Several environmental factors have had profound effects on the region's ecology and human history.
The uplift of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west create a rain shadow and make the Great Basin the desert that it is. Because of the northern latitude and relatively high elevations, the Great Basin is considered a cold desert. The high elevation of Great Basin National Park results in greater precipitation at higher levels leading to a wide diversity of plant and animal life.
This desert environment is punctuated by many north-south trending mountain ranges. Some of these reach summits of 12,000 or 13,000 feet. These ranges are separated by lower valleys, creating "islands" of habitat types. This allows for high levels of endemism. Often a species may be found in one mountain range but not another where it would seem to thrive, just because there is no mechanism for it to cross the desert in the valley floors.
The desert climate and many mountain ranges do not allow any surface streams to flow from this region to the sea. The Great Basin region was named for this feature of drainage. Great Basin National Park is only a small part of the Great Basin region.
Human lives have also been affected by the environmental factors of this region. Difficulty traveling over the desert playas and mountain passes and low rainfall made the area hard to settle. Yet gold, silver, and other precious ores lured miners to the region and farmers and ranchers soon followed. Today, water is still the limiting resource for both man, wildlife, and plant life.