BEAUTY IN THE UNDERSOLD: Great Basin National Park
*We are changing things around here a bit on our site. Instead of writing up lengthy, detail-heavy descriptions of our time at the parks, we are going to give ourselves time to be a bit more reflective and thoughtful. We will now feature posts like this (along with videos still), which give you a look inside our heads as we explored each park. If you are interested in our itineraries, trail reviews, or if you are planning a trip yourself to one of these parks, please explore our “Resources” tab above. We will try to be as helpful as possible, albeit more straight-forward, in these pages. They just won’t bog down the “Blog” side of our site. Sound good? Good.*
I had never heard of Great Basin National Park before we started planning our one-year tour of all 59 last spring. And, after spending four days there this past week, I’m really glad I hadn’t.
There is something very powerful in expectation that something will be amazing. This anticipation obsession is everywhere: birthdays, New Year’s Eve, weekends. And once the expectation sets in, once you believe for a second that an experience will be life-changingly cool, it’s nearly impossible to achieve.
For us, the expectation of Great Basin wasn’t too amazing. The park is not talked about among our hiker friends. It’s not the setting of any movies. It’s not on anyone’s bucket list. In some ways, I wish I had heard of Great Basin, nestled along the eastern edge of Nevada, much sooner. But in other, bigger ways, not knowing what to expect set me up for the best park experience I could have had here.
With parks like the Grand Canyon and Zion, I knew what to expect, and I expected the best. I had drooled over pictures of the amazing, off-the-beaten path hikes and places to explore. I had talked for hours to friends about their epic visits. I had read and re-read the packing lists and advice from tour companies and the park itself. I knew that I would have a great time. And I did! The views, the hikes, the scenery– all beautiful. Just as expected.
Great Basin was different. I didn’t have iconic picturesque scenes in my head when making the empty, three-hour drive from Cedar Breaks, where we had stayed the previous night. All I had was our plan for the trip: a few highlighted hikes and astronomy activities, brief campground information, and a map of the area. Zero expectations; in fact, a few slivers of impatience (at having to drive far out of the way to just come back the same route and finish up the Utah parks) caught up with me as we trekked across the empty desert of the Utah/Nevada border.
I bet you can tell where I’m going with this…
I was blown away. Completely. Blown. Away.
For fear of hyping it up too much and therefore squashing the raw expectation-free loveliness it’s got going on, I’ll just share a few things about Great Basin National Park that I think will be of interest to you. No exclamation marks, even though they’d be appropriate. No overselling. Just a few things that make Great Basin wonderfully unique.
1 – Once a year, Great Basin hosts an Astronomy Festival that attracts stargazing experts (and newbs like us) from multiple states away. We intentionally planned our trip to hit days #2 and #3 of this festival, and that was a good decision. Great Basin has one of the darkest skies in America. Activities such as lectures on “Astronomy 101,” a talk from the keynote speaker, a viewing of the documentary “The City Dark,” and nightly Star Parties with telescope-sharing astronomy enthusiasts were among the festival highlights for us.
2 – The Basin is home to these trees called bristlecone pines. That species is the longest living organism in the world, dating up to 5,000 years old (and some are still kickin’). The unique and harsh environment in which they thrive also allows for very slow decay. You can see a “forest” of these trees via a 2.7-mile trail or a longer backcountry hike at Great Basin.
3 – In 1885, Lehman Caves was discovered after Absolom Lehman and his horse fell into it, according to legend. The cave is now open to the public only by guided tour, an effort to alleviate deadly effects of White Nose Syndrome. The cave is one of only 80 (of 45,000) caves in the United States to house a formation called a cave shield, formed in a way that scientists have yet to figure out. Lehman Caves also features cave bacon, draperies, cave popcorn, halagmites, and the usual stalagmites and stalactites at every turn.
4 – At 13,065 feet, the second-tallest mountain peak in Nevada (which holds the title of most mountainous state, did you know?), Wheeler Peak, rests within Great Basin National Park. Many visitors climb to the summit via a 9-mile roundtrip hiking trail.
5 – Several alpine lakes and creeks are accessible by hiking trail within the park, and they are unique in that none of these water sources end up in the ocean. Backcountry camping is allowed along the 13-mile Baker Lake / Johnson Lake Loop Trail.
There are a thousand other cheesy and over-excited declarations I could make about Great Basin right now, but none would do it justice. Plus, I want you to have a raw, non-hyped up experience.
So just do this: GO. Look at our pictures, but not for too long. Do a little research, but not too much. Go and see for yourself the subtle, quiet beauty that is Great Basin National Park.