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A road trip from Las Vegas to Great Basin National Park

Senior Director of Content Laura Motta loves the American West for its intense beauty, endless layers of human and natural history, and its complete sense of strangeness. She took a road trip from Las Vegas to Great Basin National Park. This is what she encountered along the way.

  • When to arrive: Arrive at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas as early as possible. This road trip requires a lot of driving in remote areas, and you’ll want to reach your accommodation in the city of Ely during daylight.
  • How do you get there: Great Basin National Park is located about 300 miles from Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, making it one of the most remote national parks in the US. To reach it, you have to drive. And drive. Book a rental car that can handle slopes and unpaved or rocky roads. If you try this road trip in winter not recommended for people who have no experience driving in severe weather conditions – You also need snow chains for your tires. I did this trip solo, but would recommend doing it with a partner so you can switch off while behind the wheel.
  • Travel around: You’ll spend much of this trip on Nevada Rte 93. Look for roadside signs for gas. Sections of this road run for hundreds of miles without a single gas station, and you don’t want to get stuck. It’s also a good idea to bring water and snacks. Parts of Great Basin are 4,000 feet above sea level and it is not uncommon to see light snow and frosts from spring through fall. Expect yards of snow and road closures in winter.
  • What to pack: A trip from Vegas to Great Basin means packing for two climates the burning Mojave and the barren high desert. Sturdy shoes or hiking boots are a must for the trails in Great Basin National Park. Pack layers, as you can expect cool or even cold weather at night. For Vegas? Shorts for the day, a cocktail dress for the evening and a swimsuit are sufficient. One thing you will need and use in both places: sunscreen and sunglasses.
  • This is how you structure your days: Plan to ride the longest stretches on the first and last days. Use the days in between to explore the park and take shorter day trips. And while you’ll want to limit your adventure to daylight during your stay in Great Basin, the opposite is true in Las Vegas. Plan to enjoy the nightlife while you’re there; there is considerably less of it once you head north.
    A large saucer-shaped metal object - like a spaceship - sits in a desert area
    In Hiko, Nevada, visit this ‘crashed’ spaceship and other alien-themed attractions © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet

Day 1: Route 93 to Ely

Take a look around

As you drive north from Las Vegas along US Rte 93, the Great Basin Highway, the flat desert falls away and the mountains rise on either side. They are green, then rough brown and distantly blue-gray. This is America at its most vast and stunningly beautiful, and the view from your car windows is as much your “destination” as anything else you’ll see on this trip.

See if the truth is out there

Two hours north of Las Vegas, Rte 93 intersects with Rte 375 a deserted stretch of road known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. This is as close as we can get to Area 51, the top-secret US air base that spawned persistent conspiracy theories and rumors of extraterrestrial research. Knowing that visitors are prohibited, I made a quick stop in Hiko town to visit some quirky and definitely unclassified sites that reflect the kitsch factor of the area. ET Fresh Jerky is a gift shop that specializes in “alien” (actually beef) jerky. It is a good snack on the go. Plus, there are some fun, photo-ready items in the parking lot (a giant “crashed” spaceship, a mural of aliens). A little further on you will find another gift shop, the Alien Research Center, where you can find shot glasses, T-shirts and stickers decorated with little green men.

Refuel

Stretch your legs and grab lunch or a snack in the town of Caliente. I had a quesadilla at Knotty Pine, where you can enjoy the vintage atmosphere and play slot machines in the bar. You also have to refuel in the city, so take the opportunity to refuel even if your tank is not empty.

Worship in the Cathedral of Nature

Just past Caliente on Rte 93 you will reach Cathedral Gorge State Park. This dramatic canyon, formed by eroded rocks and clay, looks like a giant melting layer cake. There are some easy trails near the park entrance that can be completed in less than an hour. Please note that the park requires advance reservations for entry during peak times.

Hit the hay

By the time you reach the town of Ely, you’ll have earned some rest. I stayed at Motel 6 (spotless, with exceptionally hospitable staff) and the historic Hotel Nevada (Old West atmosphere, lots of taxidermy in the lobby).

Mountains on the edge of a lake while the sun shines
Follow the trials through Great Basin National Park to the picturesque Wheeler Peak © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet

Day 2: Great Basin National Park

Get to know the park

Drive about an hour west of Ely to reach the Great Basin National Park, known for its snow-capped peaks and intricate cave system. There are also groves of rare serpentine pines, some believed to be more than 5,000 years old.

