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Great Basin one of least visited parks, despite beauty

Great Basin National Park lies less than five hours north of the teeming cities of Southern Nevada, and one wonders why it remains one of the least-visited in the park system. Certainly it offers a great summer experience; it lies in the Snake Range of Eastern Nevada and offers elevations from 6,200 feet all the way up to 13,063, the latter atop famed Wheeler Peak.

Those elevations offer agreeable temperatures day and night, even as thermometers in Las Vegas seem stuck in triple digits.

The elevation, and skies free from light pollution, also enhance the park’s suitability for nighttime stargazing. Those skies will be celebrated Sept. 5-7 with the Great Basin Astronomy Festival. Despite its emphasis on the night skies, each day starts at noon with an “Astronomy 101” workshop. Following this one-hour program, there are many more activities including viewing the sun through solar telescopes and learning how to use a planisphere, the special tool used to find stars.

At 8 p.m. each evening during the festival, visitors can look at planets, stars and galaxies through telescopes that will be set up in the observing field, a five-minute walk from the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. There will be more than 30 telescopes, some as tall as 20 feet, and plenty of the park’s Dark Rangers and volunteers will be on hand to assist you.

Night-sky photographer Wally Pacholka will be the keynote speaker Friday evening, starting at 7 . Pacholka has learned how to use time exposures to capture the unearthly beauty of stars, comets, meteor showers and other celestial events, usually pictured in relation to the unspoiled landscapes of the West.

His photos have been displayed in National Geographic and on the NASA website, America’s agency for space exploration. His work also can be found at most national park gift shops in the Southwest.

Most visitors to the park make it a point to tour the natural caverns called Lehman Caves. Depending on whether you take the 90-minute or 60-minute tour, it will cost an adult just $10 or $8 to see the beautiful stone “icicles” and columns built up by dripping water, dissolved minerals, over unimaginable millions of years. Children can see them for half-price and little children for free.

It’s cold in a marble cavern, so take a jacket, but otherwise the only items permitted in the cave are flashlights and hand-held cameras. You may be asked to wipe those down with special cleaners the staff will provide. All these steps are intended to protect cave life from certain diseases.

Besides the cave tour the most popular thing to do in the park is taking the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, a 12-mile road that winds its way up past 10,000 feet. At its top end you’ll be rewarded with views reaching east into Utah, and of Wheeler Peak itself, looming still higher above.

Once you reach the terminus of the scenic drive, a few great foot trails begin. The strenuous hike up to Wheeler Peak is only suitable for the experienced hiker. It is about eight miles round-trip with an elevation gain of more than 3,000 feet. You must start early in the morning, as afternoon thunderstorms come in fast and furious.

Shorter trails that are also quite worthwhile are the Island Forest Trail, a loop of less than half a mile, and the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, which is about three miles. All trailheads are near the parking area.

Great camping is available at Strawberry Creek, Lower Lehman Creek, Upper Lehman Creek, Baker Creek and Wheeler Peak campgrounds. All sites are first come, first served and each has a picnic table, fire grate and tent pad. Limited supplies, gas and lodging are available in Baker, located just outside the park’s entrance. A variety of lodging and services can be found in Ely, about 70 miles away.

Because of the high elevations in the park, be prepared for cool temperatures. Average September daily highs are in the 70s, yet nights are chilly, sometimes dropping into the 40s or even 30s.

The park is open year-round yet the scenic road closes due to heavy snow, sometimes as early as late September. The Lehman Caves Visitor Center and the cavern tours are open year-round. In summer reservations are strongly recommended for these tours. For more information on the park, weather and road conditions, contact 775-234-7331 or www.nps.gov/grba.

Many of Deborah Wall’s columns were recently compiled with new information and photos in “Base Camp Las Vegas” and published by Stephens Press. She is the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.

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