Great Basin National Park is a glorious environment to visit. Boasting rugged mountains, extensive underground caverns, and lush alpine forests, the place is a world of adventure to those who love the great outdoors. At first impression, the 77,100-acre Nevada park may seem vast and desolate. However, looking further within will reward visitors with a wealth of fauna and flora inhabiting its diverse terrain coupled with sensational scenery and epic activities.
Even with all that there is to see and do, what makes Great Basin National Park even more incredible is its long history comprising millions of years of mountain and rock formations, glacier-carved lands, and human stories that span thousands upon thousands of years to the present day. So, if visiting this magnificent eons-old park is on the bucket list, consider learning about how it came to be and who inhabited it first.
Welcome To The Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park is in fact one of the youngest official national parks in the USA. It was set aside by President Ronald Regan on October 27, 1986, and acquired its name from the unique drainage that occurs throughout its entirety; over the majority of the park, much of its many rivers and streams don't flow out to sea. Instead, water collects in shallow salt marshes, lakes, and mudflats until it evaporates into the dry desert atmosphere. And there isn't just a single basin - there are numerous all sectioned out by the intense landscapes and mountainous ranges right from the Wasatch Mountains of Utah to the Sierra Nevada of California,
Noticeably, the park is deceptive; upon arrival or after driving through for several miles, it appears as an underwhelming, dry landscape dotted with seas of shrubbery and sage brushes. However, in reality, there's so much more taking place than what first meets the eye. Like natural skyscrapers rising high above the desert valleys and green-covered planes, staggering mountains overlook all from above, where ample water and cool air support an enriched diversity of animal and plant species that would otherwise be unable to survive in the lower altitudes of the desert. And with such rich wildlife coupled with the scenery and landscapes come myriads of activities and adventures to be had - and ones that suit the whole family.
Activities In The Great Basin National Park
From hiking, horseback riding, and climbing to camping, fishing, kayaking, and cave spelunking, there are tons of diverse activities, attractions, and adventures for all the family in the Great Basin National Park. The park is also a sensational road trip region with one of the best and most popular routes being the scenic road to the base of Wheeler Peak. From there, drivers can go through easy to moderate trails, which see them arrive at glistening alpine lakes and the luscious bristlecone pine forest. It's important to note that the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is not advised for large RVs or buses - only smaller vehicles and cars.
Overall there's so much to do at every angle and it can be a little bit baffling as to where to start first. So any newbie to the park should begin at the dedicated visitor center, which offers information, exhibits, guided tours, and general advice. The visitor center also has a handy parking area large enough for buses and RVs and is open daily during varied seasonal business hours whilst closing on certain holidays.
Visitor's Center Schedule:
- Summer: 8:00 am to 5:30 pm - 7 days a week
- Fall: 8:30 am to 4:30 am - 7 days a week
- Winter: 8:00 am to 4:00 pm - 7 days a week
- Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day
A lot of people enjoy wild camping, but even so, there are four developed campgrounds in the park along with some limited backcountry sites. There are also some motel options for visitors who prefer a little more bricks and mortar, though these are somewhat limited due to the nature of the location. Visitors can also find a few motels in Baker, or alternatively, they can head to Ely 70 miles west or Delta over the state border in Utah about 100 miles east.
Weather And Climate
The region is mostly dry with the most rain occurring during summer thunderstorms and wintertime snowfall. An ideal climate for lovers of the great outdoors, the summer months are usually mild while winters are cool. Nevertheless, visitors are advised to be prepared for all weather no matter the season as it can change in an instant - particularly at high elevations. Ultimately, as one would guess, the summertime is likely the most comfortable time for most outdoor activities, though winter can be equally as incredible for those who enjoy snowy escapades out in the wild.
Geological History Of Great Basin
The park's history begins with its formation well before humans ever made their mark. Much to visitors' fascination and awe, Great Basin National Park was carved out by mighty glaciers over thousands upon thousands of years, and many of them are still present today for all to witness.
Of special note is the Lehman Rock Glacier - an enormous bundle of boulders all stuck together by even greater amounts of ice, which is visible from the Summer Trail and the Glacier Trail. And, just above this glacier in Lehman Cirque lies one of the last remaining original ice glaciers that created the park over 10,000 years ago.
It's not just glaciers that take all the credit; the legendary Lehman Caves for which the park is most famed is a wonder of equal measure. They were initially discovered by a miner and rancher from Ohio named Absalom Lehman, who chose to settle in the region during the 1860s. It's thought he found the caves in 1885 and many accounts of his story state that he would offer cave stalactites as gifts to friends and family whenever he visited home back east. Whilst Mr. Lehman is the official discoverer of the cave in more recent times, it was thought to have actually been used by the Fremont people well before his time; human remains have been uncovered at the cave's entrance, signifying a possible cultural burial of sorts.
Naturally, though, the history of the Lehman Caves goes back way further than when they were discovered by westernized folk, and even before ancient indigenous people inhabited the lands; it's estimated that the caves and landscapes began forming between two to five million years prior. This was in a time when the land was actually underwater; covered by a warm, shallow sea, the limestone seen today that forms a significant part of the region's territory came from shells and fossils of dead marine creatures that built upon the ocean bed.
