There is more to Nevada than desert, hot nightclubs and garish, neon temples of gambling. Great Basin National Park, about 285 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip, offers cool wilderness, from caves where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees, to rocky, windswept peaks topping 13,000 feet.
This remote park is home to some of the oldest trees on the planet. And with fewer than 100,000 visitors a year, it’s easy to find something you can’t find in Las Vegas — peace and quiet.
Lehman Caves fell under the protection of the federal government nearly a century ago when President Warren G. Harding declared them a national monument in January 1922. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 transferred control of Lehman Caves to the National Park Service. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating Great Basin National Park, and folding the caves into the park, into law in October 1986.
Things to do:
The 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is breathtaking — literally. The road climbs more than 4,000 feet through sagebrush and pinyon-juniper woodlands, rising higher into forests of white fir, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. The road keeps climbing to aspen groves swaying more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
The road provides access to a number of popular hiking trails, including the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, a 2.7-mile path past Stella and Teresa lakes that also offers nice views of Wheeler Peak. The fit and adventurous may want to tackle the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail, an 8.6-mile round-trip trek climbing nearly 3,000 feet to 13,063 feet above sea level.
Two tours of Leman Caves are offered. The Grand Palace Tour entails a half mile of walking and takes 90 minutes. The Lodge Room Tour is an hour. Cave tours are capped at 20 people and frequently sell out.
Why you’ll want to come back:
The night sky above Great Basin National Park is among the darkest in the nation. Low humidity and no light pollution makes this a great place to lie back and marvel at the Milky Way, or even track man-made satellites with the naked eye.
Rangers give astronomy talks during the summer season and the park even provides telescopes.
Flora and fauna:
There are more than 800 species of plants in Great Basin National Park and the neighboring valleys, but the star of the show is the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva). The trees grow at elevations above 9,000 feet and are among the oldest living organisms on Earth, living to be more than 4,000 years old.
There are more than 70 species of mammals in the park, including coyotes, badgers, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope and yellow-bellied marmots.
Just the facts:
Website: Great Basin National Park
Park size: 77,180 acres or 120 square miles
2011 visitation: 91,451
Funky fact: If you’re looking to unplug, Great Basin National Park is the place to do it. Cellphones usually don’t work in and around Great Basin and there is no public Internet access in the park or in the gateway town of Baker.
MNN tease photo: Shutterstock