April 6, 2023
Great Basin National Park: Road Trip Guide
By Dawn S.
Just four and a half hours north of Escape’s camper van rental in Las Vegas, along one of the loneliest highways in the lower 48, far away from the crowds, is a national park treasure just waiting to be discovered. What? You’ve never heard of Great Basin National Park?
It’s home to ancient trees, unique cave formations, 13,000 ft. Wheeler Peak, the only glacier in NV, and is designated an International Dark Sky Park. I bet you didn’t even know it is in a remote region of northern Nevada. Don’t worry, you are hearing about it now, and can add it to your road trip itinerary!
Did you catch that this is a “remote” location, way, way down a “lonely” highway? So, you will definitely want to stock up on groceries, gas, and water before you put the glitz of Las Vegas in your rearview mirror. A map and directions are a good idea, too, and make sure to download your Google maps ahead of time, to use offline. You should take the scenic route, via US 93 North. Here are a few stops to make on your road trip to Great Basin National Park.
About 90 miles north of Las Vegas, turn left into the entrance at the Pahranagat NWR. This lush oasis in the desert is a great spot for photographers and birders. It offers hiking and biking trails, picnicking and camping along the lake, and an opportunity to drop in your canoe or kayak if you just so happen to have one with you!
Extraterrestrial Highway Sign
Hwy 375, Crystal Springs Nevada
This is a classic American road trip photo stop. The sign is covered in stickers and magnets, and consider yourself forewarned; it has been stolen in the past, so there are no guarantees! It is about 21 miles past the Pahranagat NWR. Turn left onto Hwy 318/375 and drive three-quarters of a mile. There is a small parking area at the sign, where the two highways split.
You can gas up and stretch your legs in two small towns along the way. The first is Pioche, with its 1872 Million Dollar Courthouse, and Boot Hill Cemetery. The second is Caliente, where you can check out the historic Railroad Depot and Boxcar Museum.
As you get closer to the turn off onto highway 50 E, the desert sagebrush turns into a landscape of Joshua trees, as far as you can see. Keep an eye out on the right for the Horns A Plenty Antler Art entrance gate on US 50-E/ US -6 E.
Lehman Cave Visitor Center
Once you reach Great Basin NP, spend time at the Lehman Cave Visitor Center. Cave tours are offered year-round except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Tours often fill up, but you can reserve your spot on a Lehman Cave Tour ahead of time. There are a few places where you are so close to the numerous cave formations that you have to move carefully around some of them so as not to touch them. There are some rare fin and shield formations that are unique to this cave. It’s always cool inside, so wear a sweater.
Great Basin Highlights
After your cave tour stroll along the Mountain View Nature Trail. Next, take in the views as you wind your way up the 12 mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. There is a campground at the top. Notice how the desert scenery keeps changing into a forest of juniper, pine, fir, and eventually aspens. You can explore a variety of hiking trails long and short. You can hike to a sandstone arch or a high alpine lake. But you’ve come this far, so don’t miss the 2.8-mile Bristlecone Trail to see the oldest living trees on earth! Some of them are thousands of years old. If you continue on for another 2 miles, you can see Nevada’s only glacier.
After dark, bundle up and get comfy in your camp chair for some out of this world star gazing. On certain nights, you can join a ranger-led astronomy program. We watched, along with many curious mule deer, as a group set up giant telescopes in a clearing in the middle of the Wheeler Peak Campground loop, ready to peer into the night sky. It was incredible. I could almost reach out and touch the Milky Way.
I’ll never forget my visit to Great Basin National Park. The ranger, who led our cave tour, was hands down, the best guide of any tour I have ever been on, it was the first time I camped above 10,000 ft., and it was my first night sleeping in a campervan. We went for a walk around the campground in the morning and John followed the sound of rushing water. He found a beautiful stream that we could sit near to enjoy our coffee and celebrate our first night of van camping, and contemplate what the road ahead would bring.
A word of advice, don’t rush when you visit Great Basin, plan to spend a few days, and definitely camp overnight. There are five campgrounds to choose from. We visited Great Basin as a stopover on our way to Yellowstone, but that is a tale for another time.
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