This National Park Is All About Stargazing, Scenic Hikes, and Serenity

Lose your cell service. Find your bliss.

mountains
Gaze out across the desert from Wheeler Peak | Cavan Images/Getty Images
Gaze out across the desert from Wheeler Peak | Cavan Images/Getty Images
Welcome to National Parks Uncovered, where we’ll help you discover the beauty of America’s most underrated—and least-crowded—national parks—from sweeping landscapes where you can get up close and personal with mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes to sunny paradises hiding out near major cities like Chicago and LA. To find out what natural wonders you’ve been missing out on, check out the rest of our underrated national parks coverage.

Though it’s only a 4.5-hour drive from Vegas, Great Basin National Park is one of the least-visited national parks in the country: Located in rural east-central Nevada, the 77,100-acre park gets just 90,000 tourists annually, while visitors to better-known titans like Yosemite and Grand Canyon trend in the millions.

Great Basin is a land of extremes. Ranging 4,000 feet in elevation from its lowest point to its highest, its variety of high desert ecosystems has bred an incredibly diverse array of wildlife and vegetation, including the rare bristlecone pine—a majestic, twisted species that thrives in harsh conditions and can survive for 4,000 years or more, making them among the oldest trees on Earth. Given its location FAR removed from the flashing neon lights of Sin City, Great Basin is also home to some of the darkest skies in America, making it one of the country’s best stargazing destinations.

If you long for the days before every single person you know suddenly became “like, really into hiking,” this remote national park still offers the crisp fresh air and lack of crowds your soul yearns for. Real outdoor solitude is still possible here, with nary a busload of tourists in sight. Here’s how to enjoy the peace.

a mountain behind fall foliage
Do some unexpected leaf-peeping come fall | Arlene Waller/Shutterstock

Where is Great Basin National Park? 

Great Basin National Park is located in remote—as in, middle-of-nowhere—east-central Nevada, less than 30 minutes from the Utah border and about 4.5 hours from Las Vegas. The closest towns are Baker, Nevada, which sits right outside the park; Eskdale, Utah, about 20 minutes away; and Ely, Nevada, about an hour away and home to better nightlife, ghost tales, and cell service than you're likely to find in the former two. 

The best time to visit Great Basin National Park

While every season in Great Basin has its merits, summer and fall are magical. With a high desert climate, Great Basin burbles with natural waterfalls during the spring snowmelt before absolutely exploding with wildflowers in the summer months. As the late summer blooms begin tapering off, the groves of aspens begin to turn golden yellow and the Rocky Mountain maples glow in shades of yellow and orange. If you think excellent fall foliage only exists in New England, Great Basin will give you a much-welcome reality check.

For those willing and able to brave the conditions, November through March in Great Basin will feel like your own private winter wonderland; around this time of year, the trees’ snow-covered branches seem to sparkle, and glittering white valleys stretch as far as the eye can see. The trails stay open (but they’re typically covered in several feet of snow), but snowshoeing and backcountry/cross-country skiing are the favored wintertime activities.

a mountain and lake beneath a starry sky
You can see the cosmos from just about anywhere in the park. | Elizabeth M. Ruggiero/Getty Images

Stargaze in one of America’s best Dark Sky parks

Great Basin is a designated Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest level awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association—a recognition that the NPS is happy to flaunt. The park has its own observatory—the first research-grade observatory built in a U.S. national park—as well as a newly-opened Astronomy Amphitheater, and come September, it hosts an annual Astronomy Festival.

Great Basin’s Dark Sky Rangers—a troupe of bonafide stargazing experts who lead Dark Sky programs all throughout Central Nevada—also offer guided full moon hikes during the summer, as well as a two-hour astronomy program every Thursday and Saturday during summer and fall that includes 90 minutes of telescope viewing time.

Of course, you’re also more than welcome to chase the cosmos on your own—on a clear night, just about anywhere in Great Basin with an open horizon line will give you totally unobstructed views of the firmament bursting with stars and space dust. For starters, try Mather Overlook or the Baker Archaeological Site.

Hiker Shadows on Mountain Ridge in Great Basin national Park
This way up! | Kelly vanDellen/Shutterstock

Hike or drive past alpine lakes and sky-high peaks

One must-do activity while in Great Basin is the 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, a twisting, turning adventure into the clouds that gains 4,000 feet in elevation from its start just outside the park in Baker to its endpoint at the Bristlecone/Alpine Lakes Trailhead. The road crosses through so many distinct ecological zones that it’s often considered the equivalent of driving from Nevada to Yukon, Canada. (As a heads up, the road beyond Mather Overlook closes for snow in the winter.)

You might also find yourself ready to stretch your legs. There are hikes of varying lengths and difficulty levels in Great Basin, but some of the most scenic are those located along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.

