An Ice Age landscape of glacier-carved peaks rises more than a mile from the desert floor. The park takes its name from the vast region that extends east from California's Sierra Nevada to Utah's Wasatch Range, and from southern Oregon to southern Nevada, encompassing most of Nevada and western Utah. Called Great Basin by explorer John C. Frémont in the mid-1800s, the region actually comprises not one but at least 90 basins, or valleys, and its rivers all flow inland—not to any ocean.
The park road winds up Wheeler Peak, the second highest mountain in Nevada. When the road ends at 10,000 feet, trails lead to the 13,063-foot summit and to the region's only glacier, near a stand of bristlecone pines. Great Basin is a young park compared to a Yellowstone or Yosemite, yet within its confines are some of the world's oldest trees.
The bristlecones form the rear guard of a Pleistocene forest that once covered much of the region. Now surviving in scattered stands, some trees are 3,000 years old—alive when Tutankhamun ruled Egypt.
In the flank of the mountain, at an altitude of 6,800 feet, lies Lehman Caves with 1.5 miles of underground passages. These formed when higher water tables during the Ice Age made pockets in the limestone. Park rangers guide visitors past flowstone, stalactites, and delicate white crystals that grow in darkness.
The number of visitors has reached more than 80,000 yearly since 1986, when the cave and neighboring mountains became a national park. But the park has 65 miles of trails, offering access to the hills and a chance to see glacial moraines, alpine lakes, and spectacular sweeping views of the surrounding basin and range country.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Las Vegas (about 300 miles away), take I-15 to US 93, then US 50 to Nev. 487. At Baker, take Nev. 488 to the park entrance. From Salt Lake City, Utah (about 250 miles away), take I-15 to US 50, then Nev. 487 to Baker and Nev. 488 to the park entrance. Airport: Ely (about 67 miles away).
WHEN TO GO
Great Basin is open year-round, but the upper eight miles of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (beyond Upper Lehman Creek Campground) are closed November to May, or as long as heavy snows makes it impassable. In summer, the most popular time, temperatures are generally mild. September and October bring cool weather and smaller crowds. Hikers must beware of sudden thunderstorms that can catch them on exposed ridges at any time of year. The best time to view Wheeler Peak is in early morning. In winter, visitors enjoy excellent crosscountry skiing.
HOW TO VISIT
On a one-day visit, take the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive for dramatic views of high alpine landscapes. On your way back, stop at Lehman Caves for a chance to walk underground through intriguing passages.
Remember that the alpine world is fragile. At these elevations, plants grow slowly and their margin of survival is narrow. Stay on established roads and trails to avoid inadvertently damaging these areas.