Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is a land of contrasts and diversity. Located not far from the state’s border with Utah, the park includes arid landscapes, towering mountain peaks, and ancient bristlecone pines. It is a place where visitors can climb above 13,000 feet on Wheeler Peak or drop beneath the surface of the Earth in a vast network of subterranean caves.
Here, you’ll find high alpine deserts, wide-open spaces, and a mountain glacier, all within one sprawling ecosystem covering more than 77,000 acres. Best of all, you’ll also find silence and solitude.
Since the park receives about 90,000 visitors annually, it is often all but deserted. This allows adventurous travelers to explore everything that it has to offer without having to deal with large crowds, long lines, and packed trails.
Here’s what you need to know before RVing Great Basin National Park.
Why Visit Great Basin National Park in Your RV?
For adventurous travelers and avid outdoor enthusiasts, RVing Great Basin National Park has a lot to offer. Where else can you go mountain climbing and spelunking all on the same day? Visitors can wander amongst the bristlecone pines—among the oldest species of trees on the planet—and hike miles of trail with the Sierra Nevada mountains serving as a dramatic backdrop.
Because of its remote location, Great Basin remains a true hidden gem in America’s national park system. It is off the beaten path and requires a little work to get there, but the rewards for making the drive are enormous. This is an untouched wilderness with an abundance of wildlife, sweeping vistas, and some of the darkest skies in the entire country.
Best of all, it is a place where you can truly escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. It is a place where you can find adventure in various forms. And unlike most other national parks, you can do so at your pace, spending hours on the trail without encountering another person.
When to Visit Great Basin National Park
As with most national parks, Great Basin is open year-round, welcoming visitors 365 days a year. But there are certain times of the year that are more accommodating to visitors than others. For instance, winters in the park can be very cold and snowy, while summers tend to have more stable conditions and comfortable temperatures, making it the most popular time to visit.
Here are a few more details on the four seasons inside Great Basin National Park:
Great Basin National Park in Spring
Spring can be slow to arrive in the park, as it takes a while for the temperatures to begin to rise. Average daytime highs are usually in the 40ºF-50ºF range, with snow remaining at high elevations throughout March and April.
The number of visitors at this time of year is low, with some intrepid travelers exploring trails on snowshoes and cross-country skis. By late spring, things begin to warm up, however, with 60ºF temperatures common in May.
Great Basin National Park in Summer
Summer isn’t always the most comfortable time to visit Nevada, but the national park is relatively mild compared to other parts of the state. Throughout June, July, and August, the high temperature ranges between 75ºF-85ºF during the day, falling into the mid-50s at night.
Those warm days and cool nights bring the largest crowds, although even at its busiest, the Great Basin remains manageable. Watch for afternoon thunderstorms, which are a regular occurrence throughout the summer.
Great Basin National Park in Fall
Fall is one of the best times to visit the park as the summer travel season is over, but the weather remains favorable. Daytime highs tend to be in the 60s and lows in the 30s, with rainfall at a minimum. In October, the park’s aspen trees turn a brilliant golden hue, which attracts more visitors while the days are still warm and sunny.
Great Basin National Park in Winter
Winters can be long and cool inside Great Basin National Park, where temperatures are typically in the 40s during the day and often fall to the 20s at night. Snowfall at lower elevations is infrequent but does accumulate over the length of the season.
Higher up, it can be heavy, closing some of the alpine trails until spring. The park’s scenic road also closes for winter, limiting access to some areas. On weekdays, the park is almost completely empty on most days.
Where to Stay
There are six developed campgrounds within the Great Basin National Park and several primitive sites located along Snake Creek Road. None of the sites has hookups. The National Park Service recommends reserving a campsite through recreation.gov for visits between Memorial Day and Labor Day. For the rest of the year, the sites are first-come, first-served basis.
Of the in-park campground, Lower Lehman Creek is the best for RVers. It features pull-through sites for RVs and trailers, making it more accessible than some of the other locations. But with just 11 sites at Lower Lehman, it can fill up quickly.
The Baker Creek Campground is the only other location with potable water. Visitors to Upper Lehman, Snake Creek, Grey Cliffs, and Wheeler Peak campgrounds will need to bring their own.
Where to Stay Outside the Park
RVers looking for more full-service campgrounds with electrical, water, and other hook-ups will want to stay at one of the off-site campgrounds. These include the following:
- The Border Inn & RV Park: Located in Baker, NV, about 15 minutes from the Great Basin Visitor Center.
- Whispering Elms Motel, Campground and RV Park: Located in Baker, NV, about six miles from the Great Basin Visitor Center.
- Valley View RV Park: Located in Ely, NV, which is about an hour away from the Great Basin Visitor Center.
- Ward Mountain Campground: Located in Ely, NV, this campground is operated by the US Forest Service. It is about an hour from Great Basin National Park.
- Willow Creek Campground: Located inside Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park in Ely, this campground has just two RV-specific campsites that are a little over an hour from the Great Basin Visitor Center.
