Unexpected is the word that kept coming to mind on my first visit to Great Basin National Park in the remote eastern reaches of Nevada.
Because, even though Great Basin is billed as “a land of surprising diversity,” I’ll admit I didn’t expect the peaks to soar so high, the sparkling alpine lakes to be so picturesque, or the surrounding desert basin to be so massive.
And for travelers accustomed to national parks that are packed with other visitors, Great Basin comes with another pleasant surprise: It tends to be relatively free of traffic jams and throngs of people.
In 2019, Great Basin National Park logged about 132,000 visitors. Compare that with the 4.5 million visitors that Utah’s Zion National Park had the same year, and you get a feel for the “great wide open” aspect of this Nevada treasure.
The park’s remote location undoubtedly contributes to its relatively low visitation. Getting to Great Basin requires a several-hour drive from any major population center. The nearest major airports are the Salt Lake City International Airport, which is 234 miles to the northeast, and Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport, which is 300 miles to the south.
The high elevation and accompanying extreme weather also likely affect Great Basin’s visitation numbers. The upper 9 miles of the spectacular Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive are generally open only from June through October.
Because of the harsh winter weather, the best times to visit Great Basin are the summer months. June, July, and August all have average high temperatures in the 70s, while September and October cool to the 50s and 60s. Sudden thunderstorms can surprise hikers on the ridgelines at any time of the year.
As with most national parks, it pays to get an early start in the morning. The trails tend to be emptier in the morning, and the early hours are also the best time for views of Wheeler Peak.
For hikers, the park’s remoteness translates to trails that are fairly sparsely traveled. Spaced along the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and Baker Creek Drive, you’ll find trailheads for more than a dozen hikes that pass by pretty lakes and bisect spectacular mountain passes.
Owing to its towering peaks and rugged terrain, Great Basin features a number of strenuous hikes with elevation gains of more than 2,000 feet. Still, the park has a number of easy and moderate hikes as well, with views that are arguably comparable.
Here, from the easiest to the most difficult, are seven of Great Basin National Park’s best hiking trails.
1. Sky Islands Forest Trail
For a taste of a high alpine conifer forest without the steep climbs or rugged terrain, head to the Sky Islands Forest Trail located off the Bristlecone parking lot at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.
The wheelchair-accessible trail features a flat surface and virtually no elevation gain. Yet it passes through some of the park’s loveliest terrain, bordered all around by tall pine trees and babbling creeks and inhabited by chirping songbirds.
Interpretive signs tell the age-old story of the mountains, glaciers, and trees. “The forest here stands on the rubble of glacial outwash,” says one sign titled A Mountain of Influence. “During the last ice age, 20,000 years ago, glaciers emanated from Wheeler Peak and lay heavily on the landscape.”
The Sky Islands Forest Trail is 0.4 miles and takes 15 to 30 minutes to complete. While the trail is rated as easy, hikers should remember to take its high elevation of 9,800 feet into account.
2. Mountain View Nature Trail
For another easy hike over relatively flat terrain, head to the Mountain View Nature Trail, which starts at the Rhodes Cabin at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
The hike begins at about 6,825 feet and involves an easy climb of about 80 feet in elevation gain. The 0.3-mile-long hike passes through a pinyon-juniper forest. A trail guide that is available for loan at the visitor center desk describes the geology and ecology of the area.
The walk takes about 15 to 30 minutes to complete.
3. Alpine Lakes Loop Trail
For a hike that showcases the best of what Great Basin has to offer, head to the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, one of Nevada’s most spectacular hikes.
There, you’ll encounter everything from lakes and bristlecone pines to meadows and snow-covered peaks.
Like the Sky Islands Forest Trail, the hike starts from the Bristlecone parking lot. It climbs gradually for about 600 feet, crossing a pretty creek several times and passing through a meadow of aspen trees before reaching the shores of Stella Lake.
Mountains ring the small lake, casting a reflection on the surface of the clear water. When I visited in mid-June, the peaks were tipped with snow, and patches of ice still remained near the shores of the lake. I recommend following the faint trail that circles the lake and stopping for a picnic lunch on one of the boulders along the shore.
After Stella Lake, the trail descends steeply for a time before passing by the second alpine lake, Theresa Lake. Here, an icy-cold creek, crossed by numerous logs, runs into the lake. Theresa Lake is also a great place for a rest before continuing on.
The Alpine Lakes Loop Trail is 2.7 miles and takes about an hour and a half to complete. It is rated as moderate.
4. Bristlecone And Glacier Trail
From the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, hikers can opt to continue on to the Bristlecone Trail, which intersects with the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail and then continues on to the Glacier Trail.
The ancient bristlecone pines are the signature trees of Great Basin National Park, and the hike is definitely worth it -- either by itself or in combination with the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail.
The grove of bristlecone pines grows below Wheeler Peak, beginning about 2 miles from the trailhead. The trail climbs gently with a modest elevation gain of about 600 feet. Before reaching the grove, the trail winds through the subalpine forest that includes limber pines, quaking aspens, Engelmann spruces, and Douglas firs.
An interpretive sign along the trail notes that bristlecone pines can live thousands of years in harsh environments and adds, “Exposed to extreme conditions such as high winds, driving snow, ice storms, and freezing temperatures, [the trees] often assume fantastic, contorted shapes.”
The Glacier Trail, which provides access to the only glacier in Nevada, is a continuation of the Bristlecone Trail. A hike to the glacier offers spectacular views of the surrounding cliffs of Wheeler Peak.
Alone, the Bristlecone Trail is 2.8 miles and is rated as moderate. Together, the Bristlecone and Glacier Trails total about 4.6 miles with a 1,100-foot elevation gain and are rated as moderate to strenuous. The combined route takes 2 to 3 hours to complete.
5. Baker Lake Trail
For a long trek into Nevada’s backcountry, head to the Baker Lake Trail, a 12-mile route that climbs about 2,600 feet in elevation gain.
The trail begins at the end of Baker Lake Road and ends at Baker Lake. Along the way, hikers are treated to great views of the surrounding peaks as well as of the scenic alpine lake.
The Baker Lake Trail is rated as strenuous and takes 3 to 4 hours to complete.
6. Baker Lake/Johnson Lake Loop
For an even longer and tougher trek, adventurous hikers can add on another mile or so and complete the Baker Lake/Johnson Lake Loop.
The connecting section is a steep route over the ridge between Baker and Johnson Lakes. “The ridgetop offers spectacular views in all directions, including the south faces of Wheeler Peak and Baker Peak,” says the national park’s website.
The entire loop features an elevation gain of 3,290 feet and is rated as strenuous. Expect to take much of the day (4 to 6 hours) to complete the loop.
7. Wheeler Peak Summit Trail
For the ultimate in Great Basin hiking, the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail offers a challenge for even fit hikers.
The national park’s website cautions that hikers should get a very early start on the summit trail because of the risk of afternoon storms.
Starting at 10,160 feet elevation, the summit trail climbs a daunting 2,900 feet to over 13,000 feet -- most of it along a ridgeline.
Considered the park’s crown jewel, the summit trail offers bragging rights for reaching the highest point in Great Basin National Park. The trail gets steeper as it passes the timberline and nears the summit, and hikers should expect to feel the effects of the high altitude as they climb.
The hike is 8.6 miles out and back and is rated as strenuous. Expect to take 3 to 4 hours to complete the hike.