Great Basin National Park is located in east-central Nevada and is one of our country’s least-known and least-visited parks. Back in 2013 my wife, her friend and I drove a few hours north of Las Vegas to get a taste of what this remote wilderness outpost had to offer. We visited in early April and at that time abundant snowfall in the mountains limited what we could see and do. I vowed to come back for some more extensive exploration, and last month I finally returned.
First a little background information. Great Basin National Park protects over 120 square miles (310 square km) of prime wilderness in America’s basin-and-range province. Geologically this region is characterized by crustal extension and block faulting that has occurred over the last 17 million years. This activity has created roughly parallel and alternating sequences of dry valleys and narrow snow-capped mountain ranges throughout most of Nevada and parts of neighboring states. Although the Great Basin Desert is arid, the higher elevations present isolated and vastly different plant and animal communities that are representative of sky island ecosystems.
Part of the reason why I wanted to return to Great Basin is that I love our most remote and least-visited national parks. Traffic and crowds are sparse, allowing visitors to get maximum enjoyment from the serene wilderness. You can hike for miles without seeing another person. You can stop on the side of the road and photograph wildlife without anyone else coming along to scare it off. You can camp far from others, avoiding the noise that disrupts the peace and quiet. If you enjoy solitude in nature the way I do, visits to such remote places are profoundly rewarding.
Over the last few years, however, national park visitation has been skyrocketing. A lot of this is because of increased promotion in anticipation of the National Park Service Centennial in 2016. Even the isolated Great Basin has not been immune to this effect. Visitation here in 2013 was around 90,000, and this year it is projected to be around 120,000. That’s about a 30% increase in just three years. By national park standards these are still tiny numbers, but Great Basin can only hold so many people. This presented some cause for concern.
I knew by visiting in mid-May kids would still be in school and inclement weather would scare some people off, but this far into spring visitation would still be relatively high. I knew I wanted to tent camp two nights to explore as much as possible, but camping here is somewhat limited. Of the five developed campgrounds near the heart of the park, Wheeler Peak was still closed for snow and Upper Lehman Creek was closed for repairs, leaving only Lower Lehman Creek, Baker Creek, and Grey Cliffs. After flying into Salt Lake City from Detroit and driving four hours, I knew I would get here in the late afternoon. Not a great time to arrive at potentially congested campgrounds.
Luckily Great Basin has two remote and primitive camping areas for the more adventurous. Strawberry Creek at the north end of the park has about ten sites, and Snake Creek at the south end of the park has maybe twelve sites. Both camping areas are several miles away from the heart of the park and can only be reached by dead-end gravel roads. Their remoteness and ruggedness keep RVs and travel trailers away, making them attractive only to those with tents or small campers. In addition to being delightfully isolated, these campsites have the added bonus of being free.
While the campsites at Strawberry Creek are sort of clumped together, the campsites along Snake Creek are spread far apart. After learning all of this beforehand, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I flew out to SLC, drove four hours across the relaxing empty roads of west-central Utah, and around 5pm finally made it to Great Basin just inside the Nevada border. From here I made a beeline to the south end of the park and right up the lovely rugged dirt road leading up Snake Creek Canyon.
Although I knew I was headed into one of the most remote area of the park I was still concerned with finding a campsite at 5pm. To my pleasant surprise I found that only two were occupied, so I took my pick of what was left. I found myself at a campsite called “Eagle Peak,” consisting of three distant sites with a pit toilet near the center. Although one other site was occupied that first night, I hardly saw or heard anything from the other camper.
After a quiet, lonely evening of grilling hamburgers and photographing plants and insects, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep under the myriad stars.
I was again bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by 5am. With some enthusiasm I headed out to visit the high points near the center of the park before the riff raff got up and going.
On my way out of Snake Creek Canyon I was kind of surprised to see that all of the campsites here were full. Sometime between my arrival at 5pm and sunset a number of other campers had come along to completely fill up this remote camp area.
I thought I would investigate the other campgrounds in the park, but I wanted to see some of the landmark features before the traffic and crowds ruined the experience. I first headed straight up the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. This road winds up the 13,063 foot (3982 m) Wheeler Peak, the second-highest point in Nevada. On my last visit this road was closed for snow at Osceola Ditch, not far up the mountain. This time around it was open all the way up to Mather Overlook, about halfway up the mountain.
I loved hanging around this spot for a while right after dawn. There wasn’t a soul around, leaving me free to wander around, take photos, and take in the absolute silence of the mountain air. After almost an hour another car showed up, and that was my cue to leave.
I then headed down to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. I didn’t get to see the caves on my last visit, so I wanted to get there early to get a cave tour ticket before they sold out. These tickets can be reserved online but I wanted to be flexible with my plans. The 9am tour was sold out but 11am was available. This gave me a couple of hours to kill, so I thought I would check out the other campgrounds to see where I wanted to sleep that night.
