Great Basin National Park and the Loneliest Road in America

After a great couple days exploring Elko and an adventurous hike in Lamoille Canyon, we continued on with our first post-quarantine RV trip around northern Nevada. Our next destination: Baker, gateway to Great Basin National Park and just a few miles from the Utah state border.

The 200+ mile drive was all highway, but we only saw a handful of other cars before arriving at the nearest major town of Ely – which, for perspective, has a population of under 5,000. I had considered booking a campground in Ely, but then realized that it was still an hour’s drive to the one entrance to Great Basin. In addition to first-come-first-serve campgrounds inside the park, there’s a small RV park in Baker. When I called to make a reservation and ask about cell service I was told they have it, which ended up being only technically correct.

Soon after we left Ely along Highway 50 – The Loneliest Road in America! – we lost cell service again. The drive was remarkable for its vast emptiness – which is saying something, given that we’ve already driven through so much open landscape. Aside from a windmill farm and a couple ranches visible from the highway, we didn’t see any development until we turned off Highway 50 and reached the town of Baker. Which is tiny. It made other national park gateway towns we’ve been to seem like bustling metropolises.

It was clear why Great Basin is one of the least visited national parks. You have to make an effort to get there – even if you already live in Nevada!

Drive between Ely and Baker
The town of Baker. Our RV park was across the street from the road into the park.
Baker in the other direction.

It quickly became apparent that the three nights I had booked were two too many. The RV park was fine, but with only a basic row of sites on dirt and gravel, not exactly an ideal place to set up our chairs and lounge around outside in the heat. The one small grocery store in town was closed down. Not because of COVID; according to the sign the owners retired in the fall and a new buyer was yet to be found. Most critically, though, our Verizon cell service was only 3G; not enough for Chris to stay connected for work. (Charlie complained about slow service too but that was not a factor in our decision.)

Baker does have a quiet charm and some surprising gems. If you don’t need robust cell service it’s a great getaway. Kerouac’s Restaurant, owned and operated by transplanted New Yorkers, was sadly closed for dining while we were there, but we enjoyed treats from the perfectly curated mini mart at their charming Stargazer Inn. The Magic Bean Coffee Cart, set up on the main road across from the park entrance, serves up great coffee, fresh baked goods, and breakfast sandwiches.

Entrance to the Whispering Elms RV park and motel, with Great Basin’s Wheeler Peak in the background.
Home for the night.
Kerouac’s Restaurant and Stargazer Inn on the right in Baker.

In the end we changed our plans and booked the KOA in Ely for the next two nights. Being so close to the park, we still had time to drive in and get the lay of the land, plus explore the nearby Baker Archaeological Site, the remains of a Fremont Indian village occupied from around 1220 to 1295 AD. 

The site was backfilled after being excavated to protect the remaining features for future study. The village discovered here was unusually complex for a Freemont settlement, with evidence that corn, beans, and squash were grown with the assistance of irrigation channels.

The two national park visitor centers, one in Baker and another inside the park, were both closed, but there were informational panels and paper maps available outside. (According to the NPS website the visitor centers are open again.)

I should mention that Great Basin is best known for Lehman Caves, one of the most richly decorated limestone caves in the US. Which were closed because of COVID. I’m sure the caves are wonderful and would love to return for a tour. But Great Basin above ground is just gorgeous, and I can confidently say that we didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything. In fact, if the caves were open we would not have hiked as much as we did.

Navigating the park is straightforward: there’s the entrance from Baker, and one main road inside the park. Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive winds its way from high desert sagebrush to a sub-alpine ecological zone, with an elevation gain of over 4,000 feet. After 12 miles the road ends at the Wheeler Peak parking lot and trailhead.

Wheeler Peak from the Scenic Drive
View away from Wheeler Peak

There’s a campground plus several trails heading out from the Bristlecone parking lot, including to the summit of Wheeler Peak (at 13,065 feet), to the only glacier in Nevada, and to groves of the oldest trees in the world. Great Basin is famously home to Bristlecone pines, and the Wheeler Peak grove is the most accessible. 

This hike was highly recommended, but I also wanted to see part of the Alpine Lakes trail. Our intention was to hike to the closest lake, then backtrack and take the Bristlecone trail. What we ended up doing was hiking the entire three miles of the Alpine Lakes loop trail after we started in the wrong direction, then walking another mile to the start of the Bristlecone trail.  At over 10,000 feet the elevation is no joke, and we definitely felt winded at times.

Start of the Alpine Lakes trail
Views like this are why we were happy to continue on the trail even though we started in the wrong direction.
Worth the effort! Stella Lake
Another view from the Alpine Lakes trail
Teresa Lake
We got close, but this is a limber pine not a bristlecone. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest outside Bishop, CA is another great place to walk among these incredible trees.
Glacial moraine from the Bristlecone trail

Despite not getting to see the Bristlecone pine grove, or the glacier up close, or any part of Lehman Caves… Great Basin exceeded my expectations in many ways. Bottom line: There’s always something to discover and enjoy in a national park even if it’s not what you planned.

