The essential guide to Nevada's Great Basin National Park

By Rebecca Powers

With its caves, magnificent bristlecone forests and isolated star-gazing opportunities, visitors to this national park are in for a visual feast both above and below ground.

A bristlecone pine tree in Nevada's Great Basin National Park, with Wheeler Peak in background. Photo / 123RF
A bristlecone pine tree in Nevada's Great Basin National Park, with Wheeler Peak in background. Photo / 123RF

As the USA's National Park Service celebrates its centenary, we're profiling the wilderness areas it manages.

Today: Nevada's sole national park . . .

Great Basin National Park

"This location is one of the best remaining undeveloped sites for observing the sky in the United States."
- David Bennum, physicist at the University of Nevada at Reno, on Greatbasinobservatory.org

Ancient trees and dramatic cave formations highlight this park, which is 460 kilometres from Las Vegas near the Utah border.

A lake fringed by bristlecone pine forest in Great Basin National Park. Photo / 123RF
A lake fringed by bristlecone pine forest in Great Basin National Park. Photo / 123RF

The trees, bristlecone pines up 4000 years old, are contorted, as if twisted from the sheer effort to survive harsh conditions. The cavern, Lehman Caves, is a geologic remnant of an ancient, shallow inland sea — a paradoxical image in this arid setting.

Tourists can sightsee at various levels: 50 metres below ground; at the surface; at 4000 metres in elevation (Wheeler Peak); and higher above in the night sky, which is said to provide the best visibility of the Milky Way in the continental United States.

Two guided cave tours are offered: the Lodge Room (one hour) and the Grand Palace (90 minutes). Of note among the many subterranean formations is the Parachute Shield. At least 80 US caves have shields, which are circular plates. Lehman Caves has 300.

Wheeler Peak stands high over Great Basin National Park. Photo / 123RF
Wheeler Peak stands high over Great Basin National Park. Photo / 123RF

As for the park's namesake, this region is part of a 517,997 square-kilometre area that drains internally, rather than into rivers that feed the Pacific Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. The Great Basin takes in most of Nevada, half of Utah and portions of Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and California.

Bristlecone pines up 4000 years old grow across Grand Basin National Park. Photo / 123RF
Bristlecone pines up 4000 years old grow across Grand Basin National Park. Photo / 123RF

For a wider view of the basin, visitors may hike an 13.8-kilometre trail to the Wheeler Peak summit, where vistas reward the effort. The Great Basin Observatory opened there on August 25, in celebration of the Park Service's 100th anniversary.

Size: 77,180 acres

Founded: National monument (Lehman Caves), 1922; national park, 1986

Attendance: 116,123 (2015)

Read more:

The essential guide to Alaska's national parks
The essential guide to the National Park of American Samoa
The essential guide to Arkansas' Hot Springs National Park
The essential guide to California's national parks
The essential guide to Colorado's national parks
The essential guide to Florida's national parks
The essential guide to Hawaii's national parks
The essential guide to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park
The essential guide to Utah's national parks
The essential guide to Virginia's Shenandoah National Park

- Washington Post

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