We have a goal of visiting all the United States National Parks while we are raising our kids. We have now done 39 out of the 63 National Parks. Yes, there are now 63. They added The New River Gorge in West Virginia as a National Park in December 2020.
Great Basin National Park is one of the least traveled National Parks, but we still wanted to visit it this summer, since it was on the way to the other National Parks we are seeing this summer in California, Oregon, and Washington. Great Basin is located in Nevada just miles from the Utah border.
When we first arrived at the National Park I wondered why it was actually given a National Park designation. It doesn’t look like anything special. As a matter of fact, we drove the entire scenic drive within the Great Basin National Park, pulled off on several of the overlooks up on the mountain and it wasn’t anything extraordinary compared to other mountain ranges. Yes, they are beautiful mountains, but to get a National Park designation there is usually something that warrants preservation on the multi-million dollar a year level, which is what National Parks receive from the Federal Government. We soon learned what makes this National Park so extraordinary and it is truly unique and special.
We stopped into the visitor center, picked up some maps, and then I began reading about Great Basin National Park. I learned that this area is home to the bristlecone pine. This tree is the longest living organism in the world. The park has one tree, which as cut down by a graduate student in the 1960’s. He was attempting to learn about the age of the bristlecones. The tree, according to park reading materials, was approximately 5,000 years old. He killed the tree which is very unfortunate. However, his folly raised awareness about these rare trees that are the oldest organism in the world and should be protected. This led to the establishment of the area being designated as Great Basin National Park.
Bristlecone pines grow in high mountain regions where other trees cannot survive. They grow out of rocky mountainside in Great Basin. Their dense wood makes it impenetrable to most insects and parasites. It is a hearty tree that can sustain the impact of high winds, freezing weather, snow, and drought to live for thousands of years.
They have a gnarly look with rotating trunks, limbs that twist and turn to give them this appearance. They have an unusual look that makes them distinctive to other pines. They would make beautiful furniture and statement pieces for decorating…but we won’t be cutting up any of these trees in the National Park. It is illegal to destroy them or harm them. They are protected in this National Park, as they should be. That way others can see them for years to come and can appreciate their ancient beauty.
There is a 3-mile hike that you can take (round trip) to see a grove of bristlecone pines. We took this hike and it was worth the trip to Great Basin National Park. This beautiful hike begins at the last stop on the scenic route- Wheeler Peak. The parking is limited, so early morning or late afternoon is the best time to do the hike. We tried to find parking mid-day and did not succeed, so we came back several hours later around 4 pm. It is cooler up on the mountain. It was 100 degrees down at the visitor center. Up at Wheeler Peak at the same time it was in the mid-eighties.
The trail is named Bristlecone Pine Trail and it begins at the Wheeler Peak parking lot. It is 1.5 miles to reach the grove. You will know that you have reached it when you see an abundance of the bristlecone pines, along with placards along the pathway in front of trees that explain the science and history of these trees. You can continue another mile and a half to reach the glacier. This is the only glacier in Nevada. We were able to see the glacier in the distance. That was good enough for us. If the kids had not been along for the hike, I would have hiked the 3 miles out and back. I recommend the full distance if you like a good strenuous hike through the mountains with beautiful scenery and you have the time.
There are also caves at Great Basin National Park. I recommend reservations in advance. We were driving to the area not knowing our arrival time in advance and only spending one night, so I did not make reservations. They were completely booked when we arrived at the park. The caves are called the Lehman Caves and you can make reservations here: https://www.nps.gov/grba/planyourvisit/lehman-caves-tours.htm
Great Basin National Park may be one of the least visited National Parks, but it is a worthwhile stop if you are traveling through this area of Nevada. One day or even a half day is enough time to venture out to see the bristlecone pine groves. I recommend the Bristlecone Pine Trail and a tour of Lehman Caves if you plan to visit the Great Basin National Park.