Great Basin Park an undiscovered jewel

Located enough off the beaten tourist path to discourage many park users, Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada remains a largely undiscovered wonderland. It appeals to visitors who prefer to enjoy their outdoor pursuits in relative solitude. The park offers many superlatives, including Nevada’s only glacier, the state’s second-highest mountain peak, some of the oldest trees on the planet and caves filled with rare natural decorations.

Nevada’s only national park lies 286 miles from Las Vegas. To reach it, head north on Interstate 15 to the US 93 exit near Apex. Follow scenic US 93 north to the junction with US 6/50. Head east to Highway 487, where you turn south and drive five miles to the little town of Baker. In Baker turn on Highway 488, which heads west five miles to the park entrance.

Just north of Baker, stop at one of two park visitor centers. Opened in 2005, the Great Basin Visitor Center serves to orient visitors to the whole park with information, displays and a film. Inside the park, Lehman Caves Visitor Center contains more information on the park and Lehman Caves in particular. Pick up cave tour tickets and assemble for tours there. Both visitor centers have bookstores with print material, posters and souvenirs.

As the main portal community, Baker offers tourist services to park visitors. Visitors can gas up, get a restaurant meal, buy camping supplies and find a hot shower, amenities lacking inside the park.

Great Basin remains one of the few national parks with no entrance fee and no reserved campsites. Although it stays open all year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, some facilities close in winter. Visitors camping in the four established campgrounds pay $12 per night of $6 for holders of Golden Age or Golden Access passes. Primitive campsites on remote Snake Creek and Strawberry Creek are free. For best site selection, avoid summer weekends and holidays, instead arriving mid-week or in the off seasons.

The smallest of the established campgrounds on Lower Lehman Creek contains 11 sites open to use all year, but lacking water in winter. Accessible from Wheeler Peak Scenic Road, Upper Lehman Creek Campground offers 22 sites and Wheeler Peak Campground contains 37 sites. A graded road leads to Baker Creek Campground’s 34 sites. The larger campgrounds open in late May and close in October. Campgrounds have vault toilets, water and trash receptacles. Pick up firewood in Baker or bring it from home.

When Great Basin attained park status in 1981, it included Lehman Caves National Monument, most of the craggy Snake Range topped by 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak and adjacent national forest. The park contains 400 springs, jewel-like alpine lakes and 48 miles of perennial streams stocked with trout, including native Lahontan cutthroat. Anglers need a Nevada license. Some waters are catch and release only.

A network of trails includes tracks for every type of hiker from casual strollers to challenge-loving backpackers. Popular routes take in ancient Bristlecone pine groves, enchanting wildflower-strewn slopes and vantage points with 10- mile views. Trails are mainly for foot traffic although horsemen use some routes. Bikers use roads only.

Because of the clarity of the air and distance from city lights, Great Basin boasts superb stargazing opportunities.

No visit to Great Basin is complete without a tour of the underground splendors of Lehman Caves, a popular adventure since rancher Absalom Lehman first discovered an opening in 1885. Guided tours lasting 60 or 90 minutes take 20 visitors at a time into the subterranean chambers several times a day. Adults pay $8 for the hour-long tour and $10 for the longer tour. Tickets for youngsters aged 5 to 15 years and for holders of Golden Age and Golden Access passes cost half those amounts. Purchase tickets in advance by calling (775) 234-7331, ext. 242, or take your chances with purchase upon arrival.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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