Hey there! My family recently spent one day in Great Basin National Park, as part of a trip to Ely, Nevada. I visited Great Basin when I was young and was excited to return with my husband and kids (ages 16 and 13). We love the national parks.
Great Basin isn't as showy as some of its NPS neighbors in Utah and California, but there are still plenty of fun things to do and learn. Plus, Great Basin isn't crowded. After recent trips to Zion, Glacier, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, it was nice to have a relaxed and uncrowded park experience.
I had a lot of fun at Great Basin National Park and plan to return. Here are my tips for making the most of one day at Great Basin National Park.
What to Do
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
We started with the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. This two lane road climbs 3,000 feet, hugging the side of the mountain. Roads like this make me feel anxious, but the views are fantastic. There are several pullouts along the way where you can stop and enjoy them.
Mather Overlook is one of those pullouts. We arrived at around lunchtime and were glad to find a picnic table and bathrooms next to the parking lot. We had it all to ourselves for part of our lunch, even though it was a weekend during the peak summer season.
Hiking is one of Great Basin's best activities. There are trails for every ability, from the easy, wheelchair accessible Sky Islands Forest Trail to the strenuous Wheeler Peak Summit Trail.
We chose the moderate Bristlecone Trail. This scenic trail climbs gently to a grove of bristlecone pine trees that are 3,000-5,000 years old. Think of how much history has happened since they were seedlings! Afterward, we walked the easy Sky Islands Forest Trail.
The Bristlecone Trail starts at the end of the Scenic Drive. Several popular trails start from the same parking lot. We arrived in the early afternoon and this is the only part of the park where we had trouble finding a parking space right away.
Stargazing has become one of Great Basin's top attractions. Most of us can't see the Milky Way from our homes because city lights are too bright. Great Basin's isolation, elevation and climate allow you to see wonders of the night sky.
Free ranger-led stargazing programs with telescopes are typically offered from May to October each year. Learn more about Great Basin's Astronomy Programs at https://www.nps.gov/grba/planyourvisit/great-basin-night-sky.htm.
The Nevada Northern Railway's Star Train is good way to stay in Ely and still see the stars with Great Basin rangers. “Dark” rangers from Great Basin lead this nighttime train tour. The Star Train was my family's favorite activity on this trip.
Lehman Caves tours are a popular activity at Great Basin. Tours were closed due to COVID-19, so we didn't get to take one. I love cave tours and Lehman Caves is my strongest memory from my first visit, so we will return to Great Basin when tours are available again.
How to Get There
Great Basin National Park is a remote park just off of Highway 50 – “America's Loneliest Road.” The park's remote location is the reason that it's a top-notch stargazing destination.
Rent a car or bring your own to visit Great Basin National Park. I found a couple of guided tour options online (bundled with other national parks), but nearly everyone who visits this park drives their own vehicle.
The closest major airports are in Salt Lake City (SLC) and Las Vegas (LAS). The closest regional airports are in Cedar City and St. George, Utah. Cedar City is the closest and is about 2.5 hours drive from the park. Salt Lake City is about 4 hours from the park and will have a lot more flight and rental car options.
Great Basin National Park is in the Pacific Time Zone, but it's so close to the Mountain Time Zone that our mobile phones switched from Nevada time to Utah time. This only mattered when we thought it was 5:45 PM, but our restaurant was still closed because it was really only 4:45.
Where to Stay
The best place to stay at Great Basin National Park depends on your priorities. Would you rather be closer to the park or would you rather have more hotels, restaurants and other activities to choose from?
Close to the park
If you want to enjoy the park's exceptionally dark night skies or get an early start on the hiking trails, then consider a park campground or a hotel in Baker.
Great Basin National Park has seven campgrounds inside the park. Fees, amenities and accessibility vary. Learn more at https://www.nps.gov/grba/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm.
The Great Basin Visitor Center and park entrance are in the tiny town of Baker, Nevada. This is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it place with just a couple of small hotels and restaurants, but the location doesn't get much better.
