From sandstone canyons to alpine lakes and plenty of history, funky towns and natural wonders along the way, Nevada’s adventurous eastern edge beckons. The Great Basin Highway—which closely follows Nevada’s U.S. 93—will take you through eight Nevada state parks before you end up at Great Basin National Park, home of 13,064-foot Wheeler Peak and the Lehman Caves system. Pack that gear because the Great Basin Highway road trip is ideal for hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, swimming, fishing, endless photography, stargazing and so much more.
Don’t forget your Nevada State Park Passport for this #NVRoadtrip! Your Nevada State Park Passport can be picked up at any Nevada State Park. Added bonus: If you get your passport stamped in any 15 of our Nevada State Parks properties, you will earn one free annual pass to all Nevada state parks!
From Las Vegas, it is about 52 miles/84 kilometers on Interstate 15 east to Valley of Fire State Park. Do yourself a favor and make your first stop the visitor’s center, where you’ll learn more about Valley of Fire State Park’s geologic and natural history before exploring trails through area canyons and ancient rock formations. Keep your eye out for petroglyphs! These ancient rock carvings left by southeastern Nevada's Ancestral Puebloans can be found throughout the park, but they are most easily viewed at the Atlatl Rock area near the western end of the park and along the Mouse’s Tank Hiking Trail.
From Valley of Fire, head west on Interstate 15 to the junction with U.S. 93, the Great Basin Highway, and continue north. Get ready, you’re on your way!
Valley of Fire State Park is especially stunning in the early morning and at golden hour. To experience these magic moments, you’ll have to plan ahead. These campsites are first come first served. Any non-campers in the park before sunrise or after dark are considered trespassers and do get will be ticketed. Valley of Fire is also one of Nevada’s oldest, first and most visited parks, so don’t be surprised about the parking—or the people!
Legs 2 and 3 on Great Basin Highway are filled with adventure. Because of the proximity of each of the six state parks in Lincoln County, we recommend roadtrippers overnight in one of the three Lincoln County towns in the area: Caliente, Panaca, or Pioche while they explore and really get a feel for the area’s history. Each town serves up its own lasting character, usually backed up by a hefty helping of history.
Grab a lunch to go at Timber's Lodging & Grill and head out on US 93 north toward the six state parks peppered throughout Lincoln County (it’s about 55 miles/89 kilometers to the city of Caliente, home of Kershaw-Ryan State Park).
If you get an early start, stop at Oak Springs Summit Trilobite Area (about 44 miles/71 kilometers) on the south side of Oak Springs Summit, near mile marker 81. This site, overseen by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, contains the fossil remains of six different types of fossilized marine creatures from the Paleozoic Era, called ‘trilobites.’
Whether you decide to get Paleozoic or not, you’ll continue on to Caliente and Kershaw-Ryan State Park (2 miles/3 kilometers south of Caliente on Nevada state Route 317). Dubbed Nevada’s “City of Roses" for its rosebed-lined streets, Caliente is a former resort town (with a classic Mission Revival-style railroad depot to show for it) rolling towards rebirth as a mountain bike mecca, with a new bike skills park and singletrack trail system.
Take in the views of a verdant canyon and dip your toes into the spring-fed wading pool at the center of this park. Stretch out your legs on the easy 1.5-mile Overlook Trail before you head over to Beaver Dam State Park, which is about 36 miles/58 kilometers further. Here, you’ll enjoy some of Nevada’s famed dirt roads as you take in the seemingly never-ending landscape. For the anglers out there, there are plenty of opportunities to fish in the trout-packed streams below the park’s day use area, as well as some great day hikes and campsites tucked into the trees or overlooking stunning vistas.
First on your list: Cathedral Gorge State Park. Climb among towering “hoodoos” and through narrow siltstone slot canyons, hit hiking trails through the region’s dramatic scenery, and stop by the visitor’s center to get your passport stamped.
Continue on to Echo Canyon State Park, about 22 miles/35 kilometers from Cathedral Gorge State Park off U.S. 93 on Nevada state Routes 322 and 86. A 35-acre reservoir at this park, as well as the 2.5-mile Ash Canyon Trail, offers epic opportunities for both fishing and boating. After an exciting romp on the water, you’ll find Spring Valley State Park just 12 miles/19 kilometers northeast, which is connected by water, and known for fishing derbies, historic pioneer homesites, and some of southeastern Nevada's more iconic roadscapes.
Head to the 59-acre Eagle Valley Reservoir and visit breathtaking historical ranch homes of the late 19th century, like the Stone Cabin, or hit a few interesting sites in the town of Pioche like the Million Dollar Courthouse and Boot Hill Cemetery.
Pioche in the 1870s was a young and lawless mining town, that certainly falls in the rankings with Dodge City and Tombstone. It is said that the streets ran so red that an astonishing 72 people were laid to rest before someone actually died of natural causes. Today, many refer to it as “Nevada’s liveliest ghost town.”
As for the Million Dollar Courthouse, tiffany lamps… gilded ceilings… even indoor drinking fountains and many swanky flourishes helped earn the “Million Dollar Courthouse” its mining-era moniker. Today, admission is free to what's now a relic-rich museum flaunting the town’s history.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: Regular visiting season is May–Oct., but call the Lincoln County Museum during the appointment-only months and you’ll probably have the courtroom’s life-size cast of mannequins all to yourself. (Because, well... #WeirdNevada?) Oh and of course, be sure to check out the old jail, and behind the courthouse, too.
