A loop around the edge of America's largest desert, through five states (Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and California), visiting such places as Antelope Island, Black Rock Desert, Bodie, Cathedral Gorge, Little Sahara, Lunar Crater, Mono Lake, Pyramid Lake, Warner Valley and Great Basin National Park
Loop, beginning at Salt Lake City
2,100 miles, 3,380 km
11 days minimum; 15 days or more with optional side trips
Spring and fall are best, though summers are not too hot
Map of the Great Basin Desert Itinerary
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Day 1 - Salt Lake City to Tremonton, 160 miles
The tour starts by driving north from Salt Lake City on I-15, to perhaps the best place to view the vast, shimmering landscapes of the Great Salt Lake; Antelope Island State Park
. This is centered on a stark, treeless mountain, connected to the mainland by a causeway, and is also home to a herd of bison. The next location, Golden Spike National Historic Site
, lies just north of the lake, and commemorates the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Attractions include old grades, a short section of preserved railway and two replica steam trains.
Day 2 - Tremonton to Twin Falls, 185 miles
Not far across the border in Idaho, City of Rocks National Reserve
is one of the West's least known NPS units, containing large outcrops of angular, eroded granite, together with a good variety of plant life. This lies right at the north edge of the Great Basin; the route continues by crossing to the open plains of the Columbia Plateau, to Twin Falls on the Snake River.
Day 3 - Twin Falls to Burns, 320 miles
Continuing west, US 30 provides a quieter alternative to I-84, passing two notable sites, Thousand Springs State Park
(a collection of cascades and springs close to the Snake River), and Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. The interstate is followed briefly to Mountain Home, before taking backroads, some unpaved, across the Owyhee Mountains and the Oregon stateline, returning to the Great Basin. Although very empty and desolate, this section of southeast Oregon
has many places of interest, such as the rock formations, lava flows and wetlands which are encountered en route to Burns.
Day 4 - Burns to Lakeview, 170 miles
The route south of Burns passes the riparian landscapes of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the volcanic formations of the Diamond Craters and the grasslands of Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, before descending into Warner Valley, one of the most spectacular regions of southeast Oregon
, where several shallow, interconnected lakes are bordered to the east by a dramatic escarpment. The night is spent a little way south at Lakeview.
Optional extra day: Other areas of southeast Oregon
, such as Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert and Borax Hot Springs
Day 5 - Lakeview to Reno, 280 miles
Lakeview also lies just outside the Great Basin, in a wooded valley, but the desert scenery quickly returns when driving southeast, mostly on unpaved roads, through an almost completely uninhabited region of Nevada to the Black Rock Desert
, site of the Burning Man festival. The route continues south past dry lake beds and barren mountains to Pyramid Lake
, a beautiful, deep blue expanse of water lined by scattered tufa formations. From here Nevada's second city Reno is 30 miles away.
Day 6 - Reno to Lee Vining, 175 miles
US 395 south of Reno comes within sight of the Sierra Nevada but stays in the Great Basin Desert, winding through hilly land with several small lakes, across the California stateline and to the turn-off for Bodie State Historical Park
, which preserves the most complete and authentic Western ghost town. Next stop is not far south on the north shore of Mono Lake
, where some unusual, photogenic ravines have formed in a volcanic outcrop (Black Point
Optional extra day(s): Lake Tahoe
, and/or the Tuolumne Meadows
area of Yosemite National Park, the entrance to which is 12 miles from Lee Vining
Day 7 - Lee Vining to Tonopah, 130 miles
The south shore of Mono Lake also has several worthwhile sites, including South Tufa Formations
and Panum Crater
. The route east soon joins US 6 which crosses back into Nevada and reaches the small city of Tonopah.
Optional extra day: more driving along some of Nevada's scenic backroads, such as NV 376
and US 50
Day 8 - Tonopah to Pioche, 260 milesLunar Crater National Natural Landmark
features varied volcanic formations in a very remote part of central Nevada, reached by heading east along US 6/50 then taking an unpaved backroad. Past the formations, the track joins the north end of NV 375, known as the Extraterrestrial Highway
due to its proximity to Nellis Air Force Base and Area 51. This meets US 93, which continues east across a wide, Joshua tree-filled basin (Delamar Valley), and to Cathedral Gorge State Park
, a fascinating collection of pinnacles, hoodoos, narrow ravines and short caves.
Optional extra day: Las Vegas
, 110 miles south along US 93
Day 9 - Pioche to Baker, 130 miles
Perhaps the best known location within the Great Basin, and the only NPS unit entirely in Nevada, is Great Basin National Park
, a mountainous preserve with summits as high as 13,063 feet (Wheeler Peak). The nearest major town is Ely, 60 miles west, but basic lodging is available much closer at the tiny settlement of Baker.
Day 10 - Baker to Delta, 120 miles
Most of day ten is also spent in Great Basin National Park
, perhaps taking a tour of the Lehman Caves
, or hiking along some of the many trails. The next part of the journey is eastwards, still along US 6/50, into Utah, passing several lesser mountain ranges and the north edge of Sevier Lake, to Delta, a sprawling town in the middle of the Sevier Desert.
Day 11 - Delta to Salt Lake City, 165 miles
Although mostly a park for ORV enthusiasts, Little Sahara Recreation Area
is a scenic, photogenic location, specially where the sands rise up to a narrow ridge (Sand Mountain), the top of which gives good views over the Sevier Desert. The Great Basin loop is completed by driving along the tranquil west side of Utah Lake back to Salt Lake City.