Lonely Byways

The highway to Great Basin National Park is the road less traveled

This serene national park is only a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City—it’s also one of the least visited in the entire parks system.

More’s the pity, because the austere beauty of Great Basin National Park contains the majesty of snowcapped Wheeler Peak, marble caves and ancient bristlecone pine trees. When the sun sets, you can drink in some of the darkest night skies in America.

Lehman Caves – David Haynes

To get to the park from Salt Lake, you’ll travel through Utah’s West Desert to the state line. Whether you take Interstate 15 south to Nephi and then Utah Highway 132 to Delta, or travel south from Tooele along Utah Highway 36, you’ll eventually end up on Utah Highway 6 passing through Delta. That stretch soon turns into Highway 50, known as The Loneliest Highway in America, so cruise along and enjoy the solitude. About 230 miles southwest from Salt Lake City, just after crossing the Nevada state line, you’ll arrive at Great Basin National Park. This remote gem has a variety of recreation options.

Millions of years of geology are contained in the park’s four cave systems made up of 40 caves. The lone group of caves that can be explored are the Lehman Caves, and they’re only accessible on a guided tour. Tickets can be purchased at the park, but since they often sell out, it’s recommended that you reserve tickets in advance. Tours range from 60 to 90 minutes.

Great Basin is also home to bristlecone pine trees, the world’s longest living trees. Some are believed to be more than 5,000 years old. The easiest bristlecone pine grove to reach is at Wheeler Peak on a three-mile round trip hike that, at 10,000 feet above sea level, is moderately difficult. Interpretive walks on the trail are available during the summer.
To get an idea of the area’s diverse life, take the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. The 12-mile paved road rises from 6,000 feet elevation to over 10,000 feet at the peak, and takes the viewer through numerous ecological zones.

Wheeler Peak
Bristlecone Pine Grove

When darkness rolls in, it’s time to watch the stars come out because the International Dark Sky Society has recognized Great Basin as an International Dark Sky Park. The combination of high altitude and low light pollution means that on a clear, moonless night, sky-watchers can see five planets, numerous meteors and vast expanses of stars. The park is also the site of the three-day Great Basin Astronomy Festival every September.

If you want to spend the night under starlight, Great Basin has a number of primitive campgrounds along Snake Creek and Strawberry Creek as well as five developed campgrounds with vaulted toilets, picnic tables, tent pads and campfire grills.

If you prefer a warm bed and shower, you’re an hour away from Ely, Nevada, and the historic Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall. The six-story building was the Silver State’s tallest when it was built in 1929, and it still has 64 fully modernized rooms along with a complete casino and full-service bar. Hungry at 3 a.m.? The Hotel Nevada has its own 24-hour Denny’s right on site.

For something to eat during more conventional hours, the restaurant at All Aboard Cafe and Inn is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They’re noted for their stuffed burgers.

If you’re looking for something to do in the evening, Ely Central Theatre is an art-deco style movie house, complete with marquee, that opened in 1941. The historic venue still shows recently released movies nightly at 7 p.m. and provides an old-fashioned experience right down to the popcorn and snack bar.

For outdoor adventures outside of Great Basin National Park, head 15 miles out of Ely to Cave Lake State Park. The 32-acre reservoir offers water activities and hiking.

Utahns are used to visiting West Wendover, via I-80 and Mesquite, Nevada, via I-15. Taking Highway 50 through central Utah is the least conventional way to find yourself in Nevada, but it might be the most interesting in terms of recreation and natural wonders.

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