One of the many artistic natural results 0f the lengthy landscape-carving process is indeed the beautiful Lehman Caves made from impressive and unusual limestone formations - including the incredibly rare shield formations seen in exceedingly scarce numbers around the globe. Over 300 shields are known to exist in Lehman Caves - a number higher than any other cave on Earth.
Of course, the extraordinary shields don't take the whole spotlight; the entirety of the cave is ornately decorated by Mother Nature, whose talents suffer no restraints as evidenced by her stunning artwork on display throughout the cavernous interior. Imagine stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, popcorn, shield, flowstone, and many other extraordinary formations covering the cave's walls, floors, and ceiling - and that's only the beginning.
The cave is more than simply a treat to the eyes; it's an insight into the past, transporting intrepid visitors through time to marvel at natural phenomena taking place over millions of years. Just gazing at the cave's surface tells people about ancient climates, whose existence and signatures have been neatly preserved in the cave's countless layers of natural formations.
And while such a marvel is an intriguing feature to observe and learn about for anyone, moreover, it means that the cave is an indispensable treasure trove of information. It offers a unique potential for researchers to study climate change - both in the past and the current day - which may provide priceless knowledge on the effects of climate change on the landscapes, as well as plant and animal populations.
A Summary Of Geological Dates
- 550 million years ago: the Pole Canyon limestone is deposited
- 160 million years ago: metamorphism of limestone takes place
- 20 million years ago: the Snake Mountain range is formed
- 5 million years ago: Lehman Caves starts to form
Although the park's archaeological eras cannot compare to its mounting millions of years of gradual geological formation, it has been inhabited for a significant amount of time - and echoes of the past can be seen in various formats. Far before the nineteenth-century fur trappers, the very first group to inhabit the park were what archaeologists refer to as the Paleo-Indians, who lived in the area around 12,000 years ago.
Later, the Fremont People inhabited areas of the Great Basin National Park - particularly Snake Valley - from around 1000 to 1300 AD. Unlike native tribes that lived before and after them, the Fremont lifestyle was comparatively sedentary; they constructed pithouse villages and built structures for storing food - which they acquired by hunting game, gathering wild produce, and also by farming and cultivating beans, squash, and corn through various irrigation strategies. Visitors to the park can even view a real Fremont village at Baker Archaeological Site, which after being excavated and preserved is now on show for all to see and learn about.
Furthermore, it has been discovered that the Fremont people did in fact trade with other distant villages as indicated by the presence of shells, turquoise, and obsidian found amongst their historic items and artifacts. What's more, the fascination of their artwork has also been well-preserved inside caves; paintings and rock art can still be viewed in the Upper Pictograph Cave.
A Summary Of Archaeological Dates
- 10,000 years ago: Native American tribes settled in the Great Basin area.
- 1,000 years ago: Pueblo cultures inhabited the area and possibly forced the Fremont communities out
- 800 years ago: human remains are placed at the entrance of Lehman Caves
After the region played host to indigenous native American Indians for thousands of years, many more communities have since called the area home before it became officialized as the Great Basin National Park in 1986. Ranchers, Farmers, Mormons, and sheepherders have all resided in the region, leaving their mark for today's visitors to study, reminisce, and be intrigued by.
Even mining camps once operated in the South Snake Range in the 1800s and 1900s when the region was still underexplored. The excitement of the park's discovery and exploration may even have attracted prospectors, who were said to have been drawn to the park's famous Lehman Caves in search of gold and silver during the mid to late 1800s - although they would've been somewhat disappointed due to the lack of such high-value minerals.
A Summary Of Historical Dates
- 1826: Jedediah Smith crosses the Snake Range at Sacramento Pass
- 1843 to 1844: John Fremont passes through eastern Nevada
- 1859: Mormons communities settle in Snake Valley
- 1871: Gold is discovered at Osceola
- 1873 to 1877: Osceola's mining sees peak success
- 1885: Ab Lehman discovers his namesake cave in the spring. He installs ladders and stairs, and tours begin once fall arrives
- 1891: Ab Lehman passes away in Salt Lake City, on October 11
- 1892: C. W. Rowland buys Mr. Lehman’s ranch
- 1909: Nevada Forest Service is established in the area around Lehman Caves
- 1912: Lehman Caves is added to the Forest Service
- 1920: Clarence Rhodes becomes the manager of Lehman Caves
- 1922: President Harding declares Lehman Caves a National Monument
- 1933: Lehman Caves National Monument is transferred to the National Park Service jurisdiction
- 1937: The caves' entrance tunnel is started and completed by 1939
- 1941: Electric lighting is installed inside Lehman Caves
- 1963: The New Visitor Center is created
- 1970: The caves' exit tunnel is finished
- 1974: Concrete trails are installed throughout the caves
- 1986: The Great Basin National Park is officially established and the Lehman Caves National Monument is incorporated as a part of the park