Epic parks to visit on a Great Basin Highway road trip

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Rashmi Narayan

Rashmi Narayan

Mention Nevada and most people will think of Las Vegas*. But venture beyond the glittering lights of Sin City and you'll soon discover just how diverse and wild rural Nevada can be.

Open road in the Nevada Great Basin © Poul Riishede - Alamy Stock Photo
Open road in the Nevada Great Basin © Poul Riishede - Alamy Stock Photo

Get a flavour of the natural variety found across the Silver State on a road trip along the Great Basin Highway, part of Route 93, which runs up (or down, depending on your direction) the eastern edge of the state.

It takes you through some of Nevada's most remarkable landscapes including numerous state parks and one national park.

There's something for every outdoor adventurer from conquering snowy peaks in the north to stargazing among Joshua trees in the southern desert.

Here, we look at four of the eight state parks you can visit on your Great Basin Highway road trip: Cathedral Gorge, Kershaw-Ryan, Cave Lake and Valley of Fire.

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Cathedral Gorge State Park

Cathedral Gorge State Park is regarded as the crown jewel of the Caliente area owing to its mystical landscape and impressive slot canyons. A walk past these terracotta-coloured cliffs feels like you're on another planet or the surface of the moon.

This state park is the result of land and lakeshore erosion. The rippled formations of bentonite clay visible throughout the canyons are layers of sediment, mostly volcanic ash, that were deposited over millions of years into the bed of an ancient lake. The lake has long gone but its sediment remains and is now being eroded, mostly by rainfall.

Even today, when there's heavy rain, the clay softens and becomes malleable, which means it is a park with an ever-changing landscape.

Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada © Kojihirano - Adobe Stock Image
Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada © Kojihirano - Adobe Stock Image

Start at the gazebo at Miller Point Overlook, which is a great spot for spectacular views of the canyon, especially at sunrise or sunset. Then hike down the Miller Point Trail into the surreal clay mountains and maze-like spires.

It is a relatively easy hike, especially if it's a dry day making it easier to navigate along the two-mile mud path. There are ample shady spots for a picnic or activities including camping, biking and stargazing.

Kershaw-Ryan State Park

The spectacular valley of Kershaw-Ryan State Park on the outskirts of Nevada's Rose City of Caliente is an all-season destination and a nature lover's dream.

In the spring, amidst the rugged desert landscape, there are wildflowers, grapevines and rose gardens that come to life. Cold springs trickle through the lush grounds and also feed a small koi pond.

It is also a great park to spot wildlife; expect to see deer, coyotes, wild horses, mountain lions and reptiles like rattlesnakes.

In the summer months, there are barbecue facilities on-site at every picnic table. The autumnal hues on the trees during the fall season are a sight to behold and make for striking photos.

Meanwhile, in the winter, the dark skies are ideal for stargazing and the high altitude provides a good chance to watch the Geminid meteor shower in December.

Cave Lake State Park

Deep in rural Nevada, you'll find Cave Lake State Park, which is also a 32-acre reservoir with exceptional opportunities for the adventurous soul.

The pristine lake is excellent for swimming, boating and kayaking. It is also home to fish such as rainbow trout and German brown trout.

As well as offering steep hikes and the chance to camp by the turquoise blue lake, it is one of Nevada's best spots for mountain biking. In the colder months, there are winter activities such as skating, cross-country skiing, ice fishing and snowmobiling.

Valley of Fire State Park

If you have time to explore only one state park during your visit, then make it Valley of Fire State Park, just an hour or so from Las Vegas. At sunset, the fiery red sandstone formations make the desert look like it's on fire.

Rock outcrop in the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada © Sergii Figurnyi - Adobe Stock Image
Rock outcrop in the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada © Sergii Figurnyi - Adobe Stock Image

Amidst lizards, bighorn sheep, antelope squirrels and native birds that flock to the area, remnants of the valley's prehistoric past are evident in the form of petroglyphs on the walls of these deep red-faced rocks.

Though there are many viewpoints, don't miss the panoramic red and white striped Rainbow Vista, Atlatl Rock for petroglyphs and Mouse Tank Road for the quintessential desert landscape.

Stargazing in Nevada's state parks

The best part about the state parks in eastern and northern Nevada is the complete lack of light pollution from large cities. This ensures they're some of the darkest skies in the world where stargazers are guaranteed to experience some stellar solitude.

The Milky Way on a clear night at Cathedral Gorge - photo courtesy of Nevada Division of State Parks
The Milky Way on a clear night at Cathedral Gorge - photo courtesy of Nevada Division of State Parks

Ideally, you'll want to find a new moon night and look up, where you'll be rewarded with millions of stars, constellations and the Milky Way, all visible to the naked eye.

The Great Basin Astronomy Festival is held in the Great Basin National Park each September and caters to both budding stargazing enthusiasts and experts.

Which is the best direction to drive the Great Basin Highway? If starting in Las Vegas, you will drive from south to north. The section of Route 93 known as the Great Basin Highway starts just outside Las Vegas and ends at Great Basin National Park.

If you use Reno as your base, you will drive from north to south. But first, you need to get to Great Basin National Park along Route 50, also known as the 'Loneliest Road in America'. The scenery along this road gets increasingly more dramatic as you make your way east, with a real Wild West feel. It's up to you!

When is the best time to go?

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit and the roads tend to be quieter then too. Expect blooming wildflowers and cloudless blue skies in March and, by September, the fall colours steal the show.

Spring flowers in the Pine Forest Range north of Reno © Bob Wick & Rita Ayers - Flickr Creative Commons
Spring flowers in the Pine Forest Range north of Reno © Bob Wick & Rita Ayers - Flickr Creative Commons

Early October to late November is cooler in the desert but also a great window for longer stargazing periods and winter activities. Northern towns near Great Basin National Park experience occasional sleet and snowstorms, which could shut roads in the late fall months.

Weather in Nevada

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The above guide shows the weather in Las Vegas. Find out more about the weather across the state in our complete guide to the weather in Nevada.

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Rashmi Narayan

Rashmi Narayan
Posted on Friday 30th December 2022 in: Adventure City Excursions Nature North America

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