One of our nations least visited national parks, Great Basin National Park is a treasure trove for nature lovers who desire peaceful solitude or families who want educational opportunities in the wild. (This would be an amazing destination for a homeschooling family.) The park hosts around 100,000 visitors a year, a mere fraction of the visitors at the more popular National Parks. For comparison, Great Smoky National Park received nearly 1.5 million visitors in July alone. But there is much to be found for those who venture to this remote park (in Eastern Nevada, about 4 hours from Salt Lake City). In a short weekend, we saw 3000+ year old trees, explored a cave, harvested Pinon nuts, and saw the rings of Saturn and a nebula through a telescope.
Great Basin NP is a designated International Dark Sky Park. They certainly take advantage of the dark skies by offering an awesome astronomy program (stargazing, full moon hikes, and a star train). Aaron and I have always loved astronomy, so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend the Saturday night astronomy program and gaze at the stars and planets through a powerful telescope – even if it meant messing with Sprout’s sleep. The sun was still setting fairly late, but we strapped Sprout to my chest and paced the patio of the visitors center in hopes that she would fall asleep while we got to enjoy the starts. She fought sleep at first, but eventually drifted into dream land. The ranger who led the program was knowledgeable and gave a wonderful presentation. We were impressed (which is saying something, because Aaron’s PhD is in Physics)! After the presentation, the rangers located various celestial objects in the telescopes and everyone took turns looking through. We saw the rings of Saturn, a nebula, and a Messier globular cluster. The lines were a bit long, but I imagine they would be shorter if it weren’t a holiday weekend.
The park also hosts an Astronomy Festival around the end of September every year with educational activities and stargazing galore. I can’t wait to attend the Festival when Sprout is a bit older and can more readily appreciate all they have to offer!
After our fantastic experience with the cave tour at Mammoth Caves in 2015, we knew we had to check out the caves at Great Basin. The tours are an excellent value (only $8-$10 for adults, free for toddlers). Our tour guide was not the most patient and seemed less enthusiastic than the National Park tour guides we have encountered in the past, but the tour was still a wonderful experience. Sprout was excited to use her flashlight and the tour guide had said he’d let people know when it wasn’t okay to do so, so we were surprised when he scolded us for having the flashlight on during his introductory talk and then was annoyed by the crying child. Had he told us to wait to turn it on the flash light, we could have avoided the whole fiasco! Nonetheless, Sprout was in awe of the cave and we really did enjoy the experience.
Hiking and the Bristlecone Pines
Great Basin NP has hiking trails for all types of hikers from the gentle nature trail to more strenuous peak summits. With only a short visit, we opted for a easy-moderate hike on our first day to view the Bristlecone Pines. Although the trail only climbs 600 ft, the high elevation does make the hike a bit more challenging. Usually wildlife viewing in national parks involves bison, bears or bats. However, the ancient Bristlecones were some of the most astounding wildlife we have seen in any national park. To think of how the world has changed in just one of their lifetimes….
The beginning portion of the Timber Creek Trail was the perfect “before driving a long distance” trail as it gave Sprout time to explore and stretch her legs. With Dr. Who secured in her camelbak she moseyed along the path, crossing bridges, tossing rocks into the creek, and finding hiking sticks… all the things that delight a hiking toddler. We all enjoyed a picnic lunch along the water before hitting the road home.
Only one of the park’s seven campgrounds takes advanced reservations (Grey Cliffs Campground, which includes some group sites). However, given the parks level of popularity, it is unlikely that you will have a problem finding a campsite. If you are worried, try to arrive early. We visited the park on Labor Day weekend, and while the campgrounds were full when we arrived at midnight (we opted to sleep in the car with our handy hammock), we were able to find a campsite at Wheeler Peak Campground in the morning.
Wheeler Peak Campground sits at nearly 10,000 ft elevation. The campsites are generally large and well shaded by towering trees, but the high elevation means strong winds and colder temperatures. At night, the wind whipped our tent around, similarly to the storm we experienced in Canyonlands the previous year, but without rain. It was so strong that Aaron was concerned that a tree would fall on us. If you have the choice, this would likely be a fantastic campsite during the heat of the summer (July), but I would recommend choosing a lower elevation campsite for the cooler months. It is truly a beautiful campground. Sprout enjoyed playing “toss the pine cone in the bucket”, helping pitch the tent, and exploring the campsite.
Lower Lehman Creek, Upper Lehman Creek (was closed in summer 2016), and Grey Cliffs Campgrounds are all fairly close to each other and close to the visitors center. Though the sites may get a bit warm in the afternoon summer heat, many of the sites did have considerable shade and bushes that provided some privacy. If we were to go in May, early June, or September, we would likely try to get a site at Lower Lehman Creek Campground.