Road tripping: 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 full-on sense of weirdness. She took a road trip from Las Vegas to Great Basin National Park. Here’s what she encountered on the way.

  • When to arrive: Arrive at Las Vegas’s Harry Reid International Airport as early in the day as you can. This road trip requires a lot of driving in remote areas, and you’ll want to reach your lodging in the town of Ely while it’s daylight.
  • Getting there: Great Basin National Park is about 300 miles from either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, making it one of the most remote national parks in the US. To reach it, you will have to drive. And drive. Book a rental car that can handle inclines and dirt or rocky roads. If you attempt this road trip in the winter – not recommended for those who don’t have experience driving in tough weather conditions – you will 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 being in the driver’s seat.
  • Getting around: You’ll spend much of this trip on Nevada Rte 93. Pay attention to roadside signs for gas. Stretches of this road run hundreds of miles without a single gas station, and you don’t want to get stuck. It’s also a good idea to pack water and snacks. Parts of Great Basin are 13,000ft above sea level and it’s not uncommon to see light snow cover and overnight frosts from spring to fall. In winter, expect feet of snow and road closures.
  • What to pack: A trip from Vegas to Great Basin means packing for two climates  the burning Mojave and the arid 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 daytime, a cocktail getup for evening and a swimsuit should do it. One thing you’ll need and use in both places: sunblock and sunglasses.
  • How to structure your days: Plan to do your longest stretches of driving on the first and last day. Use the days in between to explore the park and take shorter day trips. And while you’ll want to keep your adventuring to daylight hours while you’re at Great Basin, the opposite is true of Las Vegas. Plan to enjoy the nightlife while you’re there; there’s significantly less of it once you head north.
    A large dish-shaped metal item - like a spaceship - stands in a desert area
    In Hiko, Nevada, visit this “crashed” spaceship and other alien-themed landmarks © Laura Motta / Lonely Planet

Day 1: Route 93 to Ely

Take a look around

As you drive north out of Las Vegas along US Rte 93, the Great Basin Highway, the flat desert falls away and the mountains rise up on either side. They are green, then craggy brown, then blue-gray in the distance. This is America at its most expansive and mind-bogglingly beautiful, and the view out 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 desolate stretch of road known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. This is as close as you’ll get to Area 51, the highly classified US Air Force base that spawned persistent conspiracy theories and rumors of alien research. Knowing visitors are forbidden, I made a quick stop in the town of Hiko instead to visit some quirky and definitely unclassified sites that capture the area’s kitsch factor. E.T. Fresh Jerky is a gift shop that specializes in “alien” (actually beef) jerky. It makes a good snack for the drive. Plus, there are some fun, photo-ready items in the parking lot (a giant “crashed” space ship, a mural of otherworldly creatures). Just up the road, another gift shop called the Alien Research Center is where you’ll find shot glasses, t-shirts and stickers adorned with little green men.

Fuel up

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 vibes and play slot machines in the bar. You should also get gas in town, so take the opportunity to fuel up even if your tank isn’t empty.

Worship at nature’s cathedral 

Just past Caliente on Rte 93, you’ll reach Cathedral Gorge State Park. This dramatic canyon, formed by eroded rock and clay, looks like a giant melting layer cake. It has some easy trails near the park entrance that can be completed in less than hour. Note that the park requires advance reservations for entry at peak times.

Hit the hay

By the time you reach the town of Ely, you will have earned a rest. I stayed at the Motel 6 (spotless, with especially welcoming staff) and the historic Hotel Nevada (Old West vibes, lots of taxidermy in the lobby).   

Mountains on the edge of a lake as the sun shines down
Follow 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 Great Basin National Park, which is known for snow-capped peaks and an intricate cave system. There are also groves of rare, twisty limbed bristlecone pines, some of which are thought to be more than 5000 years old.

Go spelunking

Start your morning by descending into 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 parking lot and visitors center within the wider national park. Book a 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 hike (or two)

After you see the caves, hop back in your car and drive the winding uphill road – an experience unto itself – toward Wheeler Peak. I parked in the lot well before the summit and set out from there on foot. There are trailheads here that lead to a few different, equally awe-inspiring sights, including the bristlecone pine groves and Nevada’s last glacier. I chose the Alpine Lakes Loop, a relatively flat trail that leads to the sparkling lakes Teresa and Stella. On the way, I crunched my way through light snow cover, snapped too many photos of soaring Wheeler Peak and enjoyed the crisp air. A good option is to try one trail earlier in the day, drive back to Lehman Caves for a quick lunch in the visitors center, and then pick another one to do in the afternoon. A word of caution, however: Some of these trails are labeled “easy,” but the park’s elevation adds a level of difficulty. Bring enough water, wear layers and pace yourself. 

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

Day 3: In and around Ely

Soak up some Nevada nostalgia 

Copper mining and a prime location along Nevada’s Pony Express route — these are the things that built the town of Ely. The town is a good base for exploring Great Basin National Park, but it also allows easy access to a few other whimsical, slightly strange sights that make a fun add-on to a national park trip.

Make it malted

Pull up a vintage red-and-chrome seat at the soda fountain at Economy Drug, which opened for business in 1946. Excellent sandwiches and vintage-style sodas are menu standouts, but you can also order malts, milkshakes and ice cream. And of course, if you run out of toothpaste or sunblock, you can 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 its impeccably preserved train station, which is part of the Nevada Northern Railway. Not only does this organization maintain the station and all of its adjacent buildings, it also preserves and runs a collection of vintage locomotives and train cars. Book a trip on one of them to go stargazing in the desert, view a fireworks display, learn about geology or sip champagne. Programming rotates and is oriented to the season. You can also tour the station itself. 

Search for treasure

Garnet Hill is a designated “rockhounding” area, or a place that’s open to the public for geological treasure hunting. Drive up the steep dirt road as far as you can go, park, and then walk up the hill about 20 minutes to reach the best hunting spots. The hill is named for the dark red gems that are common in the area, but you’re more likely to find other kinds of wonders close to the surface namely, bits of petrified wood and fossils. I found a fragment of a trilobite — a prehistoric marine animal that would have lived on this spot more than 250 million years ago — and burst into tears at the wonder of it.

See what’s left of a mining boom

Just off of Rte 50, about 30 minutes from Ely, you’ll find one of the oddest, and most oddly enchanting, sites in the area. The Ward Charcoal Ovens, each one standing more than 30ft tall in a vast tract of open desert, were where charcoal was made for the smelting of silver in the 1800s. The nearby mining town would be wrecked by flood and fire by the close of the 19th century, but the stone ovens remain. You can even dart inside them to get a closer look at their open, beehive like design. 

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

Day 4: Las Vegas

Get back to Sin City

If you drove up to Ely via Rte 93, you can take an alternate road, Rte 318, back to Vegas. It affords different views of the mountains and saves about 30 minutes of driving. On my last night in Nevada, I opted for a few simple Las Vegas pleasures — a terrifying museum and a perfect martini. I started at the Atomic Museum, which unflinchingly charts the history of atomic energy and weaponry. For more than 40 years starting in the 1950s, the area north of Las Vegas was America’s official nuclear testing site. (In the 1950s, postcards showed an illustration of a Vegas showgirl wearing a mushroom cloud as a costume.)

Exhibits go deep on technology and history, but also examine the ethics of nuclear war, and even of the testing site itself. That evening, I headed to Delilah for a drink and I definitely needed one. This supper club-slash-nightclub has live big-band-style music, simple food that hits the spot (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. This is the one spot on your trip where you’ll be asked to put away your cell phone and just enjoy — and it’s so good that you won’t mind. 

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

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