The first stop after Vegas on my two week solo road-trip this year (2018) was Great Basin National Park. The four hour drive North on a two lane highway was more scenic than I expected. As is true of most drives at the beginning of a road-trip. Everything is new and exciting. The tiny remote towns where you wonder about the lives led by the residents. The random oasis’ of green that you question if they’re a mirage. The strong mountains that spring up the farther north you drive.
The entrance to and one of Great Basin NP’s Visitor Centers resides in the little town of Baker, NV. As of 2010, 68 people lived in Baker. There are a couple B&B’s, a bar / liquor store, a restaurant, and Great Basin National Park.
My first stop was the Great Basin Visitor Center. For my birthday, Jess had given me a National Park Passport Book. Who knew that putting a stamp (which aren’t anything spectacular, might I add) in a little book would be so addicting! The amount of satisfaction I received from adding a stamp every time I visited a National Park visitor center on this trip was amusing. By the end I was even showing onlookers at the stamp station where all I’d traveled to on my trip!
I picked the Park Ranger and park employees’ brains about what to do while at Great Basin NP. Going into this trip I had figured out a loose itinerary and few things that I really wanted to do, but about 70% of this trip was planned by the seat of my pants.
I was worried about getting a First Come First Serve Campsite within the park, so after the stop at the visitor center my next concern was to find a campsite. Before this trip, I had never camped nor traveled to a place where I did not have a reservation for somewhere to stay that night – by the end of this trip I had camped at four First Come First Serve sites and stayed in three hotel rooms that were booked less than 24 hours in advance. Who knew I could be so flexible? Definitely not I. (this solo road-trip taught me a lot about undiscovered aspects of my personality / abilities)
Great Basin National Park has five primitive campgrounds, one group campground, and some designated dispersed campsites. Prior to arrival, I had already ruled out Wheeler Peak Campground due to it’s elevation of just shy of 10,000 feet. I thought I was pushing it as it was sleeping above 5,000 feet since I had definitely not acclimated to the elevation. I had also ruled out Strawberry Creek Campground because it is not accessible from the main park road – Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. That left me with three choices, Lower Lehman Creek, Upper Lehman Creek, and Baker Creek Campgrounds. Both Lower and Upper Lehman Creek Campgrounds are on Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Baker Creek Campground is near the end of a 12 mile (I believe) gravel road that spurs off of the scenic drive. I drove through the Lower campground and didn’t see a site that stood out to me. I did, however see a Mule Deer and her fawn (do you call baby Mule Deer fawns?) who pranced along the campground road and disappeared into the trees. Then I drove around Upper Lehman Creek Campground, twice, looking for a nice spot.
I had originally thought that I would spend one and half days and two nights at Great Basin, but in speaking with the Park Ranger I learned that I should be able to hike the trails I wanted to yet that day and do a tour of Lehman Cave early the next morning. As I would now only spend one night camping at Great Basin, I didn’t feel it necessary to set up dad’s tent (spoiler alert: dad’s tent never got set up during this trip). So I picked a nice semi secluded vehicle only spot. I spent the next 3 minutes figuring out this whole First-Come-First-Serve-campsite-payment-and-part-of-the-envelope-goes-on-the-pole-system, then I spent another 15 minutes being anal making sure I did that whole process correctly – so much for not being a Type A…
Once the stress of not having a place to sleep that night was averted I continued up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. Wheeler Peak is the second tallest mountain in Nevada at 13,063 feet. Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive winds its way back and forth up one side of the mountain, ending at 9,886 feet. This is definitely one of those roads that it would be best if there were two people in the car so that on the way up the mountain one person could drive and the other person could look at the scenery and then swap jobs so the up driver can look at the scenery on the way back down the mountain. Otherwise, when you’re by yourself you’re trying to drive on a curvy, steep two lane road while taking in the scenery and thereby liable to drive off said mountain. Luckily, there are many great overlooks at which to stop at to enjoy the scenery. My final destination was the parking lot at the end of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive where the trail-head is for the Bristle-Cone Pine, Glacier, and Alpine Lakes Trails. Read about that hike here.
After hiking I drove down to the Lehman Cave Visitor Center so I knew where it was and then went back to my campsite. I quickly realized one issue with my campsite – it was uphill to the bathroom. It can be a bit demoralizing to be sucking wind just walking to the bathroom. On the bright side, the pit toilets at Upper Lehman Creek Campground were the nicest pit toilets I have ever used. I am not kidding, the Clorox smell smacked you in the face as you walked in.
I made the mistake of not buying the National Park coloring book that I had found at the Great Basin Visitor Center that morning (a mistake that would be rectified the next day) so I didn’t have much to do that night other than make dinner and set up my sleeping area in the backseat of dad’s truck (read more about my car camping experience in dad’s Tacoma here). The campground host stopped to chat while making her rounds and she was really nice.
The next morning I woke up, got ready, and watched the sunrise from the pullout across from the campground. I had time before the Lehman Cave Visitor Center opened at 8, so I drove the unpaved road along Baker Creek. I really enjoyed driving this road. The sunrise was really pretty against the cliffs and Wheeler Peak. At the end of the road is a couple trail-heads and Baker Creek. I loved the peacefulness of the area.
I still made it to the Lehman Cave Visitor Center before it opened so I hung out on the benches in front of it and enjoyed the view. There are two cave tour options for Lehman Cave.The 60 minute Lodge Room Tour and the 90 minute Grand Palace Tour. I signed up for the 9 o’clock Grand Palace Tour, purchased the National Park coloring book, stamped my Passport Book, and since I had time to kill, got a Junior Ranger booklet to fill out.
Becoming a Junior Ranger quickly became a highlight for each of the National Park Sites that I visited on this road-trip. Five out of six Park Rangers were excited that I was earning my Junior Ranger Badge. Only one was not enthusiastic and did not have me say the Junior Ranger pledge (I’m guessing I just caught her at a bad time). The Junior Ranger Program is a great way for kids of all ages to learn more about the National Park they are visiting and how to preserve it for future visitors. If you want to learn more about the National Park Junior Ranger Program, you can visit their website by clicking here.
Read about the tour of Lehman Cave that I took here.
After the Grand Palace Tour, I ate some lunch at the cafe attached to the visitor center and then continued on my way to Idaho!