the Utah/Nevada border. At the junction with state Route 487, turn right and drive five miles to Baker, the park's portal town. You'll pass the first of two park visitor centers as you approach. Stop at Great Basin Visitor Center outside Baker for information, an introductory film, exhibits and a bookstore.
To get to the park, turn right in Baker onto the park access road, Route 488. Follow it into the park. There is no park entrance fee charged at Great Basin National Park. The second visitor center at Lehman Caves lies about six miles from Baker. It boasts a cafe open during summer and early fall in addition to an information desk, theater, exhibits, bookstore and ticket sales for cave tours open all year.
When Congress created Great Basin National Park in the mid-1980s, it incorporated Lehman Caves National Monument with surrounding national forest and other lands near towering Mount Wheeler. The peak dominates the horizon overlooking lesser peaks, a small glacier, alpine lakes, many streams, about 400 springs and hundreds of square miles of forests, including ancient bristlecone pines that were young when the Egyptians built their pyramids. At 13,063 feet, Wheeler is second only to Boundary Peak on the California/Nevada border.
Winter lingers into midsummer at the highest elevations. Deep winter snow closes most of the park's trails except to cross country skiers and snowshoers. Of the park's five campgrounds, only Lower Lehman Creek remains open all year. Campgrounds reopening in spring wait for water until freezing nights warm up. Summer campers find 112 campsites available on a first-come basis. Camping fees are $6 per night for park pass holders or $12 for those without passes. Pay for a pass at the park and you'll get a free ticket for a tour of Lehman Caves.
The subterranean world of caves in the park remains a constant 50 degrees year-round, cool enough that visitors should wear a light jacket and wet enough that soles of footgear should have good traction. Only one of the wild caves remains open to experienced cavers. Measures to counter the spread of a fungal infection killing bats elsewhere dictate cavers decontaminate gear.
Lehman Caves enthrall visitors all year with gorgeous cave decorations. An expanded summer season includes two tours of 60 or 90 minutes several times a day and a nighttime candlelight tour. Shorter tours also are available for youngsters and disabled visitors. Cave tours cost $8 or $10 for adults and $4 or $5 for children aged 15 and younger. Holders of park passes pay half of the adult cost. Reserve tickets by calling the park at (775) 234-7331, ext. 242.
Because of Great Basin National Park's altitude and the lack of any nearby large towns, unsullied night skies spread overhead spangled with planets, stars, meteors, satellites and the Milky Way. The park's summer schedule of programs includes frequent astronomy sessions after sunset with dark sky rangers and telescopes supplied by the National Park Service. On nights with a full moon, rangers lead enchanting moonlit walks along park trails. On July 28-30, the second annual Great Basin National Park Astronomy Festival takes place. Call the park for details on programs. The number of participants may be limited.
Little Baker near the park hosts the Snake Valley Festival on Father's Day weekend, June 17-19. This fundraiser for the Great Basin National Heritage Area, which spans the Nevada/Utah border, includes family-style activities park visitors will enjoy. Check online at greatbasinheritage.org, or call (775) 234-7171.
Margo Bartlett Pesek's column appears on Sundays.