After a few hours we returned to the RV park, bid adieu to Baker, and drove the hour to Ely to settle into the KOA for a couple nights. The kids were disappointed that the playground was closed (due to COVID) but we found some really cool places to explore in the area that more than made up for it.

Ely KOA (we’re down the row on the left)
Front row at the Ely KOA
Glowing sunset from the campground

Chris picked up Mexican food from nearby Rolberto’s for a late lunch, which was so good we returned the next morning for breakfast burritos before heading out for the day. Our first stop was Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park just a few miles east. The distinctive, conical structures reminded Chris and I of the ancient beehive huts we saw in Ireland, although these ovens were built in the 1870’s to make charcoal for a nearby silver mine. While only in use for three years (after all the surrounding trees were cut down and the mine dried up, quite a lesson in un-sustainability), the surprisingly large structures were used as shelters by farmers and ranchers, and possibly as hideouts for those pursuing less conventional occupations.

Charcoal ovens with Great Basin in the distance.
Each oven was filled to the top with 6 ACRES of trees and burned for 12 DAYS to produce 50 bushels of charcoal. The whole enterprise only lasted for three years before the resources were depleted. But it’s a cool space to visit.

Once we turned off Highway 50 to get to the ovens we saw a sign for Willow Creek Trading Post. According to the sign we could find live buffalo for sale, among other things. Intrigued, we stopped on our way back from the state park. The trading post was a ranch with several small buildings, a lot of vehicles, and an impressive amount of items arranged and piled up outdoors that could simultaneously be described as museum/antique shop/flea market/junk yard.

While we were trying to take this all in, a woman with an oxygen tank and a little dog walked up to unlock the door. She told us that it hadn’t been opened yet for the season, and that her 92-year-old husband was still recovering from getting their car stuck in a ditch the day before.

The inside of the trading post was a more intense version of the outdoors, with merchandise packed floor to ceiling in no apparent order. We each found a piece to buy, including a 1950’s stoneware bowl and a 1997 pack of Matchbox cars. (The vintage bowl is currently holding fruit on our kitchen counter and will always remind me of Willow Creek.)

You can spot Wheeler Peak to the right, from Willow Creek.

After stopping back at the RV to take the dogs out we headed in the opposite direction, through the old town of Ely and continuing west on Highway 50. Our destination was Garnet Hill, a designated rockhounding area on BLM land. Tens of millions of years ago the hill was an active volcano that spewed massive amounts of rhyolite rock, with deep red almandine garnets trapped inside. We made it extra adventurous when we followed Google Maps’ directions to turn off the highway and ended up on a narrow, deeply rutted dirt track that we had to reverse back down again. Lesson learned: wait until you see the Bureau of Land Management Garnet Hill Recreation Area sign to turn off Highway 50. 

The only equipment we had with us were a couple hammers and sunglasses for eye protection. We were skeptical about the reports of finding garnets right by the parking area, but sure enough, as soon as we started looking through the pieces of rhyolite piled all around, we spotted a couple small gems. The four of us got busy searching through the rocks and bashing them with hammers. We broke a couple garnets with the blunt instruments, and found a lot of holes left from gems that had already been extracted. Still, we ended up with nine garnets in just an hour. It was an unexpectedly fun family activity, and we’re already planning to do some rockhounding near Reno.

Find those gems, kids.
Garnets! All ours!

It was time to head back home, and I was looking forward to driving the longest stretch of The Loneliest Road the next couple days. I was expecting the empty landscape, but was surprised by how scenic parts of the drive were, with rolling hills and, always, mountain ranges in the distance. We passed through the historic towns of Eureka and Austin, and then had another 50 miles of open road to reach our destination for the last overnight.

A former Pony Express stop, Cold Springs Station now hosts a motel, RV park, bar and grill. We considered extending our stay another night to visit Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park,  but Cold Springs Station was improbably sold out for a popular off-roading gathering over Father’s Day weekend.

Pitstop on the Loneliest Road
Cold Spring Station

We ended up with our first major RV issue after we parked. The living area slide-out got stuck halfway out and we couldn’t figure out why. Fortunately it still retracted all the way so we could drive, but we still need to get it fixed before our next trip.

Even though it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, we were only a couple hours from home and had an easier drive after the previous long travel days. We had one more pitstop meal at the landmark Middlegate Station, another former Pony Express stop. We weren’t expecting much, but they served up one of the best bacon cheeseburgers we’ve had anywhere in this one-of-a-kind setting. Perfect ending to our Nevada RV trip!

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