From its 13,065-foot summit to extensive subterranean passages and caves of limestone and glowing crystals, one national park in eastern Nevada seems to bridge multiple worlds. There’s a good geological reason for that.
Great Basin National Park takes its name from the vast region in the western United States covering most of Nevada and significant portions of Oregon, Utah—even stretching into California, Idaho, and Wyoming. So named by explorer John C. Frémont in the mid-1800s, the region actually comprises not one but at least 90 basins, or valleys, and its rivers all flow inland—not to any ocean. All moisture in this arid bowl evaporates, sinks underground, or flows into salty lakes.
This creates optimal conditions in groves across the park for the Great Basin Bristlecone pines, the oldest non-clonal species (which reproduce with genetic variation) in the world. The slow-growing trees live at high elevations on limestone ridges, through unforgiving conditions including high winds and temperatures well below freezing.
Some trees are more than 3,000 years old—having lived through ice ages, volcanic eruptions and the rise and fall of countless empires.
The oldest specimen, known as the Prometheus tree, was at least 4,862 years old when a graduate student cut it down for research purposes in 1964. It was older than Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza, which was completed in 2560 BC.
The easiest way to see these gnarled trees that have been twisted by wind, water, snow, and time is to go to Wheeler Peak, at 13,065 feet the second highest mountain in Nevada. Look for them in a grove on the northeast side of the mountain, two miles from Wheeler Peak campground.
In the flank of the mountain, at an altitude of 6,800 feet, lies Lehman Caves, with 1.5 miles of underground passages. These formed when higher water tables during the Ice Age made pockets in the limestone. In the late 1800s, a rancher named Absalom Lehman came upon the entrance to this spectacular cavern while on horseback—and named it after himself.
These days, the Lehman caves draw tens of thousands of visitors to see cavernous rooms of glowing translucent crystals and fantastical mineral formations carved by water. In the darkness, subterranean life thrives here. Eyeless shrimp wriggle in the cold water, bats use echolocation to navigate, rats follow scent and pseudoscorpions use their elongated pincers to feel the route before them.
Above ground, visitors can enjoy the spectacular darkness the park offers with minimal light pollution, low humidity and high elevation. In 2016, the area was designated an International Dark Sky Park. On a clear, moonless night in the park, planets, thousands of stars, and the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye.
The closest large airports are Salt Lake City, Utah (234 miles) and Las Vegas, Nevada (286 miles). Visitors should drive to Baker, Nevada, and turn west on Highway 488 to continue for five more miles to the park entrance.
When to go
Great Basin is open year-round, but Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (beyond Upper Lehman Creek Campground) is closed November to May, or as long as heavy snows makes it impassable.
In summer, the most popular time, temperatures are generally mild. September and October bring cool weather and smaller crowds. Hikers must beware of sudden thunderstorms that can catch them on exposed ridges at any time of year. The best time to view Wheeler Peak is in early morning. In winter, visitors enjoy excellent cross-country skiing.
How to visit
On a one-day visit, take the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive for dramatic views of high alpine landscapes. On your way back, stop at Lehman Caves for a chance to walk underground through intriguing passages.
Remember that the alpine world is fragile. At these elevations, plants grow slowly and their margin of survival is narrow. Stay on established roads and trails to avoid inadvertently damaging these areas.
- Nat Geo Expeditions