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For those who prefer boondocking, the Bureau of Land Management offers primitive campsites in the Sacramento Pass Recreation Area. This location sits just 15 miles west of Baker, NV, and is very close to Great Basin.
Tips for Your Camping Stay
- There is a $20/night fee for camping inside Great Basin National Park, although that cost drops to $10/night for senior citizens and annual pass holders. The park does not accept checks, so be prepared to pay in cash or with a credit card.
- There are no fees for camping at primitive sites along Snake Creek, but there is no potable water there either.
- Reservations for visits to the national park between Memorial Day and Labor Day can be made via recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777.
- Most campsites within the park do not have potable water, but water can be found about a half-mile into the park past the main entrance on NV Hwy 488. Be sure to fill up there if needed.
- An RV dump station is also found at the same location along NV Hwy 488. That station is open from late May through October but is closed in the winter. There is a $10 fee for using the facility.
- Firewood is not available for sale within the park. Visitors can collect wood that has already fallen onto the ground for use in campfires. Additionally, firewood can be purchased at the Whispering Elms and at Ferg’s Firewood self-pay stations in Baker.
- There are no shower facilities inside the park. Pay showers are available at Whispering Elms, Border Inn, and the Sinclair Gas Station in Baker.
- The Great Basin Cafe and Gift Shop is located in the Lehman Caves Visitor Center and is open from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM April through October.
How to Get Around Great Basin National Park
Located just south of Highway 50 — commonly known as the “Loneliest Road in America” — Great Basin is accessed from Highway 487 to Baker, then Highway 488 into the park.
Once inside Great Basin, visitors can traverse Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive throughout the northern section of the park. Be advised that vehicles or trailers over 24 feet cannot travel past Upper Lehman Campground. Also, keep in mind that during the winter months, the road is not plowed, so access is limited due to snowfall.
There are several unpaved roads throughout the park leading to many trailheads for exploring more of Great Basin’s bristlecone pine forests, but a four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended on those routes.
Places to Go
As you can imagine, there is plenty of room to roam inside Great Basin, which means there are many places within the park that you should visit. Highlights include:
Great Basin Visitor Center
Located in the town of Baker, just outside the park, the Great Basin Visitor Center has information on the geology, culture, and natural history of the area. Much of that history and geography is highlighted by several fantastic exhibits and a short documentary film, which can be explored onsite. The center is open throughout the year and is the perfect place to start your journey through this amazing place.
Lehman Caves Visitor Center
The Lehman Caves Visitor Center is open year-round and is located a half-mile past the park’s entrance. Tickets for Lehman Caves Tours are sold here, and rangers are available for questions. Visitors can take in the special exhibits, acquire permits, and sign-up for ranger-led tours at this location.
Originally designated as a separate national monument, Lehman Caves were added to Great Basin National Park in 1986. The caves are a subterranean wonderland that extends for more than a quarter-mile underneath the park’s surface. The limestone caverns include numerous stalactites and stalagmites and were used for shelter and storage by indigenous Native Americans for centuries before the arrival of Europeans.
Today, the caves are a popular attraction for visitors, with park rangers leading twice-daily tours, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Tickets for the tour can be obtained at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
Named after Stephen Mather —the first director of the National Park Service —Mather Overlook offers some of the best views found anywhere in the park. That includes the famous Wheeler Cirque, the small glacier located at the base of Wheeler Peak. The overlook can be found eight miles up the park’s scenic drive and has a large wooden deck, a telescope, and restrooms.
Things to Do in Great Basin National Park
With so much of the park to see, you have plenty of stuff you can go and do, too. Great Basin is a wonderful park for outdoor activities. Here are just a few that you can participate in:
There are over 60 miles of developed hiking trails throughout Great Basin National Park, ranging in difficulty from very easy to very difficult. Many of the trails aren’t particularly long, but due to the high altitude of the park, visitors are advised to take caution, stay hydrated, and go slowly.
All of the trails are open all year, but during the winter months, many of them are covered by several feet of snow. That draws snowshoers and cross-country skiers to the park for some cold-weather adventures. Caution is advised during this time of year, as inexperienced hikers may find themselves out of their element.
Some of the more popular trails inside Great Basin National Park include:
- Mountain View Nature Trail – .3 miles
- Baker Lake Trail – 12 miles
- Bristlecone Trail – 2.8 miles
- Lehman Creek Trail – 6.8 miles
- Alpine Loop Trail – 2.7 miles
- Wheeler Peak Summit Trail – 8.6 miles
- Osceola Ditch Trail – .3 miles
- Lexington Arch Trail – 3.4 miles
Although permits are not required, day hikers are asked to sign in at the trailhead registry. Pets are not allowed on park trails, except Lexington Arch Trail. Be sure to review the Great Basin’s backcountry regulations before setting out.
Designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2016, Great Basin offers organized stargazing events, weekly astronomy programs, and an annual stargazing festival. There is even a Star Train that leaves from Ely, Nevada, with dark rangers aboard to narrate.
