Great Basin National Park, Nev. » Listening to young visitors who managed to discover the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states, it's easy to get a picture of this surprising alpine oasis.
"We're going inside planet Earth!" shouted 6-year-old Ayden Hall of Syracuse as he prepared to take a tour of Lehman Caves, one of Great Basin National Park's signature attractions.
"Oh my God, that is exciting," said 10-year-old Cameron Howland of Reno after taking advantage of some of the darkest, clearest night skies in America by peering into a telescope and seeing the rings of Saturn.
Bonneville Junior High School ninth-grader Greyden Ewing was surprised by the park's landscape, which typifies the geography of the Great Basin.
"It was an amazing experience, fun and really beautiful," he said. "It was surprising driving from the city and hitting the desert and driving up where there was alpine, forest and all that wonderful wildlife and greenery."
Great Basin, 243 miles from Salt Lake City on the Utah-Nevada border -- making it about a tie with Capitol Reef as the closest national park to the Wasatch Front -- remains an undiscovered gem.
Here, it is possible to camp in alpine splendor next to flowing streams, or near treeline at the base of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, the highest point in the Great Basin and second-highest mountain in Nevada.
Visitors trek to see 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines or a six-story limestone arch. Anglers fish for Bonneville cutthroat, rainbow, brook or brown trout on 28 miles of alpine streams. Cave lovers explore the drapery, unusual shields and underground environment of Lehman Caves. Others check out Fremont Indian rock writings dating back more than 1,000 years, or marvel at the Milky Way -- so visible in an area more than 200 miles from the light pollution of Salt Lake City or Las Vegas.
There are places to watch wildlife, see colorful wildflower displays or look out into the vast Great Basin.
"Regardless of what time of year, the skies are clear enough that you can look out and see a mountain range 100 miles away," said Great Basin superintendent Andy Ferguson, a friendly man whose passion for this park becomes quickly evident. "You get to the point where you can't take something like that for granted anymore."
Susan Geary, who helps operate the gift shop and cafe serving fresh baked goods that is part of the Lehman Caves visitor center, put it another way when asked what she likes about the park.
"The lack of crowds, actually," she said. "It can be a holiday week and be peaceful. It's just amazing. And there is no cell service. That's a plus. People can't find you."
Indeed, modern travelers accustomed to being connected at all times could be disconcerted by the lack of cell-phone service. There almost always seemed to be someone on the single pay telephone at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
The park's highest annual visitation is around 90,000. Last year, just under 70,000 people made the journey across U.S. 6-50 -- once dubbed the loneliest road in America by Life magazine -- despite the fact that the park's facilities are closed only three days a year (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day).
This despite the fact that Lehman Caves were declared a national monument by Warren G. Harding on Jan. 24, 1922, and have been administered by the National Park Service since 1933. Congress created Great Basin National Park -- Nevada's only national park unless you count the part of Death Valley that is in the state -- in 1986.
Many Utahns recall visiting the decorative caves, which require a ticket for a 60- or 90-minute underground tour of the cave. There is no entrance fee to enter Great Basin National Park because the lack of visitation makes it unprofitable to collect.
Jenny Hamilton, a ranger who grew up in nearby Baker -- which the only city of any size for miles and offers restaurants, lodges, groceries and gas -- has been taking visitors through the caves for eight years.
"I still find something new every year," she says before asking: "Are you ready to be amazed?"
In fact, the park does amaze and delight. Few who drive the desolate west desert past Little Sahara Sand Dunes or the Sevier Dry Lake Bed can believe that this is an alpine island oasis of wildflowers, quaking aspens, glaciers and lakes.
"When you have a cloudless night, I have seen contrails so bright with a good moon that they cast a shadow," said Ferguson. "You see more stars than you can imagine. The Milky Way is so demonstrative in this part of the country that it looks like a cloud."
Explorer John C. Fremont, who named the Great Basin in the 1800s, described the place well.
"It is a singular feature, a basin of some 500 miles in diameter in every way between four and five thousand feet above the level of the sea shut in all around by mountains with its own system of lakes and rivers, and having no connection whatsover with the sea," he wrote.
That remains an apt description of a remote place where it is still possible to get away from it all in a modern world.
» Tour Lehman Caves with a ranger. Ninety-and 60-minute tours are offered daily and can be reserved in advance.
» Hike to 13,023-foot Wheeler Peak, Nevada's second highest peak and the tallest in the Great Basin. The hike is 8.6 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 2,900 feet.
» Camp at one of four park campgrounds, all above 7,000 feet in elevation and surrounded by alpine scenery. Wheeler Peak campground, at 9,886 feet elevation, provides a cool place to beat the summer desert heat below.
» Take a three-mile round-trip hike on Wheeler Peak to see bristlecone pines, which, at 4,000 to 5,000 years old, are some of the oldest living things on Earth.
» Fish for trout including Bonneville cutthroat on the streams that flow through the park. A Nevada fishing license is required. There are also mountain lakes in the park.
» Enjoy the nearly 12-mile (one-way) Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, which goes from 7,000 to over 10,000 feet and provides great views, hiking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, overlooks and amazing views of the Great Basin below.
» View wildlife including mule deer, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits, mountain lions, bats, birds and elk. Sixty-seven mammal species have been identified in the park.
» Obtain a backcountry permit and go backpacking in the remote country.
» Learn about American Indians who once lived in the area by visiting the Bureau of Land Management's Baker Archaeological Site just east of the park, visiting the park visitor center in Baker, or viewing Fremont rock writings dating back to A.D. 1000 at Upper Pictograph Cave in the park.
» Take the 1.7-mile one way hike with an 830-foot elevation gain to six-story-high Lexington Arch, an unusual limestone formation (most arches are sandstone).
» Let your kids earn a junior ranger badge by completing educational activities and doing a small service project. Or pick up a themed family field pack that is equipped with a field journal and a large variety of educational tools. Themes include Nature Discovery, Tracking and Night Exploration.
» Enjoy stargazing. Great Basin has the darkest skies of any national park in the lower 48 states, making it an incredible place to see the night skies, especially if you have a telescope.
» Visit the modern visitor center in Baker, Nev., which features a number of hands-on activities that interpret many aspects of Great Basin National Park.
Source » Great Basin National Park
Great Basin Cave millipede » This millipede is about 10 to 200 millimeters long with a cylindrical body. It was found in 2006 and listed as a new species in 2007.
Model Cave harvestman » A predator that is generally found on moist surfaces, it was discovered in 1971 in Model Cave.
Great Basin Cave pseudoscorpion » First collected in Lehman Caves in the late 1930s, this creature is 15 to 20 millimeters long with tan to reddish coloring.
Lehman Caves millipede » Only about 10 millimeters long, this millipede is very white and often found in moist areas on soil or bedrock. It has been found in several caves in the park and one outside the park.
Globular springtail » This tiny -- 1- to 2-millimeter -- round-bodied, rose-colored springtail is usually found with water. A study on it should be completed by year's end.
Rhagidiid mite » This tiny white mite is 1 to 3 millimeters long. It has been sent to a taxonomic specialist and is pending identification.
Campodeid dipluran » Known to live in four park caves, this all-white creature is about 10 to 20 millimeters long with two long antennae and two long tails. It does not have eyes. It is being studied to see if it is unique to the park.
Model Cave amphipod » Discovered last November in water in Model Cave, this shrimplike creature is under study.
Model Cave ostracod » Discovered in water this past January and only in Model Cave, it also is being studied.
Source » Great Basin National Park