The 77,109 -acre Great Basin National Park must be included in any plans to visit the Great Basin region. Here you’ll see one of the most decorated underground caves in the United States and you’ll begin to understand some of the wonderful diversity of this high desert area. Because so much of the Great Basin region is relatively undeveloped, a visit to this national park is one of the only ways to see and learn more about this area’s geology, life zones, and history.
Examples of all of the life zones comprising the Great Basin region are found within and around the park boundaries. In addition to the caves, there is a forest of ancient bristlecone pine and a glacier on the north slope of Wheeler Peak.
This is the only national park dedicated to the ecology and natural history of the Great Basin. Within the park are seven of the eight Great Basin ecosystems -- from the sagebrush desert zone to the treeless alpine zone.
From approximately mid-June through the end of September, you can take the 11-mile Wheeler Peak scenic drive. You’ll leave the sagebrush and pinyon/juniper covered foothills at 7,000 feet, travel upward through forests of mountain mahogany and spruce, and end up in spectacular aspen, fir and ponderosa pine at 10,000 feet. The winding road affords beautiful views of Snake Valley below and the Mt. Moriah Wilderness Area to the north. The road ends at the Wheeler Peak Campground where hiking trails begin going tothe bristlecones, two alpine lakes, or all the way to the summit of 13,063-ft. Mt. Wheeler.
The local Shoshone Indians referred to Mt. Wheeler as “Pe-up” or “Biap” (pronounced bee-epp meaning Big or The Great One). Subsequently the mountain was named Jefferson Davis Peak by Edward J. Steptoe (1853), Williams Peak after Ezra Granger Williams who was the first known person to climb the peak (1855), and Union Peak by the James H. Simpson party (1859). The mountain was finally named for Lt. George Wheeler, leader of an 1869 government survey expedition.
John Muir made “a rambling and mountaineering journey” across Nevada in 1878. He climbed Mt. Wheeler in October. Then in 1881, H. Joseph Davis of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey began the work of setting up a heliotrope station on top of Mt. Wheeler. These stations were located on the highest mountains where they would use sunlight flashes to correct elevations and distances on the earth’s curved surface.
Several of these early explorers documented finding the glacier and bristlecone pines (then called foxtail pine) as well as several alpine lakes.
In 1922 President Warren G. Harding issued presidential proclamation establishing a one-mile square area around the entrance to the caves as Lehman Caves National Monument.
The rest of the area that is now included in the park was managed by the U.S. Forest Service from 1909 until 1986. A policy of multiple-use was followed during this time in which grazing rights were allowed for livestock, and firewood cutting and hunting permits were given. It was primarily the users of the land who opposed early movements to establish a national park in the area. They succeeded numerous times by blocking legislation at the state and federal levels.
The park was established October 27, 1986 when President Ronald Reagan signed the Great Basin National Park Act, some 60 years after the first efforts to create a national park here.
The new Great Basin Visitor Center on State Route 487 near Baker, Nevada was completed in 2005. Park staff and contract exhibit designers completed new exhibits for the Center in the spring of 2009. Rich in color, texture, and interactive features, these exhibits orient visitors to the entire Great Basin region and showcase the diversity of our natural and cultural resources.
The Great Basin Visitor Center emphasizes study and preservation in the Great Basin region and serves as an interagency visitor center. The Center provides exhibits, classes and programs; research and preservation through field studies and laboratory projects; classrooms and a museum; and a rest stop, parking, auditorium, picnic area, bookstore, information services, etc.
“Great Basin -- The Story Behind the Scenery” by Michael L. Niklas.
“Basin and Range: A History of Great Basin National Park, Nevada” by Harlan D. Unrau.
“Great Basin Drama” by Darwin Lambert.
“Roadside History of Nevada” by Richard Moreno.
National Park Service website - Great Basin National Park
Great Basin Foundation website - www.greatbasinfoundation.org
Open year-round. No fee for park entrance. Fees charged for campgrounds and for tours of Lehman Caves.
Campgrounds closed during winter.
Go to official National Park Service website http://www.nps.gov/grba/
Lehman Caves Visitor Center Location:
5 miles west of Baker, Nevada at the end of highway 488.
Great Basin Visitor Center Location: 1/4 mile north of Baker, Nevada on Highway 487.