Go caving

Start your morning with a descent into the Lehman Caves, the park’s central attraction and a must-see on any visit. The caves are classified as their own national monument and have their own car park and visitor center within the wider national park. Book a guided tour with a park ranger (30, 60, or 90 minutes, prices vary) to see enormous stalagmites and stalactites, underground lakes, and the few living organisms that call the cave home.

Take a walk (or two)

After seeing the caves, hop back in your car and drive the winding road uphill – an experience in itself – towards Wheeler Peak. I parked in the parking lot well before the summit and set off on foot. There are trailheads here that lead to a few different, equally awe-inspiring sights, including the bristlecone pine forests and Nevada’s last glacier. I chose the Alpine Lakes Loop, a relatively flat trail that leads to the sparkling lakes Teresa and Stella. Along the way, I picked my way through the light snowpack, took too many photos of soaring Wheeler Peak, and enjoyed the fresh air. A good option is to try one route earlier in the day, drive back to the Lehman Caves for a quick lunch at the visitor center, and then choose another to do in the afternoon. A word of caution: some of these trails are labeled “easy,” but the elevation of the park adds an element of difficulty. Bring plenty of water, wear layers and suit yourself.

A vintage train with dark carriages drives through a station
Take a ride on a vintage train along the Nevada Northern Railway © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet

Day 3: In and around Ely

Enjoy some Nevada nostalgia

Copper mining and a prime location along Nevada’s Pony Express route these are the things that built the city of Ely. The city makes a good base for exploring Great Basin National Park, but also offers easy access to a few other whimsical, somewhat strange sights that make a nice addition to a trip to the national park.

Make it malted

Take a seat on a vintage red-chrome chair at the Economy Drug soda fountain, which opened in 1946. Excellent sandwiches and vintage soft drinks are the highlights of the menu, but you can also order malts, milkshakes and ice cream. And if you run out of toothpaste or sunscreen, you can of course get it here too. True to its name, Economy Drug remains a working pharmacy.

Ride the rails

It’s hard to find a more charming spot in Ely than the impeccably preserved train station, which is part of the Nevada Northern Railway. This organization not only maintains the station and all adjacent buildings, but also manages a collection of vintage locomotives and rail cars. Book a trip on one of them to stargaze in the desert, watch a fireworks show, learn about the geology or drink champagne. The programming rotates and is seasonal. You can also visit the station itself.

Search for treasure

Garnet Hill is a designated ‘rockhounding’ area, or a place open to the public for the search for geological treasures. Drive up the steep dirt road as far as you can, park, and then walk up the hill for about 20 minutes to reach the best hunting spots. The hill is named after the dark red gemstones common in the area, but you’re more likely to find other types of wonders close to the surface namely pieces of petrified wood and fossils. I found a fragment of a trilobite a prehistoric sea animal that is said to have lived in this place more than 250 million years ago and burst into tears at the wonder of it.

Look what’s left of a mining boom

Just off Rte 50, about 30 minutes from Ely, you’ll find one of the strangest and strangest enchanting places in the area. The Ward Charcoal Furnaces, each more than 30 feet high in a vast stretch of open desert, made charcoal for smelting silver in the 19th century. The nearby mining town would be destroyed by floods and fire towards the end of the 19th century, but the brick kilns still remain. You can even dart inside for a closer look at the open, beehive-like design.

A museum display with a rocket-like item in a glass case
Learn about atomic energy and weapons at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas © Kit Leong / Shutterstock

Day 4: Las Vegas

Return to Sin City

If you drove to Ely on Rte 93, you can take an alternate road, Rte 318, back to Vegas. It offers several mountain views and saves about 30 minutes of driving. On my last night in Nevada, I opted for a few simple pleasures in Las Vegas a terrifying museum and a perfect martini. I started at the Atomic Museum, which flawlessly maps the history of atomic energy and weapons. Beginning in the 1950s, the area north of Las Vegas was America’s official nuclear test site for more than forty years. (In the 1950s, postcards showed an illustration of a Vegas showgirl wearing a mushroom cloud as a costume.)

The exhibitions delve deeply into technology and history, but also explore the ethics of nuclear war, and even the test site itself. That evening I went to Delilah’s for a drink and I definitely needed it. This supper club-slash-nightclub has live big band music, simple on-site food (the chicken fingers are a favorite) and impeccable cocktails, all in an atmosphere that feels like a throwback to gilded Rat Pack-era Las Vegas. Vegas. This is the only place on your trip where you will be asked to put your cell phone away and just enjoy and it’s so good you won’t mind.

Laura traveled to Nevada courtesy of Travel Nevada. Lonely Planet does not accept free travel in exchange for positive reporting.

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