National Park: Great Basin National Park, White Pine County, Nevada
Caves – The park’s underground system consists of over 40 separate caves in four distinct groups: Lehman Hill, Baker Creek, Snake Creek and Alpine. Most are teeming with life from bacteria to bats, and filled with unique features, including stalactite, stalagmites, shields and folia, formed by mineral deposits left by dripping and running water over thousands of years. Lehman Caves is the only one open to the public via guided tours, and Little Muddy to experienced cavers who obtain a permit.
Located in the heart of the Great Basin Desert in eastern Nevada near the Utah border, the 120 square-mile Great Basin National Park was officially established only 30 years ago. However, the region has been home to Native Americans for thousands of years and more recently by ranchers and sheepherders. Lehman Caves was pronounced a National Moment in 1922.
Wandering through an eerily lit, cool-temperature cave is an amazing experience, one pictures simple don’t do justice. Lehman Caves is open to the public for guided tours every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Follow your park ranger through dim passageways and into grand rooms filled with giant shields, solid stalagmites and pencil-thin “soda straws,” some formations still growing while some are long dormant. Tour space is limited, but you can make advanced reservations online.
Serious spelunkers can obtain a permit to explore Little Muddy, open October to April. After proving caving experience and understanding of cave conservation, the adventure beings behind a locked door and down a small ladder. The path is a tight squeeze the entire way, so not a good choice for claustrophobic folks, but certainly a fun time for adventurous souls who don’t mind confined spaces.
Mount Wheeler is the second tallest peak in Nevada, though arguable the better hike (tallest Boundary Peak is shadowed by a nearby taller peak over the California border). No permit is required, and aside from an elevation of over 13k, the hike is a relatively easy four miles to the summit on a well-defined trail. Starting at 10k, the trail quickly gains the ridge. You’ll climb up a couple false summits before reaching the final rocky switchbacks to the peak where you’ll have an amazing view of the park below you – if the sky below and around isn’t clouded by common afternoon storms.
Other Park Activities
Hiking and backpacking are popular in the park, with over 60 miles of trails and permit-free backcountry camping. Many trails have impressive features, such as limestone Lexington Arch. Or take a 7-mile hike up to Johnson Lake Mine to see the abandoned mining community and its cabin ruins. The park is also known for its Bristlecone pines that grow slowly in harsh conditions, which means they’re very resilient and very old. One famous Bristlecone, Prometheus, was estimated around 4,900 years old.
Anglers, don’t forget your rods, because Great Basin has several fishable water sources full of an array of trout. Lehman Creek, Baker Creek, Snake Creek, and Williams Creek have Brown, Brook and Rainbow trout, and Strawberry Creek offers catch-and-release Bonneville cutthroat. For some Brook and Lahontan cutthroat, you can head to Baker Lake by way of a 12-mile round trip hike. A Nevada fishing license is required and are not available in the park, but you can pick up one at the Border Inn 12 miles outside the park.
Lodging and Dining
Besides backcountry camping, there are five drive-up campgrounds, of which Lower Lehman Creek is open all year. Most of the campsites are first come, first served, but some campgrounds can be reserved online for Grey Cliffs Campground when open, generally from May to October. Each campground has a picnic table and fire pit.
There are no lodging or restaurants in the park, but there are options in Baker city, about 10 minutes from the gate. T&D’s is a local grocery store, restaurant and lounge, and Silver Jack Inn has 10 rooms open through peak season, four open year round, and a restaurant. The National Parks Service lists food and lodging options in the area on their website.
Activities Outside the Park
There are plentiful opportunities for BLM camping and backpacking outside of the park, including Mount Moriah Wilderness area in the Snake Range about 90 minutes from the gate. Peak baggers, hike up to The Table – a plateau sitting at 12k covered with Bristlecone, limber pine and pinyon-juniper – then make your way to Mount Moriah, a solitary +12k summit worth bagging if you’re in the area.
There’s no mountain biking on trails inside the park, so you’ll have to head elsewhere to find some singletrack, with many good options near Ely. Cave Lake State Park offers 30 miles of track, including Overlook Trail, 4.5 miles and 1,000 feet elevation gain. Closer to the park outside of Osceola is Sacramento Pass with three loop trails covering 6.5 miles. Singletracks.com is a great resource to find some MTB trails.
The most popular time for visitors is late spring to mid fall when weather is favorable for camping and hiking. The park and Lehman Cave are open year round, but many services in nearby Baker are closed during the winter, as are the majority of campground in the park. Backcountry backpacking is allowed during winter months, and the park attracts snowshoers and cross-country skiers as well as alpine skiers and boarders. All activities are allowed, but at explorers’ own risk. Check the park’s website for current weather and road conditions before planning an off-season trip.