Close to a city
Ely, Nevada is an hour's drive from Great Basin National Park. Fewer than 5,000 people live in Ely, but it feels a lot bigger than Baker. There are several hotels to choose from, including familiar brands. There are also more fun activities in Ely that you can add to your Great Basin itinerary.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Ely, and thought it was great. This new hotel has a swimming pool, complimentary breakfast, and convenient location a few blocks from Nevada Northern Railway.
Click the button below to see hotels in Baker and Ely on TripAdvisor.com.
Discloseure: Ely, Nevada hosted our visit to this area and our stay at Holiday Inn Express was complimentary, for the purpose of review.
Where to Eat
There is one restaurant inside Great Basin National Park. It is the Great Basin Cafe at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. It was open during our visit, but since we missed Lehman Caves, we missed the restaurant. I've been told that they have delicious sandwiches, soups, salads, vegetarian and vegan options.
For the rest of the park, be sure and pack all the sandwiches, snacks and drinks that you will need. Pack extra drinking water.
Baker has a couple of good places to eat. We started our day at the Magic Bean Coffee Cart in Baker. It's a little blue trailer across the street from the Stargazer Inn and Kerouac's. We picked up gourmet paninis for our lunch, and they were delicious. You can also get hot breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and of course, coffee.
We supplemented our paninis with snacks and drinks from the supermarket in Ely.
For dinner, we stopped at Kerouac's in Baker. This hip farm-to-table restaurant serves a good variety of burgers, sandwiches and wood-fired pizzas. This was the only place that my vegetarian son found a plant-based burger on our trip to Ely and Great Basin.
Related: Why We Loved Nevada Northern Railway
How Long Do You Need?
One full day was enough to enjoy the highlights of Great Basin National Park. We drove from Ely and stopped to see the Charcoal Ovens and pick up sandwiches on our way to the park. We left the park in time for an early dinner and then drove back to Ely.
We could have squeezed a Lehman Caves tour into the beginning or end of our day. Don't schedule it in the middle of the day if you only have one day to visit the park. You won't want to drive up and down the mountain twice.
You may want 2-3 days if you want to take more than one long hike. You may also need an extra day or two up front to adjust to the elevation before hiking to Wheeler Peak Summit.
We visited in late July and found that this part of Nevada is not nearly as hot as Las Vegas because its elevation is much higher. We found summer temperatures to be warm, but not too warm. The weather was perfect on the Bristlecone Trail, which starts at nearly 10,000 feet elevation.
Pack a jacket for cave tours and stargazing, even in summer. It's always chilly in caves. Nighttime temperatures fall dramatically in the desert. We were glad to have our jackets on the Star Train.
Weather changes suddenly on Wheeler Peak. Be prepared for unexpected rain, wind or snow when you're hiking the high-elevation trails, regardless of the forecast below.
Great Basin National Park has no entrance fee. Just drive right in and enjoy the park.
Expect to pay a per-person fee for tours of Lehman Caves. Make reservations in advance at Recreation.gov because tours often sell out. You can purchase same-day tickets in person, if they are available.
Ticket prices start at $9 per adult (age 16+). There is no charge for children under age 5. Tours are available year-round.
Related: 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees
Avoid Altitude Sickness
Several of Great Basin's best hiking trails start at 10,000+ feet above sea level. That makes altitude sickness a risk for most visitors.
Symptoms of altitude sickness include:
These symptoms are usually temporary, and not serious if you address them early. Anyone can get altitude sickness, and it can wreck your day.
Here are a few ways to avoid and treat altitude sickness:
- Drink lots of water
- Gradually adjust to altitude
- Get some rest
- Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen acetaminophen
- Move to a lower altitude
Life-threatening symptoms include blurred vision and edema. Get to a lower elevation right away and see a doctor if symptoms are serious.
My family had no problems with altitude sickness at Great Basin National Park. We carried water and snacks on our hike and took our time on the hills.
It was exciting to return to Great Basin National Park and see what makes it special. We were sorry to miss Lehman Caves this time, but our scenic drive, picnic and hike were just right for a relaxed day trip. I'm happy to have a reason to return.
I hope that our experience helps your family plan the perfect first trip to Great Basin National Park.