Great Basin National Park is a glorious secret. Few Americans realize it exists and far fewer have walked its 60 miles of trails or climbed Mount Wheeler, its showcase 13,063-foot peak, or plunged into exotic and tarnished Lehman Caves.
And that’s why you should go. Tourism has not arrived at Great Basin, on the Nevada/Utah state line, so it remains an adventurer’s destination. These are wide-open spaces at their most wide and open. The closest McDonald’s is 63 miles away. The throngs that overwhelm national parks at Grand Canyon and Glacier and Zion and Rocky Mountain have yet to arrive, and I have a strong feeling they never will.
The charms at Great Basin are subtle, but powerful.
Last week, I was standing in the park gazing at the darkest skies in the Lower 48. It was 3:20 a.m., a moonless night, and The Big Dipper glowed from the north as The Milky Way dazzled from the southern sky.
When was the last time I enjoyed a clear view of The Milky Way? I couldn’t even remember.
We lost deep darkness long ago on The Front Range, where millions of newcomers have brought an avalanche of light. A clear sky brightened solely by stars carries an exhilarating jolt. It’s primal, a connection to our ancestors. It’s soothing and soul-shaking at the same time.
Yes, an American national park can be blissfully uncrowded, even in summer.
We dwell in an era of national park mania. Glacier, even though it’s tucked into the middle of nowhere in Montana, attracted 3.31 million visitors in 2017, up from 1.81 million in 2008. Utah’s wonderful Zion drew 4.32 million last summer, up from 2.21 million in 2006. More than 6.3 million stampeded to The Grand Canyon, up from 4.35 million in 2009.
I was part of that record-breaking 2017 crowd at Glacier, and, yes, the park still was magnificent, even with a mile walk from car to trailhead and even with shouting crowds polluting the serenity.
But there’s a superior alternative.
A mere 153,094 traveled to Great Basin in 2018. It’s not part of the international circuit. It’s not even part of the national circuit. Yellowstone and Grand Canyon and Glacier are part of national lore. Many of us go, or start wanting to go, when we’re in grade school. They are undeniably amazing.
And just as undeniably crowded, especially in summer.
In the past few years, I’ve traveled to the hidden national parks. North Cascades, still quiet and soothing despite being 90 minutes from Seattle.
Theodore Roosevelt, divided into two gorgeous sections in North Dakota. Guadalupe, with magnificent mountain views on the Texas/New Mexico border.
I took the long way to Great Basin, stopping in Utah for two days of hiking in Arches and Capitol Reef. It was a proper prelude.
On the right day, Arches ranks among the best destinations on earth. The Saturday I was there did not belong among those days. A serious traffic jam marred the park’s signature Windows section, complete with honking cars and scowling visitors.
The next day, the visit to Capitol Reef was more relaxed but featured two near-miss collisions with tourists who had no clue how to control their rented campers.
To be clear: None of the Utah hassles was a day-ruining experience, but nobody travels hundreds of miles to a national park to confront city hassles.
Great Basin is a no-hassle zone. I wandered through woods and streams on a 7-mile hike and saw nobody until the final stretch. A man walked around a corner and was so startled to see a fellow human he fell down.
Lehman Caves, in the heart of Great Basin, offers a more cramped and complicated experience. Discovered by Absalom Lehman in 1881, the caves were in private hands until 1922. During those decades, paying visitors busted off formations for souvenirs and left prodigious amounts of graffiti.
The caves retain their beauty and mystery, but their scars reveal the fragility of our national park system. Without protection, America’s most precious destinations would quickly face ruin from rampaging Americans.
So, I’ve let you in on the secret that is Great Basin. This summer, you can drive 602 miles to Yellowstone or 995 to Glacier or 604 to Grand Canyon to join the masses.
Or you can drive 693 miles to Great Basin to walk alone during the day and gaze at The Milky Way at night.
It’s your choice.