The Great Basin National Heritage Area has a wealth of natural attractions. Everything from caves to ancient trees to lava tubes dot the landscape of Millard County, Utah, and White Pine County, Nevada. This region is also one of the darkest in the country and is an excellent location for stargazing and soaking up the wonder of dark night skies.
*This area is a very remote region with limited services and spotty cell service. Please be knowledgeable and prepared prior to embarking on your adventure.
Lehman Caves, found in Great Basin National Park, are a hidden treasure. Discovered in 1885, this cave system features thousands of formations like stalactites, stalagmites, drapery and popcorn. It also is home to roughly 300 cave shields, an extremely rare type of formation. The tour takes you through half a mile of decorated passages, with stops in the larger rooms. Open year round, Lehman Caves is a popular destination for visitors and tours do sell out frequently in the summer. Buying your tickets in advance is recommended.
About 70 miles southwest of Ely, NV on US highway 6, you will see the sign for Duckwater, a Shoshone Tribe community. This agricultural community draws water from the Big Warm spring, Nevada’s largest geothermal hot spring. In addition to providing water to the community, this spring is home to the threatened species, Railroad Valley Spring fish. The Shoshone have done work to restore the fish’s habitat. Part of that restoration included digging a pond that the public can use as a swimming hole. With deep, clear water that is the perfect temperature for swimming (91-93°F) Big Warm Springs is a beautiful place to stop, take in the scenery, learn about the history of the area and have a refreshing swim. There are no gas stations in this area, and cell service is limited.
Crystal Peak, known for its stark white color that separates it from the landscape all around, is thought to have been formed when a nearby volcano erupted 33 million years ago. It is made up of tuff (material that is thrown out from a volcano during eruption) with many quartz crystals embedded. The reflection from these crystals on a sunny day give the mountain an almost glittery appearance. Native Americans told Mormon explorers about the mountain, and in 1855 the White Mountain Mission reached Crystal Peak for the first time. Today, the area around the peak is still uninhabited. A road leads up to the base of the mountain, with a camping area just to the north. There are no trails to the summit and no services of any kind, including cell service. Be prepared with water, food, first aid kit and sturdy hiking gear. The surface of the mountain can be sharp, so wear proper footwear.
550 million years ago, the Great Basin Desert was beneath a shallow, tropical ocean. Over millions of years, the shells and skeletons of sea creatures sunk to the bottom of the ocean, creating the shale and limestone that covers much of western Utah and Nevada today. Buried in these layers of rock is a fossil record that is extensive and easily accessible. Fossil Mountain, outside of Delta, Utah, is an excellent place for fossil hunters of all experience levels. Spend the day searching for shell, invertebrate, trilobites and other fossils. The mountain is on Bureau of Land Management land, so there is no fee for gathering fossils.
About 30 miles north of Baker, NV is Gandy, UT. Gandy is a small town, with just a few homes marking it as such. Here, in this apparently empty landscape, you will find both Crystal Ball Cave and Gandy Warm Springs. The cave, located on Bureau of Land Management land, is run by Jerald and Marlene Bates. After a short hike through the valley desert, you will enter a cave filled with large crystals, called nailhead spar. Walking in the cave has been described as like walking into a giant geode. In addition to the beautiful crystals, prehistoric fossils are also found in the cave. Tours are by appointment only, so call ahead to arrange one. Gandy Warm Springs is found at the foot of the same isolated mountain the cave is in. A lukewarm 80 degrees, this spring is best for hot summer days. Two watering holes are accessible and are open to the public year–round. There are no facilities or cell service here, so come prepared.
Great Basin bristlecone pines are the oldest trees on earth. Found only in the Great Basin Desert, usually atop mountains over 10,000 feet high, these remarkable trees can live up to 5,000 years. Their extreme age is not just awe inspiring but allows researchers to gain all kinds of information. Past climate and forest fires are recorded in these trees’ rings. Scientists can even compare the rings of old living trees to dead trees that are still standing and create a picture of local climate that goes back 10,000 years. In Great Basin National Park, the Ancient Bristlecone Forest is just a 1.5-mile hike from the top of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. High elevations can bring on altitude sickness, dehydration and sudden weather changes, so bring food and water and be prepared before you start this hike.
Garnet Hill is a designated rock hounding site located four miles northwest of Ely, Nevada. It’s easily accessible though not recommended for RVs. Bring your hammers and chisels to break apart garnet-bearing rocks, or just enjoy nature in the limited camping and picnic areas. (No water is available.)
The Pahvant Valley Heritage Trail is a collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management and the Millard County Tourism Board to connect Delta and Fillmore, UT, by scenic back roads. Stops along the way include Fort Deseret, Great Stone Face, Sunstone Knoll, Clear Lake, Devils Kitchen Petroglyphs, Pahvant Butte, Lace Curtain, Lava Tubes, and Hole-in-the-Rock Petroglyphs. Many of the access roads are dirt and some are very rough; this trail is best done with an all-wheel-drive, high clearance vehicle. Some of the access points are best done in an ATV or on foot. There are no services, including cell service, and GPS units can be unreliable. Be prepared with food, water, and enough fuel.
Throughout Millard County you can see remains of volcanic activity. While there are no active volcanoes currently in this area, the high number of hot springs suggests there is still a lot of geothermal activity, such as hot spots, not too far below the surface. Just off Highway 257, in the Black Rock Desert area, you can see several extinct volcanoes, noticeable for their shape. There are no formal tours of the lava tubes, but plenty of opportunities to hike and explore on your own. Many of the volcanic rocks and crystals are sharp, so do wear proper footwear and be careful as you hike around.