Great Basin Adventure: Reno’s Abandoned Theme Park

How many of you knew that Reno used to have a theme park? I’m genuinely curious because I’m not sure how popular it ever was. Even though it’s a fairly recent memory, it also feels obscure enough that most people might not know about it. There’s very little info about it online, and I only went once while it was open. I’m not talking about Wild Island, or the carnival rides that were once at Idlewild Park, I’m talking about the Great Basin Adventure.

This small park sat in Rancho San Rafael Park in northwest Reno, next door to the Wilbur D. May Museum. It was a full-fledged theme park with an admission fee, though there was little inside to justify the fee. There was a replica mine building, not quite as detailed as the mine at the Nevada State Museum but along those same lines. There was a petting zoo, a playground, and pony rides. And what might be considered the crown jewel of the park was a log flume ride, just like Disneyland and Six Flags have, where you were sent careening over a waterfall in a fiberglass log.

According to this website, one of the few that has info about the park, the admission fee was $5 for adults and $3.50 for children. For that price you didn’t even get access to the log ride; that was $2 extra. This review mentions a $10 day pass that includes unlimited log rides. And that’s about all the info I can find on the park. It closed down in 2010, when budget cuts left it with no money to operate. I’m not sure when it opened, but the announcement about it closing mentioned that some of the facilities were over 20 years old. So I would suppose that it existed in some form since the 1980s?

The closure was not the end of the Great Basin Adventure, though. Where many closed theme parks are padlocked and left to rot, they went a different route with Great Basin Adventure. Since it was already located in a county park, with grounds and maintenance personnel already on payroll, they decided to remove the admission fee, open the gates to everyone, and only close down the parts of the park that required extra costs to operate. That meant the log ride, pony rides, and petting zoo were shut down. The mine exhibit was padlocked. The landscaping was let go wild. But the playground, walking trails, and picnic facilities have been left open to the public. At some point it was renamed “Nevada Farms and Families.” Nowadays there’s not much evidence of its former life, aside from the eerie abandoned log ride and a few other telltale remnants. Visitors today would see it as an interesting corner of a larger park and little else.

But this post wouldn’t be worth publishing if it stopped there. The most extensive documentation I have of the park is from the one time I visited there, in 2006. That was 4 years before it closed, though I obviously didn’t realize it at the time. I had the foresight to take many pictures, not knowing that one day they would become a historical record. So let’s take a visit to the Great Basin Adventure, accompanied by recent photos showing how much change has happened in the last 12 years.

The Entrance

From the parking lot you can see an immediate difference. There used to be a large sign advertising the Great Basin Adventure, in a manicured flower bed. Now the sign is gone and the flower bed has been allowed to grow. The admission gate/park office still stands, but there’s no real indication what this building is supposed to be, or what sits behind it.

The “entrance” portal no longer advertises itself as an entrance, but it still stands in good shape.

The signs about Rancho San Rafael and the attractions therein are the same, except for the one on the far left that is a map of Great Basin Adventure. That one has been covered up.

A closeup of the old sign from 2006 shows a map of the different sections inside the park.

Another map, found elsewhere in the park, was more detailed and accurate.

The entrance portal has been kept up nicely. The little boy in the green sweater is all grown up now; you’ll see him posing in many of these pictures.

Just inside the entrance, past the admission gates and the gift shop, was a directional sign showing you how to get to the different parts of the park.

This is a good example of how they’ve let nature reclaim parts of this park. This pavilion used to sit overlooking a little pond; now the pond is hidden in the undergrowth and you can hardly see the pavilion at all. It doesn’t look messy, necessarily; some care still seems to be taken to keep it all trimmed. But it’s not as sculpted as it used to be.

Dino Playground

These dinosaurs are still here for kids to play on. To the right are more dinosaurs, and swings and slides. The playground is basically the same.

The Farm

Through this artificial canyon and under the bridge is the way to the Farm area of the park. For the most part they kept the infrastructure of the park intact (with notable exceptions you’ll see later). You can still go both above and below this bridge.

Just past the bridge is the Discovery Room. This room was sort of both a museum and an activity center for children. And it still serves largely the same purpose. Parks and rec staff opens the center sometimes for events under the “Nevada Farms and Families” theme.

The farm area was home to the petting zoo and pony rides. The buildings are still there but the the animals are gone, a victim of budget cuts. On the day I visited they did have turkeys and chickens in coops there, so it’s not completely barren.

The tack room was where the pony rides were located.

“Wilbur’s Farm” has been painted but it is closed and locked up.

The petting zoo is no more, though all the enclosures still remain if they ever feel like bringing it back.

Waterfall and Stream

Across from the farm was this waterfall. Nature has definitely been allowed to take hold here. The waterfall structure still exists but I doubt they pump water through it anymore. And it is slowly being swallowed by the vegetation.

The waterfall is one place where I’d maybe use the word “overgrown”. I felt like I needed a machete to walk down this path.

But the waterfall structure is still a cool little tunnel to walk through. The money they put into building this up as a theme park does show in areas like this. A regular city or county park wouldn’t have an artificial waterfall with sculpted rockwork like this.

The water from the waterfall fed into a small stream that meandered through part of the park. Here there was a bridge that crossed the stream. The bridge has been removed.

If you know what to look for, you can see the bridge abutments still sitting there. If you don’t know about it you might just walk by.

The stream went into a marshy little wetland area, which has also been allowed to grow wild.