The Alpine Lakes Loop is a gem: At just under three miles and with little elevation gain, you’ll pass burbling streams, families of deer chilling together in open meadows, and two beautiful alpine lakes before hitting the best views of Wheeler Peak in the park. And then there’s Wheeler Peak. At 8 miles and just over 3100’ of elevation gain, this doesn’t really sound like a Big Boy Hike to anyone who does a lot of Big Boy Hikes...but hoo BOY, this one will kick your ass.

Wheeler Peak is the highest peak in Nevada, climaxing at 13,063'. When you start the hike at Summit Trail, you’ll already stand at 10,000 feet (you know, the point at which altitude really starts to mess with people). But once you get above the treeline and start the slog up the mountain—which also includes bracing yourself for 60mph winds along the ridgeline and sudden afternoon storms at the summit—it is brutal. Wheeler can take down even toughest hikers and is not one to take lightly—but those who brave the trek will be rewarded.

You can also go for a more Goldilocks route. For something that falls between easy scenic stroll and strenuous peak-bagging, the Baker Creek Area has several scenic trails of moderate length and difficulty, all of which are accessible by car.

cave formations
Descend deep into the Lehman Caves. | EdwardSnow/Getty Images

Check out the Lehman Caves

A visit to Great Basin wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Lehman Caves, an underground system that clocks in at around 2-5 million years old. Along with more than 300 stunning shield formations spread out over the two miles of tourable passageways, the unique ecosystem here is also home to several creatures found nowhere else on Earth, including at least 10 endemic bat species.

You’ll need to book a guided tour to visit, but luckily, making a reservation is a piece of cake: You can reserve a spot up to 30 days in advance, and tours are offered daily year-round (except on major holidays).

Snowdrifts on Great Basin mountains near Baker, Nevada
Yes, it snows in the desert. | Robert_Ford/Getty Images

Watch the desert transform into a tundra

As always, the arid desert of Nevada is full of surprises, including that—despite what you may think—it does get cold enough to snow. Although winter definitely marks Great Basin’s off-season, tourist numbers to this already-underrated park dwindle even further around this time of year, delivering a special kind of solitude and the chance to explore the area in a unique way that make it worth visiting anyway.

For example, there are no cars allowed on Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive in winter; instead, you’ll ski and snowshoe over hills blanketed in white to get around, both there and down other routes like Pole Canyon/Timber Creek Loop Trail where the landscape resembles Alaska more than Nevada in the off-season. You’ll have to bring your own skies with you if that’s your jam, but you can rent snowshoes at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center for free ninety-nine.

The best places to stay near Great Basin

The campgrounds scattered in and outside of Great Basin run the gamut from primitive to developed, giving you plenty of places to stargaze before you hit the sack. There are five developed campgrounds within the park; some allow advance reservations while others are first-come, first-served. (Note that the recently renovated and restored Wheeler Peak Campground closes seasonally for the winter.)

If you’re a stargazer who still likes a warm bed and indoor plumbing, the Stargazer Inn in Baker—the only town anywhere near the park—is an excellent option. The on-site bar/restaurant Kerouac’s is a truly unexpected delight, with craft cocktails and seasonal fare you’d just as soon find on the menu of a hip arts district gastropub in any major city.

But Baker is still very remote, and cell service/WiFi is spotty. For more modern amenities and creature comforts, head another hour northwest of Baker to Ely, a lively mountain boomtown full of history, art, and outdoor adventure. Spend a night or two at the magnificently kitschy Prospector Hotel & Gambling Hall, which feels like a museum, Wild West pop art gallery, and motel all at once. The on-site restaurant, Margarita’s, serves simple but excellent from-scratch food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rooms are spacious with incredibly comfy bedding.

Things to know before you go

It bears repeating that Great Basin has a high desert climate of steep elevation and severe extremes—meaning it gets cold here. Don’t plan a winter getaway expecting Vegas-like temperatures when what you’ll get is biting cold weather and lots of snow. Winter travel is only recommended for those who’ve got a 4WD vehicle with snow tires or chains and other cold-weather emergency gear.

Also worth reiterating: Great Basin is a high-altitude park. If you generally exist near sea level, the heights might make you feel a bit wonky and cause side effects like headache, dizziness, nausea, stomach cramps, or diarrhea. Take aspirin, POUND water, and eat like calories aren’t a thing; you’ll get through it. (But if you’re hiking Wheeler and start feeling that way, turn that ass around. Altitude sickness is serious and people do die from it.)

Last but not least: Great Basin may only be a few hours from Vegas, but it is extremely remote. There is no cell service whatsoever in the park, and aside from a blip in Baker, you’ll need to drive almost two hours northwest to Ely to get some steady bars.

All of which is to say, if you need any kind of assistance, you’re gonna be waiting a while. And if you’re the type who can’t stomach isolation from the outside world, this is probably not the park for you. Come prepared with a standard roadside emergency kit, including a fully-treaded spare tire, and jumper cables, and a store of water, just in case. Otherwise, rejoice: the spam calls cannot find you here.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who's anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.