Having the distinction of being one of the lesser visited national parks seemed like reason enough to join the 90,000 people a year who come to Great Basin. That in comparison to Great Smoky Mountains, with over 10 million visitors, and Yosemite and Grand Canyon, with around 4 million each. Great Basin is a national park you have to go out of the way to see, located in central eastern Nevada near the very small town of Baker, and close to the Utah border. The camp hosts told us they have to either drive almost 70 miles to Ely or 150 miles to Cedar City, UT for groceries, which may explain why not many people come here or have even heard about it.
Our first glimpse of the Snake Range in Great Basin NP.
When we left Cave Lake State Park near Ely we had planned to stop at Sacramento Pass Recreation Area, leave the Lazy Daze, and drive the car another 15 miles into the park to see if we could fit into a site. When we got there it was before noon and already quite hot so we just unhooked the car and drove both up the steep climb hoping the weekenders were gone. After driving through the Lower Lehman campground and having no luck, since the few open sites were either too short or way too sloped, we headed down the three mile dirt road to Baker Creek Campground, where we were able to finally get level with some creative block building.
We found a very nice, private pull-through site with no close neighbors. All sites are first come- first served.
There are no hookups but several water spigots in the campground and a dump station near the visitor center. The vault toilets are spotless with no odor. Best we’ve ever seen! For $6/night with Jim’s senior pass we are happy to be staying in the park.
While Jim was unhooking the car at the visitor center in Baker, I went in to ask the ranger about which campgrounds would be suitable and also about the hiking trails. He told me the 2.7 mile Alpine Lakes Loop at the end of the scenic drive was open and free of snow, so that afternoon we drove up the mountain planning to do a little hike above 10,000’. Along the way we stopped at all the overlooks, marveling at the fact that we only saw a couple of other cars along the entire 10 mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.
Sign on Baker Creek campground road, and yes, we saw lots of marmots scurrying across the road.
Are we really in a national park? Where is everybody?
13,000’ Wheeler Peak on the right.
The Lakes trail starts near the Bristlecone Trail, but it was quite obvious after a short walk that we weren’t going to be hiking either of those trails due to the snow.
Apparently the ranger had his information wrong, so we trudged back and found a shorter nature trail that was mostly snow-free.
The next day we took a hike from the campground along the Baker Creek trail. Starting at 8,000’ and climbing almost 1,700 more, we had a tough time on the uphill part of our 6 mile trek. It was pretty along the aspen-lined creek, though, and we got some nice views of the mountains and passed through peaceful green meadows.
The next day I went to the Lehman Caves visitor center at eight to get tickets for that evening’s ranger-led full moon hike. I was told it’s very popular and to be there when they opened to be sure to get tickets. They limit it to 40 people, and when I arrived only two others had signed up. They don’t disclose the location until you sign up, and I was sworn to secrecy in order to keep people from showing up without a ticket.
Great Basin National Park was originally known as Lehman Caves National Monument from 1922 until 1986 when it became the national park, so I figured we had to take a cave tour since that was the main attraction. That and the Bristlecone pines, which we weren’t able to get to for the snow. Jim has a little trouble with claustrophobia at times, but he was a good sport and joined me on the 90 minute Grand Palace tour. It was well worth the $10 for me, $5 for Jim with his pass. Our ranger guide was a really interesting speaker, which made all the difference. His stories and the cave formations were fascinating.
Before the caves were protected by the park service they were used for private tours, meetings like the Elks Club, and parties and dances. Breaking off stalactites for souvenirs was encouraged, as was signing your initials on the ceiling of the Inscription Room.
The park service tried to remove them years ago but as you can see the results were worse than the inscriptions. The initials were burned on with candle flames.
The most interesting thing we learned is that occasionally volunteers come in and clean lint off the formations. Who knew? You can read about it here if you’re interested.
Full moon hike and an attempt at Wheeler Peak coming up in the next post. Although the scenery is not quite as dramatic we are enjoying it here so much more than Yosemite.