Near the Utah-Nevada border, at the end of the ‘Loneliest Highway in America’ (Hwy 50), in the midst of the stark Nevada high desert, lies Great Basin National Park. Arguably one of the furthest destinations off the beaten path featured on Pit Stops for Kids, Great Basin is remote enough that the greater national park area only boasts one tiny town, a scattering of motels and RV parks, and a few restaurants, never mind a large grocery store. Oh, and those ‘Last services for however many miles’ signs? You’ll want to pay attention to those.
Is Great Basin worth the drive? Definitely. Especially if you pair it up with a road trip to or from other Utah or Nevada destinations, such as Arches National Park or Reno. The geography of the park is quite amazing: you’ll climb from the basin floor to 10,000 feet up Mt. Wheeler in a matter of minutes as you drive through the park, and the terrain alters from desert to high alpine and back again.
What to do: Great Basin is best known for Lehman Caves, the entrance of which is adjacent to the park’s main visitor center (another center with additional exhibits for kids is below the park near Baker). Visitors must sign up for a guided tour to see the caves, and it’s recommended that you reserve tickets prior to arrival in the busy summer months (we saw people being turned away). Ticket prices are $8 for visitors 16 and up, $4 for visitors 5-15, and free for anyone under age five. We chose a 60 minute tour, which was just long enough to hold our four-year-old’s attention. Guides make it fun by offering geology lessons, historical anecdotes, and spooky stories throughout the tour, and the cave interior really is amazing. After your tour, be sure to take the short hike around the side of the visitor’s center to see the site of the originally discovered entrance to the cave. (Extra tip: bring a jacket for the cave, no matter how warm it may be outside!)
Mt. Wheeler towers about the Great Basin, and due to access on the paved scenic drive, visitors can tour past the 10,000 foot mark of this 13,000 foot mountain. Stop at the Bristlecone Parking Area near Wheeler Peak Campground to hike the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail (2.7 miles), a fairly strenuous climb past two pristine lakes and through high alpine forests. If that’s not for you and your family, other hikes are available. Take care as you climb in altitude: drink lots of water and take it easy until you get used to it!
Stargazing is a major facet of Great Basin National Park’s junior ranger and campground programs, so be sure to attend one of their nighttime presentations or night walks. As (bad) luck would have it, our arrival brought overcast skies, so we missed out on this wonder during our visit!
Where to stay: There are few choices in Baker, NV, so plan ahead! If you’re camping, consider staying in the alpine area of the national park; it’s beautiful, but gets unexpectedly cold at night! If you’re looking for a motel or cabin, your options are limited. We stayed at the Border Inn, which was comfortable enough for a 1-2 night stay (although the rooms are very small). The grounds are nothing to look at (a service station/restaurant/motel complex right on Hwy 50), but the full-service restaurant was friendly and offered a good breakfast, and the stars at night made up for any lack of landscaping or decor. A few other motels/cabins exist in Baker, but after driving past them several times to and from the national park, we felt they were all more or less cut of the same (serviceable) cloth.
Where to eat: A great dinner spot can be found at T&D’s, a friendly Mexican/Italian/American restaurant. Yes, all three! We had Mexican food, and found it quite good. If I recall, the kids ate pizza. There’s a small grocery store attached, but if you’re only in Baker a few days, it’s better to eat out or bring your own food in; grocery prices are high and the selection is limited.
Directions: From U.S. Highway 6 & 50, turn south on Nevada State Highway 487 and travel 5 miles to Baker, NV. In Baker turn west on Highway 488 and travel 5 miles to the park.