“Why,” you ask? For starters, it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from the craziness that has overtaken other better-known national parks. You will find no crowded parking lots, no tour buses, and no crush of humanity on the trails. You’ll also find no charming gateway town, or any amenities to speak of. But if you’re after peace, quiet, and spectacular natural beauty, this is a place you’ll like.
Superb Hiking Trails And A “Twilight-Zone” Vibe In Town
The hiking is superb, with a variety of trails for everyone. Some paths meander along streams and wildflower-covered hillsides. Other trails start at 9,000 feet, heading steeply up into the mountains through groves of aspen and along the shores of alpine lakes. The park even boasts an ancient bristlecone pine forest, a limestone cave with beautiful formations, and some of the darkest night skies in the country.
An easy 200-mile drive from Snow Canyon, the long highway eased us into the remoteness of the park. Located in the vast high desert of eastern Nevada, far from major population centers, there’s not much for miles around. The tiny town of Baker, population 68, sits at the crossroads outside of the park. The main street is wide and dusty; two cafes with peeling signs, a combination motel/campground/bar, and a self-serve gas station with a strange Twilight Zone vibe make up the “downtown” area.
The Road Less Taken
Talking to the locals and the friendly park rangers leaves no doubt that this is definitely the road less taken for the 68 people who live here—there’s even a sign along the road to the park that expresses this sentiment. It’s a 70-mile drive for the most basic of groceries, further for more amenities. But that seems to be a small tradeoff for the peace and quiet and beauty of this place. (Would we live here? No. But we certainly enjoy visiting—we’ve even considered hosting at the park.)
We were here early this year, in late May, just before the roads opened to access Wheeler Peak and the high altitude trails. We contented ourselves with hiking the lower altitude trails along the creek surging with snowmelt, through meadows lush with bright yellow balsamroot and splashes of crimson Indian paintbrush. We even discovered a gorgeous, pristine natural spring where we harvested fresh watercress and mint.
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Happening Upon A Bioblitz
Lucky for us, we happened to be in the park on the weekend of a bioblitz. (A bioblitz is a biological census that focuses on an overall count of the plants, animals, and other organisms that inhabit a place.) The focus of this bioblitz was on birds. How perfect is that? We signed up for a couple of workshops and hikes (all free) and had a great time helping find and count birds. As a relatively new national park, the rangers use citizen science to help document species in the park.
Although we were counting birds, our sighting of a marmot family was our best find.
If you visit the park, June is a lovely time, when all of the trails are open and there are still wildflowers in the meadows. Late September or early October, before the snows begin and the aspen are turning to gold, is also gorgeous. We’ve been in both seasons and found it spectacular. (You can read about those visits here and here.)
About The Campground
On our previous two visits, we stayed in the park in Upper Lehman Campground and loved it. However, the roads are tight, and the sites are small and ridiculously unlevel. The campground was closed for renovations while we were there—we’ll see on our next visit if improvements were made to make the sites more accessible and level.
This time, we stayed in town at Whispering Elms Campground, just six miles from the entrance to the national park. Initially, I wasn’t too enthusiastic (we always prefer national park campgrounds) but it turned out to be a fine option. The sites are gravel and large, with many pull-throughs, and we appreciated having full hookups in the freezing temperatures of early spring. There is a decrepit bathhouse and laundry, which we didn’t use. Surprisingly, we had unexpectedly good internet, courtesy of the campground (that’s because our site was close to the front of the park). We spent three peaceful nights and would happily return.