Ever since I was a young girl, I have been fascinated with the night sky. My family owned a small telescope, and we would sit outside and stare up at the stars frequently. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, we were always tuned in when the shuttle launched into space, or a rocket was being tested out at Cape Canaveral. I have to say, I have a true soft spot for dark skies! The first time I truly saw the Milky Way was when I was in Death Valley. I was hooked! Looking up at the night sky, even without a telescope, is one of the joys I have each time I go camping or hiking at night. No exception for my visit to Great Basin National Park!
Great Basin is not only a dark sky part, it is an INTERNATIONAL Dark Sky Park and is in the Gold-Tier of this designation. The distinction is immediately clear when you visit. Even outside my hotel (I stayed in Baker, NV) I could step outside and see the Milky Way – it was that dark out! While visiting the park, we also attended an astronomy program. They have an amazing group of rangers, all of whom give their own individual program related to astronomy. Our talk was more related to the history of astronomy – I love history, so it was perfect! After their presentation, they set up huge, powerful telescopes and turn off the lights so that you can sit back and look up at the sky. Definitely check with the Visitor Center to see if there is a program when you visit. Even if it seems cloudy out – GO! The clouds cleared and we had a wonderful time. Bring a jacket! You won’t believe it, but you are at a high elevation!
Before Great Basin was a National Park, it was a National Monument created in 1922 called Lehman Caves. It became a National Park in 1986. The early history of the cave is fascinating. In 1885, Absalom Lehman led tours through the cave. Unfortunately, physical evidence was left behind in the form of inscriptions on the cave walls. When the park service attempted to clean up this vandalism, they discovered that they were doing more damage to the wall than intended. The inscriptions remain today as an example. Because the cave was not protected for years while Lehman gave tours, many of the fragile stalagmites are rounded off and dead – no longer able to continue to grow and live in the wet cave. Now, the rangers do an excellent job of not only pointing out these issues during their tour (while remaining educational), but they also discuss how the cave has evolved through the years. I was not aware that Native Americans revere the caves and will refuse to go beyond the entrance. Why? Because they buried their dead in the area. When the park service started to excavate part of the cave to create another, safer, entrance, they discovered this fascinating part of ceremonial tradition. After consulting the Native Americans, they determined that they would replace the bodies beyond the new entrance. While we walked past the area (you cannot see anything, if you were wondering!) we were asked to remain respectfully quiet until we entered the first room of the cave. I could not believe there was so much history in such a remote area!!
Camping in Great Basin, which I also highly recommend if you are able, is wonderful because of the amazing night sky. There are multiple campsites, both on recreation.gov and first come first serve, so you can decide which route you want to go when visiting. You can also book your cave tours through recreation.gov, which we did so we could make sure we had a spot. They are very popular! We had around 100 people at the astronomy talk and our tour for the cave was completely full. The park is at a higher elevation, so bring a jacket (plus the cave is COLD). Most importantly, walk around and take in the viewpoints. The park is beautiful. There is a scenic drive that if you only have a few hours to visit, you should definitely fit in. Worth the drive!
Baker, Nevada, which is just outside the park, is very small. There are only a few restaurants and one gas station. It isn’t too far to another town but be aware that there isn’t much out there! There is a cafe at the Lehman Visitor Center that is excellent – great iced coffee and they actually serve food. Have fun!