Nevada National Parks: Fossils, Historic Trails, and Lake Mead

View of Lake Mead and Hoover dam, horizontal

Derek E. Rothchild / Getty Images

Nevada national parks celebrate the beauty of desert environments at Lake Mead and the Great Basin, the fossil beds of 100,000 years ago, and the massive historic migrations of people across its vast basin and range landscape. 

Nevada National Parks Map
NPS Map of the national parks in the state of Nevada. National Park Service

According to the National Park Service, there are four national parks that are at least partially located within Nevada's boundaries, including monuments, parks, and recreation areas. The parks receive nearly 6 million visitors each year.

Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park
Sunset at Alpine Lakes Trail in the Great Basin National Park of Nevada.

jezdicek / Getty Images Plus

The Great Basin National Park, located near Baker in the east-central part of Nevada near the border with Utah, is dedicated to the geology and history of the Great Basin. The Great Basin is a huge depression within a ring of mountains where no rainwater escapes outward. It is part of the Basin and Range region, a major portion of the American continent made up of a series of long narrow mountain ranges separated by equally long flat valleys.

The earliest archaeological sites in the Great Basin are 12,000 years old, and the most recent indigenous people were the Shoshone Native Americans and their ancestors who lived here first between 1500–700 years ago. The oldest living residents of the park are the trees: Douglas firs likely live upward of 1,000 years; limber pines 3,000 years, and Great Basin bristlecone pines have been documented to live for at least 4,900 years. 

Ancient art in the park includes pictographs and dendroglyphs. In Upper Pictograph Cave, visitors can see pictographs—ancient carved and painted images of animals and humans and abstractions—thought to have been made by the Fremont culture residents between about 1000–1300 CE. Dendroglyphs—signs carved into aspen trees—date to the late 1800s, when Basque shepherds from the Pyrenees Mountains of France and Spain lived in the region. Preserved carvings include dates and words in Spanish and Basque. In the late 1900s, huge sheep farms hired herders from Peru, who added their own carvings; and there are others, such as early settlers and tourists. But the carved trees won't last as long as the pictographs: aspens only live about 70 years.

Don't be tempted to add your own carving: altering historic and prehistoric resources in the park is not permitted.

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
Badlands erosion desert scenery at Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Nevada. Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images Plus

Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, located in southeastern Nevada not far from Las Vegas, is a relatively new park, established in late December 2014. Here, paleontologists are continuing to discover enormous amounts of fossils making up one of the most significant late Pleistocene (Rancholabrean) vertebrate assemblages in the American Southwest. 

The remains of the Pleistocene fauna discovered here in the late 1960s date back some 100,000–12,500 years ago and include a range of now-extinct fauna such as North American lion, Colombian mammoth, horses, bison, and camels; as well as many smaller rodents, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Over 200 mammoths and 350 camels have been found to date. Plant macrofossils and pollen also occur in the deposits and they provide important and complementary paleoenvironmental information.

Because the park is so new, currently there are no visitor centers, other facilities or parking areas, although you can enter the monument on foot to see stunning vistas. Excavations at the site are ongoing and being conducted by the San Bernardino County Museum under Federal permits. The museum has an exhibit and maintains the growing fossil collections. 

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Boat on Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

CrackerClips / Getty Images Plus

Lake Mead National Recreation Area includes and is named for Lake Mead itself, which was created by the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River between 1931 and 1936. The park falls into southeastern Nevada and into northwestern Arizona, where the Colorado River carved out the Grand Canyon. 

The park is one of the most ecologically diverse in the country, with environments ranging from deep canyons, dry washes, sheer cliffs, distant mountain ranges, two enormous lakes, colorful rock formations, and mosaics of different vegetation types. In addition to fishing, swimming, boating, and other water sports opportunities on Lake Mead, the park includes nine wilderness areas, nestled in the canyons and providing adventurous visitor access to forests and deserts, steep mountains and shorelines, cottonwood stands and deserts, slot canyons and secluded valleys. 

Lake Mead is also home to the first floating green building registered to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in the world. The floating eco-friendly structure features sustainable modular construction and state-of-the-art energy-efficient and environmentally responsible materials and fixtures. As a member of the Pacific West Region, the park is also involved in the first regional effort in the National Park Service to become carbon neutral, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating its impact on climate change. 

Historic Trails in Nevada

Pony Express National Trail
Eureka, Nevada main street with historic architecture in a western style on the Pony Express National Trial auto route. Boogich / iStock Unleased / Getty Images

Crossing through Nevada are three major historic intercontinental roadways which were used by Euroamerican settlers and others on their way westward to California. The National Park Service has established marked routes along highways for people to explore on self-guided automobile tours. The NPS has provided an interactive GIS map of routes through the United States called National Historical Trails that is very useful but a bit slow-loading. 

The northernmost route (or rather routes) is the California National Historic Trail, which saw the greatest mass migration in American history when it carried over 250,000 gold-seekers and farmers during the 1840s and 1850s. The trail includes more than 1,000 miles of trail ruts and traces in Nevada, and there are multiple autoroutes crossing the state along or near those pathways. Mormon Station near Genoa, Nevada, is a state park with a museum and exhibits dedicated to the California Trail.

The Pony Express National Historic Trail runs through central Nevada, wending its way between the Great Basin National Park and Carson City. From 1860–1861, young men on fast horses carried the nation's mail from Missouri to California in the then-unprecedented time of only ten days. The relay system became the nation's most direct and practical means of east-west communications before the telegraph. Several communities along the route have established related parks and resources

The southern-most trail route is also the earliest, the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, three trails linking land-locked New Mexico with coastal California between 1829 and 1848. Over this trail moved mule trains of people, goods, and ideas; the autoroutes cross between Mesquite on the east and California's Mohave National Preserve on the west. Old Spanish Trail Park in Clark County has a marked hiking trail. 

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Nevada National Parks: Fossils, Historic Trails, and Lake Mead." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 29). Nevada National Parks: Fossils, Historic Trails, and Lake Mead. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Nevada National Parks: Fossils, Historic Trails, and Lake Mead." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).