It recently occurred to me that, what with all the state and national parks I’ve been to in the last year, people may find it helpful if I described a few of my experiences along with some tips and tricks here on my blog. I’ve decided to start with Great Basin National Park, since I was there not too long ago. Keep an eye out for similar upcoming posts!
I’ve actually visited GBNP twice—once when I first moved to the Vegas area and again when I decided to roadtrip across Nevada on The Loneliest Road in America. During my first trip, I mainly paid attention to the fall colors and cool cave structures. The second time around, I finally got to see a bristlecone pine tree, and also Saturn!
Late September at Great Basin means beautiful fall colors (mostly thanks to all the aspens), chilly nighttime temperatures, and ready-to-harvest pine nuts. Truth be told, I had been warned before my trip that pine nuts can be pretty tricky to harvest, so I didn’t even try. Instead, I walked along a couple trails, drove up to Wheeler Peak, and took the Grand Palace Tour of Lehman Caves. I had never toured a cave before and found it fascinating. The Lehman Caves’ claim to fame is a plentiful supply of shield formations (they look like rock chandeliers). Also, people discovered these caves over 100 years ago, so it’s got some human history mixed in there, too.
I spent my first night at Baker Creek Campground. The campground itself was good, but you have to take a gravel road to get there and I have a compact car designed for paved roads. I decided to find a different campsite for my second night. Lower Lehman Creek campground was full and Upper Lehman Creek campground was closed for construction. I decided to set up my tent at Wheeler Peak Campground. In hindsight, this wasn’t a great idea in late September. I had a chilly night, but managed it. I had to leave right away in the morning and didn’t have time to see any bristlecone pine trees during that trip.
Luckily, I had a second chance several months later. During the week of the Great American Eclipse of 2017, I began my roadtrip across Highway 50 at Great Basin National Park. By this time, construction had finished on Upper Lehman Creek campground and I was able to get a campsite there. It was probably the easiest time I ever had setting up my tent—thank goodness for newly-constructed tent pads that haven’t been super-compacted yet! It was one of the few times I’ve ever managed to hammer in all my tent pegs securely. (It’s the little things.)
On Saturday nights during the summer, the park offers a free astronomy program by the Lehman Caves visitor center. I generally try to stay away from astronomy—the sheer size and scale of it all hurts my brain. The rangers did a very good job of explaining astronomic objects and concepts though, so I had a good time. They also have super high-tech portable telescopes. We got to see several celestial objects, but my favorite was Saturn.
The next morning, I braved the drive up to Wheeler Peak. (Have I mentioned I’m afraid of heights? I am.) From the campground parking lot, the bristlecone pine grove is about a 1.4 mile hike away. Much like tortoises, bristlecone pines are adapted to require very little water and grow very slowly, which translates to very, very long lifespans. For many years, the oldest-known bristlecone pine was Prometheus, which was roughly 4,900 years old. Unfortunately, people found this out when they cut the tree down and counted its rings. Luckily, an older tree was recently found in California. The current oldest living bristlecone pine tree known is over 5,000 years old.
The bristlecone pine grove is a crazy place if you think about it—if you had been standing in that same spot 2,000 years ago, you would be looking at those exact same trees! And they wouldn’t even be saplings! They would be adult trees! It’s kind of mind-blowing. Luckily, some chipmunks showed up to distract me.
If you continue down the trail for another mile or so, you can see a small glacier. I decided to save that for another day, however, and walked back to my car and the next stop on my adventure.
Location: Baker, NV
Entrance Fee: FREE
Visitor Center? Yes (2–Great Basin Visitor Center & Lehman Caves Visitor Center)
Have I camped Here? Yes (Upper Lehman Creek, Wheeler Peak, and Baker Creek campgrounds)
Camping Fee: $12/night **Some back-country camping is free**
Camping Reservation Needed? No
Number of Campgrounds: 5 (depending on season)
**I recommend Upper Lehman Creek Campground, though Wheeler Peak is fun in the Summer before it gets too cold.**
Campground Amenities: Vault toilets, campfire rings, tent pads, no hook-ups
Best Time of Year to visit: Mid-to-late summer or during the annual Astronomy Festival