Boot Hill Cemetery is another great reminder of the town's origins as a lawless Western outpost. The cemetery sits below an old aerial tramway that was used in the 1920s and '30s to carry ore from the mines to a mill on the hill.
Looking for libations? A few classic Sagebrush Saloons await, including the famous (and said to be most likely haunted) Overland Hotel & Saloon. Prefer coffee? Perk up and peek at art at Ghost Town Art & Coffee Co.
Continue north on the Great Basin Highway — it’s 101 miles/163 kilometers to Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park. Here, you’ll find a great photo opportunity with six large (30-feet-high by 27-feet-diameter) beehive-shaped charcoal kilns from 1876 to 1879. Juniper and pinyon pine were burned in these ovens which created charcoal that was used in the smelters for the Ward Mining District. Later, the structures moonlighted as the occasional hideout for stagecoach bandits and frontier outlaws.
From here, it’s only 17 miles/27 kilometers to Cave Lake State Park, which has a 32-acre reservoir popular for year-round fishing — brown trout in particular. Hikers can attempt the Cave Lake Overlook Trail, a strenuous, 4.5-mile loop that begins on the eastern end of the lake, and reward themselves with an overnight stay in a reservable yurt.
Mountain bikers can rip around on hard-packed gravel and more than 20 miles of solid singletrack, weaving through elk habitat among limestone cliffs and forests—or come get competitive during Fears, Tears & Beers each June: the country’s oldest enduro race, which features a mountaintop pedal, time twisties and springs, and even a group roll through two casinos.
Cave Lake is also home to one of Ely’s biggest community events, the Fire and Ice Winter Festival. This annual ice sculpture competition is usually held in January, so plan accordingly!
From Cave Lake, it’s a quick 13 miles/21 kilometers to the city of Ely. This mining town is home to the Nevada Northern Railway, a historic railway that now runs the Ghost Train of Old Ely, an excursion train (which also stars in the annual Race the Rails bicycle competition), and the adjacent East Ely Railroad Depot Museum.
Stroll the downtown area to view the city’s many murals as well as Renaissance Village, a cluster of dwellings historically preserved to represent the melting pot of cultures drawn to the copper mining boom Ely saw in the early 20th century. For a downloadable map of the Art Walk murals and the Renaissance Village, visit the Ely Renaissance Society website, ElyNVArts.com.
Rock lovers will definitely want to map out their visit to Garnet Hill, a rockhounding area just 4 miles/6 kilometers west of Ely, where you can search the ground for 2-carat-sized garnets to take home. Garnet Hill is managed by the Federal Bureau of Land Management and entry is free! If you’re looking to stay overnight in Ely, there are several options available, each with their own charms. There’s no way to choose wrong.
TravelNevada PRO TIP: Any time of year is great to check out Garnet Hill, but the place is especially successful after a fresh rain, as many of the garnets wash down the hill and are more easily discoverable.
You’re on the home stretch. It’s time to head to Great Basin National Park, 67 miles/108 kilometers east on U.S. 50 and Nevada state Routes 487 and 488. This is where nature runs wild. On Nevada’s remote central-eastern border, Great Basin National Park benefits from at strikingly low number of annual visitors–one of the lowest in the country–which means this sanctuary is perfect for solitude and nature immersion.
Aspen groves shade the mountain streams. Bristlecone pine trees, thousands of years old, still grow gnarled with age. Lehman Caves awes visitors with an array of colors, patterns, and rare formations forged over many millennia. A scenic paved road takes motorists to the 10,000-foot mark, where they’re left to hoof it up to Nevada’s second-tallest peak, 13,064-foot Wheeler Peak, which peers over Nevada’s last glacier.
Stop by one of the park’s two visitors’ centers: the first is off Nevada state Route 487, open from May to Oct.; the other (and more robust one) is inside the park at the end of Nevada state Route 488 and next to Lehman Caves.
Discovered in the 1880s, Lehman Caves is a “marble cave” full of stalactites, stalagmites and over 300 shield formations that developed over eons—most caves only have a few. These delicate structures can be viewed via guided tours which are offered year-round. It’s only up from here. You’ll want to explore Wheeler Peak, next. Although only open seasonally (always plan ahead!), Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is a 12-mile scenic route that winds its way up the Wheeler Peak Campground, opening into various different trails which start at 10,000 feet. Here, find trailhead access for Wheeler Peak Summit Trail, the Alpine Lakes Loop, and the bristlecone Trail, which leads to a bristlecone pine grove. Note that the scenic drive is not plowed during winter months and is typically closed from November through May due to snow.
Your exploration of the Great Basin Highway is complete! Ready for a hot meal and a cozy bed? You’ve earned it. Head down the hill to tiny, artsy Baker, where gourmet cuisine, artisan cocktails, fine beer and wine, and comfy rooms await at Stargazer Inn and Kerouac’s Restaurant & Bar (May–Oct). Or, circle back to Ely where all services await. In the morning, you can backtrack to Las Vegas (243 miles/391 kilometers). Or for more adventure, aim the vehicle towards Reno and Lake Tahoe on U.S. 50 westbound (320 miles/515 kilometers) and take on the famed Loneliest Road In America.
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