I have a life goal to see all of the national parks in the United States, which is easier said than done, because there are a lot of them! But so far, this has led me to visit more than a few places that I didn’t previously know existed, and I haven’t regretted any of them. One of the national parks that I had never heard of was Great Basin, which seemed fascinating based on its name and its location north of Las Vegas in Nevada, an area that I had never explored. My dad and I were further intrigued by this place after learning that it is home to the Bristlecone Pine, one of the longest lived life forms on the planet. Finally, when we had a few days free, we decided to take a road trip up to Great Basin, and without much planning we ended up visiting several beautiful and intriguing places. The following account will mostly cover the places that we visited during this road trip, but I will also highlight a few places along the way that would be worth stopped at but which we didn’t have the time to visit.
Day One: Setting Out
The first day of our road trip didn’t start until 15:00, so our only goal was to make it up into Nevada for our first night. Luckily, the drive between Phoenix and the Las Vegas area is pretty nice, and it would actually have several good stops along the way for travelers with a full day. First, Lake Pleasant is worth a stop for anyone that hasn’t been, as it is a good example of Arizona’s artificial lakes, even if it isn’t one of the most beautiful. After living in the desert for a few years, it is hard to not appreciate water where-ever you find it, and besides some good desert winds for sailing, Lake Pleasant also has some nice hikes nearby in the Hells Canyon Wilderness. Furthermore, this area is home to wild burros, which I have seen on several occasions, and they are some great charismatic megafauna to see in the Sonora.
Further down the road, there is also the Hassayampa River Preserve just outside of Wickenburg. I actually haven’t made it to this area before, so I don’t have any personal experience with it yet, but it is somewhere that I hope to visit in the near future. Another oasis in the desert, the river preserve protects something that is rare now in Arizona, a river still flowing in its banks, thanks to the Nature Conservancy. There are plenty of trails here, and like Lake Pleasant it is good to experience any water that the desert has to offer, even more so, in places where some natural riparian ecosystems remain.
Of course, the biggest attraction between Phoenix and Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam, which we hit around 20:00. When I initially envisioned this trip last year, I had hoped to visit during the day and take a tour of the Dam. There is actually quite a bit there to see and do during the day, and in any case, this place is a major historical landmark for the country, and it has also shaped the Southwest in a very serious way. Las Vegas certainly owes its size to the resources provided by the dam, and the life-line of the Central Arizona Project shows the link between Phoenix and the Colorado River. Sadly, I didn’t get to take a tour this time around, but the dam is open to visitors until 21:00. So, we at least got to drive across the dam, park and take pictures of the landmark at night. It was a very peaceful place without the crowds, and there were some good views of the stars to boot.
Our day ended in Boulder City, where we spent the night in a Quality Inn a mere five minutes from Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Day Two: Through the Desert to the Great Basin
Before we hopped in the car for the day, I dragged my dad to Lake Mead, because I had to get my national parks passport stamped and I wanted to go on a little hike before our journey. As it turned out, we found a really great little trail outside of the fee area, and we both really enjoyed this stroll. The Historic Railway Trail is right by the entrance to the park, and as its name implies, this trail follows the former track of the railroad that brought materials from Boulder City to the site of Hoover Dam as it was being built. Besides the great views of lake from the trail, we really enjoyed getting to see the massive tunnels that were built through the mountains in order to fit the large pieces of dam equipment through. From the trailhead to the first tunnel is about a mile, so it was a great section of the trail to walk when we only had a limited amount of time.
From Boulder City to Baker was quite a drive. Most of the towns that we passed, besides Las Vegas, were quite small. Alamo, which is perched just north of Pahranagat Lake, didn’t have much to offer along the side of the road, and when we asked about places to grab lunch there, the gas station attendant only told us about two different restaurants. We ended up at the Windmill just north of the town, and it was quiet enjoyable. Not only did they have some good standard American fare, but they also had a nice little bakery where we got a fresh cookie and a lemon square.
From there on out, we entered the Great Basin region, which gave us a taste for what we would see and learn more about in the National Park. This region is characterized by parallel ranges of mountains, which remind me of the sky islands in Arizona, rising up out of the dry lowlands to peaks of lush forests. The lowlands, instead of being Arizona desert, however, were large, flat plains of sagebrush and grasses, where we spotted herds of cows and even a few ranchers on horseback.
Once we got to Baker, we were somewhat surprised at how small the town at the gateway to Great Basin NP was. In fact, since we traveled to the park out of season, there were no open restaurants, and according to Wikipedia the population is 68. That being said, we had a reserved a great little place to stay for the night called the Get-Away Cabin. The owner was very friendly and welcoming, and she even bakes her guests delicious little loaves of banana bread.
After getting some tips about what to do in the park the at the visitor’s center for the next day, we drove a few miles out of town to check out the Baker Archaeological Site, which wasn’t much more than a few outlines of Fremont buildings among the sagebrush. There was some good information in a little guide book that the BLM provided at the site, however. After a short stop there, we made it out to the Border Inn where we enjoyed a delicious dinner, and picked up some groceries.
Day 3 and 4 to come on April 1st! And Washington DC… someday!
If you have any questions about my experience in Nevada and Arizona or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