Great Basin National Park Remains a Place of Solitude Despite Record Numbers of Visitors

Between Ibapah, Utah, and Tippets Ranch, White Pine County, Nevada. Date and photographer are unknown - University of Michigan Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection

Great Basin National Park’s attendance records over time tell a story. The dips and climbs of numbers mirror the highs and lows of America. A dive and an arc reflect WWII and the resurgent post-war years. A brief descent signifies the Great Recession. Last year, numbers tumbled as Americans retreated into their homes due to the COVID pandemic.

This year, the numbers started rising and continued to rise. And rise. By May 2021, GBNP experienced a 25 percent increase in visitors as compared to 2019; a rate of increase exceeding the current phenomenon in the nation’s most popular parks – Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains. With campgrounds rapidly filling, GBNP may pass its record year, 2017, when the park welcomed 168,028 guests.

But why the interest in Great Basin?

GBNP is one of the least attended national parks in the country. Secluded in an outlying region of eastern Nevada, its 77,100 acres are 234 miles from the nearest city, Salt Lake City. The closest airport is in Cedar City, Utah, 142 miles away. The path leading to the park, the long-forgotten Lincoln Highway, was bypassed years ago by interstate travelers for its modern sister – I-80. In 1986, Life magazine called Highway 50 “the loneliest road in America.”

An ancient bristlecone pine in the Great Basin National Park – photo: National Park Service, licensed under CC PDM 1.0

And yet, it’s this isolated quality that visitors seek.

“I think one of the reasons people come out in the middle of nowhere is because we are one of the most remote national parks in the lower 48. And what that offers is the removal of light pollution.” Charles Reed should know. He’s the Program Lead Ranger for the Astronomy Program at Great Basin.

“There are portions of the world, including the eastern seaboard in the US, where a good night sky is no longer visible. I think that draws people to something they don’t have at home.” Over 10,000 visitors experienced Great Basin’s astronomy program in 2019.

With the clear night skies come solitude. This is the lure of the park, said Reed. “Even on the busiest days, you can go down some of the trails and maybe see one other person.” According to an Airbnb report, Americans are seeking remote location spots this year. Rural stays made up nearly 70 percent of searches for Memorial Day Weekend vacations. A Priceline survey discovered 60 percent of travelers wanted to go “off the grid” for post-pandemic holidays. 

Combined with the current popularity of road trips, it’s no surprise national parks are now seeing record numbers of guests. And with road travel comes growth in RV use. More people than ever before own RVs. And they’re traveling to national parks. Great Basin National Park alone saw a 93 percent rise in RV stays. In 2021, park administrators providently implemented a new reservation system, which has been an unqualified success. With previous “first-come, first-serve” policies, campsites often filled by 10 in the morning. Now unapprised travelers are not faced with finding a last-minute alternative site in a location with limited options.

While Americans sought nature’s reprieve during 2020 as an antidote to the loneliness of seclusion, now people crave the outdoors for a different reason. According to a recent report by the American Psychological Association, individuals are experiencing higher stress levels than in 2020. Though vaccinations have eased COVID fears, societal, political, and economic uncertainties loom. It’s not surprising people continue to seek the mental health benefits of outdoor activities. And it is no wonder they travel to national parks. For many, Great Basin National Park fits the bill. 

Wheeler Peak and Stella Lake, Great Basin National Park – photo: Frank Kovalchek, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sixty-six years ago, a small group of residents in White Pine County sought to establish a national park in their remote corner of Nevada and capture a share of the state’s tourism money. With the rediscovery of a small glacier on Wheeler Peak by conservationist Weldon F. Heald, the movement for a new protected park gained national attention from such groups as the Sierra Club and the National Parks Association. 

In the October 9th, 1955 issue of the Nevada State Journal, Heald wrote of the proposed national park, “As the population grows and fast-paced modern civilization encroaches upon our last remnants of original wilderness, we will increasingly need such unspoiled, outdoor recreational areas as this high, inspiring country round about Wheeler Peak.”

It would take another thirty-one years for Great Basin National Park to be established and formally protected.

Today the glacier perseveres at the base of Wheeler Peak, a vestige of the Last Glacial Period when worldwide average temperatures were seven degrees cooler than today. Despite a rapidly retreating glacier, Great Basin National Park is still the unspoiled area of a “high, inspiring country” that shields visitors from the anxiety of modern life and the uncertainty of the times.