Arrival at the park allows train riders to view the night skies through the park’s high-powered telescopes. The trip occurs once a month from May through September. Tickets are available from Nevada Northern Railway but do sell out quickly.
Cyclists looking for a challenging and breathtaking route should pedal their way around Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive for some incredible views and great exercise. For mountain bikers and gravel riders, there are several unpaved roads that provide challenging terrain, but riders are not allowed off-road or on any hiking trails. All cyclists are asked to stay on routes and paths that are designated for bicycle use only.
Lehman Caves has two daily ranger-led tours, but there are 40 other caves found within the park’s borders. Of those, seven caves are currently open to experienced spelunkers to explore on their own, although a permit is required. To obtain that permit, cavers must first demonstrate their knowledge, skill, and ability to use the proper equipment.
The following caves are open to exploration:
- Little Muddy (Open October 1 – April 15)
- Catamount (Open year-round)
- Ice Cave (Open April 1 – May 15 and September 15 – October 15)
- Crevasse-Halliday’s Deep (Open April 1 – May 15 and September 15 – October 15)
- Systems Key (Open April 1 – May 15 and September 15 – October 15)
- Broken (Open June 15 – October 15)
- Snake Creek (Open September 15 – May 15)
Beginners are dissuaded from entering the caves on their own. If you’re new to caving, talk to a park ranger about how you can become more experienced and get into the lifestyle. It’s a fantastic way to explore some of the most interesting places on earth.
Go on a Picnic
Great Basin National Park has several designated picnic areas where visitors can take in the views and relax with a meal in the outdoors. Some of the more popular places to have lunch include Mather Overlook, the Astronomy Amphitheater, Upper Lehman Creek Campground, and the trailheads for the Pole Canyon and Bristlecone trails.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
- Weather within the park varies greatly from one location to the next, especially when moving up in altitude. Temperatures can change rapidly, storms come and go, and it can snow during any month of the year.
- Be sure to pack accordingly, bringing rain gear, extra layers, and down jackets. Even during the summer, day and nighttime temperatures can fluctuate dramatically.
- Great Basin National Park is an arid place where water is often in short supply. Whether you’re visiting for a day or staying longer, be sure to bring plenty of water for the length of your stay.
- There are no options within the park for obtaining groceries, so make sure your refrigerator or cooler is well stocked before you settle into camp.
- There is no public Wi-Fi within the park, and cellphone service can be spotty at best. Consider adding a cell signal booster to your rig before visiting.
- There are no entry fees for Great Basin National Park, but there are per-person charges for the Lehman Cave tours.
- Pets are permitted within the national park, although there are some regulations to be aware of before visiting. Most notably, your four-legged travel companions must be on a leash at all times and are not permitted in caves or on most trails.
- Western National Parks Association bookstores are located in each of the visitor centers and are open year-round.
Brief History of Great Basin National Park
While Great Basin National Park was officially established on October 27, 1986, its history dates back thousands of years before that. The region of Nevada that now falls within the park’s boundaries was home to several Native American tribes, including the Shoshone, ute, and Washoe. More recently, the Fremont people lived in Great Basin in organized sedentary communities, where they grew many crops and fashioned irrigation systems.
By 1869, Absalom Lehman set up a ranch along Lehman Creek, and soon a small community arose there. It was comprised mainly of his family members who had traveled west searching for a place they could call their own.
Lehman successfully created an orchard and large garden and eventually required outside help to maintain his crops. Today, visitors can see remnants of Ab’s irrigation aqueduct and orchard on what was once his 600-acre ranch.
By 1883, Mr. Lehman had stumbled upon the caverns that bear his name and built a new cabin just outside its entrance. His plan was to delve into the caves and turn them into a commercial venture, but his death in 1891 ended those plans. In the years that followed, the caves were only infrequently visited by other settlers, and it would be well into the 20th century before they grew into a point of interest for travelers.
By 1922 President Warren G. Harding designated the area as Lehman Caves National Monument. The goal was to protect the caverns while at the same time developing them for the general public. But the national government did not actively participate in the administrative duties of protecting the caves, leaving local residents to handle those activities independently.
As a result, weddings were performed inside the caverns, as were musical concerts that utilized stalactites as instruments. There were even large meetings held in the vast underground chambers, which soon suffered from misuse.
By 1933, the abuse of this natural resource ended when the control of national monuments was transferred to the National Park Service, and clean-up of the caves began. It took some time to reverse the damage done by the mismanagement of the site, which had been inundated with graffiti and trash. The next several decades were spent cleaning up the site, exploring the underground network, and creating a safer destination for travelers.
By 1986, the US Department of Interior recognized that the land surrounding Lehman Caves was equally important. The region was then designated Great Basin National Park, and the former national monument was subsumed into the new entity. Today, it is one of the most diverse locations in the American West, with landscapes that are unique and striking.
Have you ever been to Great Basin National Park? Leave a comment below.