Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park


One of America’s newest national parks is also one of the most remote.  Great Basin National Park is a long way from anywhere.  The nearest towns are Ely, Nevada (60 miles west) and Delta, Utah (90 miles east), and it’s a long way beyond either of those towns to anything bigger.

As the hours of Day 7 ticked away, I was getting a lesson in the park’s remoteness.  I had started the day in Moab — 320 miles from Great Basin National Park.  I had driven through drizzle and snow, across the lonely middle of Utah, all with the intention of timing my arrival perfectly, to make the final tour of Lehman Caves — one of the park’s two major attractions (the other being 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, which was completely hidden by the weather on this day).  After hours of watching my watch, staring at my speedometer, and calculating possible arrival times…

…I made it to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center with less than 20 minutes to spare.  The final few miles were the most worrying.  It had started to pour the snow…

… and the drive from Baker, Nevada to the cave entrance gained a lot of altitude.  For a guy from Florida, this was some of the worst winter weather I had seen in quite a while.  I wondered if I would emerge from the cave after my tour, only to discover a foot of snow blocking the road.  Would I be stuck here all night?  I didn’t have enough time to worry about it.  My tour was about to begin.

I’m the kind of person who likes to fall back to the rear of a group tour, and mind my own business as the crowd proceeds.  That wasn’t an option this time.  There were only two other people on the tour with me, plus the guide.  Sometimes in the winter, the guide told us, the park would go for days or weeks without seeing a single visitor.  For early April, I guess, this was a huge crowd.

After a briefing outside the entrance (which included the all-important cave advice: don’t touch the cave’s formations!), we walked through the door, down a tunnel…

… and into the cave.  At our first stop, our park ranger explained the early days of exploring Lehman Caves, then flipped a switch and turned off his flashlight, to show us exactly what those brave spelunkers faced.

Absalom Lehman was the first man to discover the caves, probably around 1883.  Lehman had established a ranch near the cave, and started giving tours in 1885.  He hoped to develop the caverns into a tourist attraction, but his health failed and he died in 1891.

Any time I’m in a cave, I inevitably start comparing it to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico–arguably my favorite cave of all.  The chambers in Lehman Caves are much smaller than those in Carlsbad, the ceilings are lower, and the formations are also smaller.

But, it seems there are more stalactites — perhaps because you’re much closer to them here.  Unfortunately, many of the lower-hanging stalactites were either broken or sawed-off by early cave visitors, who were all allowed to take a “souvenir” home.  Of course these days, such a practice is unthinkable, since we now know that cave formations can take thousands of years to grow.

Even though some of the cave’s formations are “dead”, and won’t ever grow again because of the ignorance of early visitors, you still need to be careful as you squeeze through the pathway.  Some rocks hang low…

… and others require you slip through delicately.

So what makes Lehman Caves unique?  Lehman Caves has an unusually high concentration of “shields”.  Shields have left cave experts baffled.  While stalactites form when water trickles down them to the tip, and stalagmites grow up from the floor when water drips on them, shields just don’t make sense.  It appears that water has contributed to the growth below the shield.  But why is the round disk there in the first place, standing like a slanted table in the middle of things?

Cave researchers have some clues.  They know that every shield is actually two shields, with a thin gap in between.  Water seeps through that gap and adds to the growth of the shield.

And here’s another clue.  A very rare formation called “Cave Turnips” only appear in caves with shields.  The guide explained (and I hope I remember this correctly) that you can have a cave with shields but no turnips, but you can’t have a cave with turnips and no shields.  So, it stands to reason that the two formations must be somehow linked.

Also, cave turnips, the guide explained, are extremely fragile and paper-thin, and cannot be touched without destroying them.

Turnips were just the first of many food items we encountered in the cave.  There’s also “cave bacon” — which really does look a lot like real bacon, especially with a beam of light from a flashlight behind it.

“Cave popcorn” is also very common.

“Cave Draperies” aren’t named after an edible item, but they are quite amazing to see.  Just think, it took many thousands of years to slowly form something so delicate and graceful.

Near the end of the hour-long tour (there’s also a 90 minute tour, but I had arrived too late in the day for it), we encountered a few more impressive shields…

… and another mind-blowing mystery.  Look closely at this formation, and you can see some sort of purple writing.  In addition to breaking off stalactites, early visitors also desecrated the cave by signing their names on the walls.  But, they did not use purple ink — they used pencils.  The purple is an organism, that is growing on the lead signatures.  It’s an organism that only exists here, in Lehman Caves, and nowhere else on earth.  As far as scientists know, it only appears when there’s lead pencil markings for it to feast upon.  That’s pretty darned amazing.

The trip back to the surface required a walk through another long tunnel.  Once we emerged, we discovered the snow had tapered off.  I was surprised, but our guide wasn’t.  Apparently, the only thing that’s predictable about the weather at this altitude, is its unpredictability.

Our guide explained that the Great Basin is one of the world’s few “cold” deserts — meaning most of its precipitation falls as snow or fog, not rain. 
Earlier, I mentioned that Great Basin National Park’s other attraction is Wheeler Peak.  If you arrive at the park during the summer months, you’ll be able to drive a great scenic road up the mountain, where you will find plenty of opportunities for hiking.  Of course, in late fall, winter and spring, the road is closed.  There is a visitor center in Baker, but it also closes during the winter months.
Great Basin National Park could someday become the home of what could someday become the world’s longest running clock.  The Clock of the Long Now is a proposed timepiece that would run for 10,000 years with a minimal amount of human tinkering.  The Long Now Foundation chose the top of Mount Washington in Great Basin National Park, since it’s remote and dry.  Also, the presence of the park’s 5,000-year-old Bristlecone Pine trees must have made them feel a bit more comfortable about the site.

The owner of the ranch land between the town of Baker and the Lehman Caves visitor center must like to offer up a little amusement for visitors.  There are mannequins and signs, and the shell of an old car on display.

The old car is located near a roadside exhibit on ranching.  The car is on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, but you’ll have no trouble climbing through to get a closer look.

The tiny town of Baker, Nevada serves as a gateway for the National Park, and a home for many of its employees.  There isn’t much here — a tiny motel, a bar and a restaurant, and a gas station, but that’s about it.

You’ll probably notice the huge section of water pipeline that’s on display in the middle of town.  It’s a protest to plans for a huge aqueduct that would siphon off underground water from Snake Valley (which includes Baker and the extremely unpopulated western edge of Utah), sending it 250 miles away to Las Vegas.

Snake Valley residents fear they could end up being the next Owens Valley, home to Mono Lake.  Years ago, Los Angeles began sucking the Owens Valley dry, resulting in the dramatic drop in Mono Lake’s levels. ProtectSnakeValley.com outlines the efforts to stop the water grab.  

I still had another hour of driving to go, to get to Ely, Nevada.  For a few brief moments, I had a view of the mountains that surrounded US 50/6, but for most of the way…

… I found myself following the two tracks left in the snow by the vehicle in front of me.  Enough snow was falling all around me to hide any of the surrounding landscape.  It was a slow but safe ride, and once again I was thankful that I had spent a little extra money, and rented a 4-wheel-drive SUV.

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