Great Basin National Park Overview

From the Wasatch Mountains of Utah to the Sierra Nevada of California, the intermountain landscape plays a seemingly endless geological rhythm of deep basins separated by parallel mountain ranges running north to south. Nowhere in this vast expanse of land is this magnificent theme played more brilliantly than in Great Basin National Park.

At first glance, the landscape of Great Basin National Park—mile after mile of sagebrush and pale green shrubs—may strike you as monotonous. Initial appearances are deceptive here. Altitude determines scenery in Great Basin, and above the valleys, rising thousands of feet from the sagebrush sea, the mountain ranges form a sort of high-elevation archipelago; sky islands of cooler air and abundant water that harbor a rich variety of plants and animals.

From desert basins to glaciers tenaciously clinging to the flanks of Wheeler Peak, Great Basin serves up a rich variety of backdrops for hikers, mountain bikers, anglers, and wildlife lovers.

Cast for Cutthroats
Fishing for trout in a desert? Not only is it possible, but five, count 'em, five species of trout swim in the park's creeks and lakes, including the native Bonneville cutthroat trout, a subspecies that evolved in complete isolation from other trout populations over the last 25,000 years. You can also fish for Lahontan cutthroat, rainbows, browns, and brookies in Johnson and Baker Lakes, as well as Lehman, Baker, Snake, Strawberry, Shingle, and Williams Creeks. The creeks are more accessible than the lakes, but the best fly-fishing always occurs in solitude. So pack your gear, strap on your pack, and strike out for one of the remote alpine lakes, where it will be just you and the trout.

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Fat-tire through the Desert
The bad news is that biking on Great Basin's many miles of hiking trails is forbidden. The good news is that the four-wheel-drive and high-clearance roads that crisscross the park will challenge even the most skilled off-road warrior. And just north of the park, miles of trails in the Sacramento Pass Recreation Area also beckon mountain bikers. Why not give the Willow Patch Spring to Miller Basin trail a whirl? This moderate, 16-mile round-trip climbs from 6,623 feet to 8,300 feet, and traverses the wildflower heaven of Miller Basin. The trail also boasts spectacular views of Wheeler Peak, Mount Moriah, and the Schell Creek Range, and takes you through the ghost town of Black Horse, a turn-of-the-century mining camp.

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Wheel up Wheeler Peak
There are roads aplenty in Great Basin, but if you want to soak in the best views in the park and see what a difference elevation can make, steer your SUV onto Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, which takes you to the campground perched high on the 13,063-foot mountain. From its beginnings near the park entrance, the drive winds up the shoulder of the mountain, ending near the edge of the tree line. The road climbs 3,400 feet in 12 miles, passing from pinyon juniper woodlands up to subalpine forest of limber pine, spruce, and aspen at the Wheeler Peak campground. There are several places to pull over and gape at the view, but watch for deer around the sharp turns.

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Trek to a Sky Island
Opportunities for hiking abound throughout Great Basin. Trails range from easy rambles and moderate hikes to strenuous slogs. Depending on the elevation you may find yourself walking among low-lying sagebrush or ancient, high-altitude bristlecone pine thousands of years old. One pine found in the park has been dated as the oldest living thing on the planet: 4,950 years of age. If you want to take it easy, take the Mountain View Nature Trail. Lehman Creek Trail offers a moderate hike with plenty of diversity. But if you really want to push yourself and get away from the crowds, tackle the Johnson Lake Trail. This strenuous 5.6-mile (one-way) hike takes you to a stunning alpine lake that's well worth the effort.

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Explore Below Ground
Back in 1885, rancher Absalom Lehman stumbled across the astonishingly beautiful cavern that now bears his name. Lehman Caves (a single cavern despite the name), the most famous of the Great Basin's many limestone caverns, ranks among the country's most richly decorated subterranean caverns. Besides familiar underworld formations like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, and flowstone, Lehman is also home to rarities like the mysterious shields—pairs of circular stone halves that look like flattened clamshells. Shields were formed by a process that still eludes the experts. The cave can be explored on three guided cave walks of varying length. Bring a sweater; the temperature is a constant 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

More on caving in Great Basin National Park

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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