Double Diamond Mine

In the photo of the missing bridge above, you may have noticed something else missing in the background. I said that they had left most of the buildings alone, but there is one major exception. The centerpiece of the park, sitting literally in the center of it, was the Double Diamond Mine. As you can see, the mine did not survive.

The mine was one of the first things you saw in the park unless you headed off for the playground or the farm. It was straight ahead from the entrance, with these sweeping trestles heading towards it. You can see that one of the trestles has been removed.

The trestle to the left still exists, as it is how you get to the bridge seen earlier. But in the background you can see another one that has been removed.

The mine was meant to be a replica of a real Nevada mine. The upper floors were just kind of empty and airy, but in the lower levels there were narrow tunnels with scenes of mining activity. There were also a couple of slides between the levels, providing some entertainment for the kids.

I’m not sure why the mine was removed. The other buildings in the park were just locked and still remain today, and many of them are still used for special occasions. Perhaps the security concerns were just too much. They didn’t want people to be able to break into the mine and hide in the dark tunnels and get up to criminal activity. Or something.

I revisited the park in 2010, the first summer after it had stopped being an theme park, and the mine was just boarded up. When I went back again in 2016 it was gone, and seemed like it had been for some time. There were many entrances to the mine, as you’ve been seeing here. This one was in the back near the waterfall.

Like most of the stuff that’s been removed from the park, you’d never really know it was gone if not for a couple of weird little stub paths.

Inside the Mine

Obviously I can’t take any “Now” pictures of the inside of the mine, so here are some views from 2006.

There were lots of entrances all around the mine.

The top floor had an enclosed slide that went down to the lower floor.

There was another slide and stairs that got you down to the basement “mine” level.

The mine level tried to duplicate what it would look like inside a typical hard rock mine.

Several figures showed the different jobs that the miners had underground.

The mine was definitely one of the most interesting parts of the park; I wish they could have kept it somehow. It is nothing more than a memory now though.

Pan For Gold

Nearby the mine they had an area where you could pan for gold. The roof of the pavilion still stands, but everything else from this operation is gone.

Log Flume

Even with all that, probably the most memorable part of the park is the log flume. Located all the way at the back, this was the only actual “ride” in this theme park. It was also an extra charge to ride.

Log flumes are a pretty standard theme park staple. A floating fiberglass log floats in a narrow channel of water. It is lifted up a hill, then slides down a waterfall at the other end. They are based on actual log flumes like the ones that used to operate in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the 1800s, which were a quick way to get chopped-down trees from a high elevation to a low one. I presume that link to Nevada history was how this ride ended up in the Great Basin Adventure. But they’re also a popular amusement park ride so it makes sense to have one.

After the park closed in 2010, the log ride was shuttered. The ride was expensive to operate and maintain, and was presumably a major factor in deciding it was too expensive to keep the park open.

In the years since the park closed, the weeds have been left to grow unchecked in the area around the log flume. The flume has sat dry, and dust and trash has collected in parts.

Where the landscaping used to be nice and sculpted, now there are dead trees and brown grass.

The wooden fences and the wood on the lift hill are all faded and cracking. The flume itself seems to be in decent shape, but there’s no telling if cracks have formed in the concrete that would prevent it from being filled with water again. Theoretically the ride could be fixed up and reopened, but with every year that goes by the cost of doing so rises. I doubt we’ll ever see the return of this ride. It will probably continue decaying until they come up with the funds to dismantle what’s left of it.

A couple of shots of the flume in its better days.

The flume is abandoned, but the queue building has been repurposed. Though it was closed the day I visited the park, I could peek inside and see that it has become kind of a museum for farm equipment.

Where once you would line up to board the boats, now you can look at vintage tractors and other farming equipment. It’s another good way to reuse one of the abandoned buildings of the park.

Last Thoughts

While Great Basin Adventure never matched up to the fun and excitement provided by something like Six Flags or other regional theme parks around the country, it was something nice and unique about Reno that could be a fun day with kids. Now it’s been lost, but it can still make for an interesting outing if you have an hour or two to kill. Having experienced it when it was open can make me appreciate visiting it now much more, since I know what was lost and what still remains. Even though so much is gone, the layout of the park still makes it unlike any other city park you can find in Northern Nevada. Exploring the rockwork and bridges and buildings that remain still provides a fun afternoon for my kids and me. It’s unlikely that Northern Nevada will ever get a true theme park, but we did, for a brief time, have a quirky unique one to call our own.

3 comments

  1. I have fond memories of accompanying my kids on school field trips to this adventure land. Thanks for sharing the fascinating then-and-now photos. (My, how your little guy has grown!) You’ve inspired me to go take another look around. I guess it’s just another Nevada ghost town now.

  2. I have many fond memories of going there as a little kid in the late 80’s and early 90’s. My grandmother was a volunteer in the discovery room at the time. My husband and I sat and reminisced about the things we remember doing there when we were little and your photos helped us remember more. Thank you so much for posting. And we had no idea you could still go walk around! That’s something we are now going to go do. Thanks again!

  3. I grew up on Arcane (the street that enters the West end of the park). I have fond memories of playing in the park in the early 80’s, and was definitely excited when the Great Basin Adventure opened; I think I was in middle school at the time.

    Years later, I was able to take my own children there and ride all of the rides. The log flume was great fun, and my kids absolutely loved the slides that went into the mine. If I ever win the lottery, one of the first things I would do is set up a fund to bring back the Great Basin Adventure; this city desperately needs more family activities like it.

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