My first stop was the Lower Lehman Creek Campground. Of the 11 sites only one or two were vacant, and they weren’t very attractive. These sites are all clumped close together and many of the sites were occupied by RVs. I’m not a fan of RV campers. RV camping isn’t really camping, it’s like having a mobile apartment. In my humble experience RV campers tend to love their noisy generators, TVs, radios, air conditioners, slamming doors at all hours, and it just makes for a relatively unpleasant outdoor experience when near them. While driving along here I did see a large male turkey strutting around, so that was kind of cool.
My next stop was the Baker Creek Campground. The 38 mostly-occupied campsites filled with RVs made this feel like a small city, with each campsite butted firmly against the others around it. The high-altitude road leading to this spot wasn’t all bad, however, since it lead through some serious marmot territory.
The abundant wildflowers along Baker Creek Road were also pretty attractive.
I then stopped at Grey Cliffs near Baker Creek. This area seemed promising and there were a number of sites available. Most of the campground is for reserved group camping, however, so I moved along.
My final stop was along Strawberry Creek at the north end of the park. The primitive campsites here were my second choice after Snake Creek, but after seeing them in person I decided they were still a little cozy for my taste. At that point I knew the only place I wanted to be on my second night was back up Snake Creek. I did hike a bit along Strawberry Creek, however, and in this remote spot the only thing that disrupted the quiet beauty was a clucking turkey hen with about a dozen peeping chicks behind her.
By now it was time for my appointment with Lehman Caves. These marble caverns are adorned with a wide variety of stalactites, stalagmites, and other cave formations. Their beauty earned them protection as Lehman Caves National Monument in 1922, long before being incorporated into the larger Great Basin National Park in 1986.
Although I wanted to take the 90-minute “Grand Palace” Tour, availability had me settling for the 60-minute “Lodge Room” Tour. Although shorter, this ranger-lead hike through the cave was still pretty spectacular.
Of all of the gorgeous formations in this cave, the most famous are the cave shields. Lehman has over 300 of these relatively rare formations, one of the highest concentrations in the world.
It’s thought that these formations begin when groundwater rich with dissolved calcite moves through fractures between beds of limestone. The water leaves behind calcite that builds up over time, filling the fracture with a round disk shape. Eventually the surrounding rock dissolves or collapses, leaving behind only the calcite formation. As calcite deposition continues, shields often become adorned with stalactites or draperies.
Other noteworthy formations in Lehman Caves include cave popcorn…
…as well as cave bacon:
For some reason all of this was making me hungry, and before long I was back outside having lunch. I was glad I went on this cave tour, however, because it was one of the most beautiful I have seen.
After getting a look at most of the park I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon back up Snake Creek Canyon. Based on my experience the night before I knew the dispersed campsites here would fill up sometime after about 5pm, so I wanted to be close to snag one when the time was right.
Snake Creek happens to be an ideal place to explore. The park has recently spent a great deal of time and money in this remote area developing trails, creating new signs and parking areas, and improving the general infrastructure and experience. Most visitors have yet to learn about this spot, however, and it’s a great place to visit if you want to avoid crowds. I hiked up and down various trails for several hours and never saw another car or another person. The solitude here was to die for.
By 5pm I headed back down the canyon to look for a campsite. I skipped over Eagle Peak since I had already been there, and instead stopped at the next site down the road. Like Eagle Peak, “Squirrel Springs” had three dispersed campsites and a pit toilet at one end. At this lower elevation there weren’t as many large trees, but the scrubby pines and junipers offered some isolation. This spot also had the benefit of having a large rock outcrop next to it, which I of course had to climb.
The climb up this hill was a little sketchy. The metamorphic rocks that made up this outcrop were pretty solid, but the weather was of some concern. Dark clouds were approaching, giving rise to sporadic light showers and rumbles of thunder. The top of an exposed hill is the last place you want to be when there’s lightning around. I took a quick photo of the Squirrel Springs campsites below, just to show how remote they are. Then I got back down to camp to grill.
Random light showers, heavy wind, and some thunder and lightning continued through the night. This seemed to keep most people away, because when I left in the morning only two of the other sites along the entire road were occupied.
I imagine that one day Snake Creek will be as busy as other areas of the park. That’s kind of a shame because it’s such a great hidden gem and I kind of want to keep it a secret. On the other hand national parks live and die by public support, and promoting this area would really go a long way to increasing visitation and enhancing visitor experiences.
I’m glad I made it back to Great Basin, and I’m glad I gave this park two full days for exploration. I could have stayed here for a week or longer, and I would gladly return to see what more this remote and relatively unknown national park has to offer.