Visiting Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada is like teleporting from the arid desert to the high alpine in a matter of minutes. After a six-hour drive along Highway 50, dubbed “the loneliest road in America,” I cruised through the tiny town of Baker, then found myself transported into a lush pine forest.
Beautiful Scenic Drive to Great Basin National Park
I took a sharp right onto Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and parked among the bright marigold-colored balsamroot blooms near Upper Lehman Creek Campground. A brisk wind occasionally tussled my hair as I packed up my things to hike. It was going to be a long day.
Not five minutes after I started on the trail, I passed a ranger doing maintenance work. “You going up?” he hollered. “Not all the way,” I replied, “Just hiking to the bristlecones.”
“That’s like 5.5 miles each way!” he said. “I know! It’s gonna be great,” I replied. So then, eleven miles of pristine wilderness and not another car or hiker in sight—I was in heaven.
Next, I set off beneath a canopy of Englemann spruce and ponderosa pine, the rushing water of Lehman Creek punctuating the silence. In three and a half miles, I was eating lunch on a park bench with a perfect view of Wheeler Peak, Great Basin’s most notorious mountain, standing at an elevation of 13,065 feet.
Furthermore, as I walked through the closed campground at 10,000 feet, I jumped right into the same ranger I saw that morning. “You made it!” He said. “The Bristlecone Trailhead’s right over there.
Ready for an Adventure?
That’s when the day took a left turn from a casual stroll into a full-blown adventure. I quickly became one of only two sets of footprints pushing uphill through the patchy of May snow. Half a mile in, I was the only set. Breaking through thigh-deep, snowy sludge made for slow going on a trail that was supposed to be a mellow 2.8-mile jaunt into the ancient forest. It took me 30 minutes to go a quarter-mile.
Ever the stubborn hiker, I persisted, and eventually I found myself in a grove of giants, nestled under the craggy pinnacles of Wheeler Peak’s cirque. It was so worth it.
Get up close to the world’s oldest trees!
Great Basin is one of the very few places where visitors can get up close to the oldest trees on the planet. So then, while most bristlecone pines are between 2,000 and 3,500 years old, a special bunch can live to be nearly 5,000.
I placed my hand on the ragged trunk of one of these timeless beings and took a deep breath. However, this tree has lived through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, a civil war, and the French Revolution, I thought. Moreover, what I wouldn’t give for a bit of their perspective, especially during a year like this.
Suddenly, the temperature dropped over ten degrees in just five minutes, and light snow began to fall. Not wanting to get caught in a storm, I leaped to my feet and rushed down the mountain to my cozy little van. Finally, I was thinking of my silent conversation with the tree the whole way.
62 Parks Traveler Great Basin Info
Size: 77,100 acres
Location: Eastern Nevada
Created In: 1922 (Lehman Caves National Monument), 1986 (Great Basin National Park)
Best For: Stargazing, hiking, caving, backpacking, peak bagging, car camping
When to Go: Summer and fall offer the best conditions for snow-free hiking in moderate temperatures. Spring is less busy and might have road closures up high, while winter is best avoided. (Temperatures listed here were taken at about 7,000 feet.)
Where to Stay: The stunning Wheeler Peak Campground is closed for the 2020 season. However, the Upper Lehman Creek Campground offers a lower-elevation option—7,300 feet—tucked into a dense pine forest, with plenty of privacy between sites.
Mini Adventure: Tour Lehman Caves, then hike the Bristlecone Trail. Though the caves were closed when I visited, they’ve been a fan favorite and a staple of the park for nearly a century. I recommend starting your day with a morning tour (if available). And then driving up to the 2.8-mile Bristlecone Trail for an afternoon hike when it warms up.
Mega Adventure: Finally, Summit Wheeler Peak. In summer and fall, once the snow has melted, a summit attempt of this mountain is one of the park’s great thrills. So then, it’s a steep eight-mile round-trip, with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain. However, the 360-degree views at the top make all the leg burn worth it.