Backpacking the Great Basin

Dust off your backpacks and hiking boots – it's time to get your backcountry legs under you in Nevada's starkly beautiful mountains
May 24, 2016Words by Kylie FlyPhotos by Kylie Fly

With winter behind us and the warm pollen-filled air of early summer at our doorstep, backcountry trails are beckoning adventurers once again. It's time to get out of the city and into the wilderness. There are more than your fair share of national parks to choose from, but one of our off-the-beaten-path favorite is Nevada's Great Basin National Park, the perfect desert jaunt to get your legs warmed up and ready for backpacking season.

Great Basin National Park spreads 120.6 square miles across Nevada, near the Utah border and less than 300 miles north of Las Vegas. The park’s name is derived from the Great Basin, the dry and starkly beautiful mountainous region between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains known as the Basin and Range Province. It’s one of the least-visited national parks in the United States with just over 100,000 visitors per year, in comparison to Great Smoky’s staggering 10 million and the Grand Canyon’s five million average visitors per year.

But don't let its ranking among the top 10 least visited national parks in the United States – alongside several in Alaska that are either hard to access or have unfavorable weather most of the year – deter you. Great Basin is a must-see natural wonder. Officially established in October of 1986, 8 years before California and Nevada’s Death Valley, Great Basin National Park is a park you don’t want to miss. 

Find Solitude in the Desert

Having some of the lowest numbers of visitors just means that you'll have the 200 square miles of this park's protected lands all to yourself.

While there are a select number of developed campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis within Great Basin National Park, venture beyond the beaten path and into the backcountry for the full experience. Having some of the lowest numbers of visitors just means that you'll have the 200 square miles of this park's protected lands all to yourself.

Hiking season at Great Basin typically runs from June through September due to many trails reaching an elevation of over 9,000 feet. Inquire at the visitor center for weather reports to see if Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is plowed or open until mid-June and for current conditions. Gravel roads lead to remote sections of the park with hairpin turns that may make your stomach churn. Not for the faint of heart, come prepared in a four-wheel drive vehicle and with experience driving hairy forest roads as certain parts of the park are not easily accessible.

Be aware of altitude sickness and prepare yourself to hike cross-country on hard-to-follow routes, and bring plenty of water. Campfires are not allowed above 10,000 feet in the backcountry, and backpackers must use only propane stoves at this elevation. We camped at almost 13,000 feet overlooking the bristlecone pine grove just east of Mount Washington. This part of the park is most easily accessible from the west entrance between Pole and Lincoln Canyon. For morning entertainment, we watched herds of bighorn sheep sprint across the rocky terrain as we ate our oatmeal and prepared for more hiking.

Take in the Night Skies and Ancient Trees

Great Basin is home to some of the best visibility of the Milky Way in the continental US.

One of the most spectacular parts of backpacking in Great Basin is the night sky. When you’re making your trip plans, be sure to check out the lunar calendar and try as hard as you can to schedule your trip around a new moon. Far removed from the glaring lights of civilization, Great Basin is home to one of the darkest skies in the country and makes for some killer stargazing and arguably some of the best visibility of the Milky Way in the continental U.S.

During daylight hours, take note of the trees around you. Great Basin is home to groves of ancient bristlecone pines, the longest-living tree in the world. In the shadow of Wheeler Peak, bristlecones over 5,000 years old continue to grow on rocky ground withstanding nature’s harsh elements of rain, fire, and wind. These pines survive in freezing temperatures with limited water and thin soil, and are worth the trek to see up close.

Visit Lehman Caves

Hendry David Thoreau once said, “The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.” Thoreau could very well have been talking about caves.

At the base of Wheeler Peak you'll find the Lehman Caves, now a designated National Monument, which were discovered in the late 1880s. In the early days of privately-owned operation in the 1920s, weddings, dances, picnics, and pageants were held in the cave, with musical acts performed on top of the stalactites and stalagmites. The resulting damage was severe, and led to the 1930s donation of Lehman Caves to the federal government so that they could repair and protect the caves' natural beauty.

But long before they were privately owned, Lehman Caves began to form more than 550 million years ago. As time passed, they eventually emerged from beneath the ocean, creating a series of marble cavities decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, and other rare formations like cave popcorn – clusters of bedrock forming a variety of popcorn-like shapes through water splashing and seeping through the limestone over millenia.

Want to see the caves for yourself? Tours are offered year round, from 60 to 90 minutes in length, starting at $8 per adult. You can purchase your tickets at the Visitor Center upon arrival.

Warm Up Your Backpacking Legs with the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail

This is the beginning of backpacking season, so take it easy at first! With 12 trails ranging from half a mile to 13 miles and reaching elevations as high as 10,000 feet, Great Basin offers a variety of hiking trails. Whether you've brought your nieces and nephews along or you're looking to get some more altitude and miles behind you, you've got options. 

Warm up with the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, 2.7 miles long with a mild elevation gain, which passes two beautiful alpine lakes – Stella and Teresa – with views of Wheeler Peak as a backdrop. There’s a parking area near the Wheeler Peak campground where you can also access the Bristlecone Trail and the Glacier Trail and hike to the bristlecone pine grove, not to mention the only glacier in Nevada.

Don't Forget Your Fly Rod

Fishing in Baker Creek and Lehman Creek is abundant and easily accessible within the park. Native to Great Basin, the Bonneville cutthroat trout lives naturally isolated in the mountain waters of Strawberry Creek. Other trout species such as rainbow, brook, and brown are stocked in lakes and streams around the park, so it never hurts to bring your fly rod along with you. [H]


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