Gem of Nevada Lies Along America’s Starriest Highway

By Richard Bednarski

In the middle of the high desert of the Great Basin lies one of America’s hidden gems, which is home to Nevada’s second tallest mountain, ancient trees and some of the darkest night skies in the country. 

The park lies in the traditional homeland of both the Goshute and Newe (Western Shoshone) people. Established in 1986, the park encompasses over 120 square miles. Located along Highway 50, known as the “loneliest road in America,” the park is situated on the northern end of the South Snake Range and gets only about 90,000 visitors a year. 

It’s most known for Lehman Cave, a network of tunnels discovered in the late 1880s by Absalom Lehman. The cave is accessible via daily guided tours. Though the cave does not stand up to the expansive reaches of Carlsbad Caverns, the limestone formations are definitely worth experiencing. 

Outside the cave, Great Basin National Park is a naturalist’s playground. Incredible hiking opportunities will take the adventurous through five separate alpine zones. 

Down lower, the sagebrush steppe ecology is home to wildlife such as sage grouse and antelope. Hiking up to the higher elevations, park visitors can see everything from wild turkeys, porcupines, bighorn sheep and perhaps the elusive ringtail cat. 

Not to be ignored are the bristlecone pine trees (Pinus longeava). These gnarled, ancient looking trees are the longest living tree on earth. They typically grow at higher elevations and can withstand the roughest weather conditions. 

Photo courtesy National Park Service.

In 2016, the park was recognized as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. On a moonless night, the number of stars visible makes finding common constellations a challenge.

“You can find a place among the extensive trail system to view dark skies silhouetted by ancient gnarly bristlecone pines,” explained Kirk Peterson, a researcher and night sky educator. His work is helping to promote the Park to Park in the Dark program. 

This scenic route ties together Death Valley and Great Basin national parks. The goal of the program is to “highlight the incredible dark skies and magnificent scenery of Nevada’s public lands,” Peterson said. 

The dark sky is quite accessible in this neck of the woods. Whether hiking into the backcountry or camping at Wheeler Peak Campground, experiencing the darkness couldn’t be easier. 

Every season has something to offer in Great Basin National Park. The fall is a favorite time to visit, when the aspen and cottonwood trees are aflame with color. 

The park is six hours from Reno and just shy of a four drive from Salt Lake City. About five miles from the entrance is the Nevada town of Baker, where you can get last-minute provisions at Bristlecone General Store or basecamp out of the Stargazer Inn

Great Basin has a lot to offer, and being one of the least visited national parks, it’s a great place to get away from the crowds.