“There are two kinds of rocks in Lehman Caves,” the park ranger told the group. “Headbangers and knee knockers. Watch for both when you’re in there.” Then she led us through a heavy door and into a long concrete tunnel. The pattern of our footsteps raced and collided along the tunnel’s length. The placid, 50-degree Fahrenheit (10-degrees Celsius) air chilled us as we passed through the door that completed the airlock, and we finally entered the subterranean labyrinth.
When the sun is setting, Great Basin National Park in east-central Nevada lies in the Snake Range’s Wheeler Peak shadow, which, at 13,063 feet (3982 meters), is the highest point wholly within Nevada. Millions of years ago, magma intruded into the joint between the quartzite, constituting most of the Snake Range and the limestone along the range’s eastern flank. The magma’s heat metamorphosed some of the limestones into marble. That was the crucial first step in the formation of the caves.
At one time, the eastern Nevada climate was more humid than it is today, and, consequently, the water table was higher. Rainwater absorbs carbon dioxide from the air to form carbonic acid – the weak acid of soda pop – soaked into the ground and dissolved the marble. As the climate dried, the water table dropped, and the trickling water emerged into vaulted rooms and passageways. Losing its carbon dioxide, the liquid deposited its burden of the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate) at the slower than snail’s pace – an inch per century – to form soda straws, stalactite daggers, stalagmite stumps, mysterious shields, graceful draperies, and columns resembling the ruins of ancient Greece. To keep the difference between cave features clear in your mind, remember that the word “stalactites” has the letter “c,” and this feature comes down from the ceiling, and the name for the other well-known part, “stalagmites,” has the letter “g” and comes up from the ground. So it’s “c” for the ceiling (stalactite) and “g” for ground (stalagmite).
Stalactites turn out to be soda straws that became plugged up. Soda straws have mineral-laden water dripping down through the center and leaving behind rings of minerals that can extend great distances if left undisturbed, up to 30 feet (9 meters). However, if the end becomes plugged, water can start dripping down the outside of the straw, leaving minerals on the outside of the straw that continue to grow in an outward direction, thus becoming stalactites, as the former straw now starts to thicken.
Into the Gothic Palace
As the ranger-led us past the cave’s natural entrance and into the Gothic Palace, she paused to tell us about Absalom S. Lehman. The proprietor of a ranch on the eastern slopes of Wheeler Peak, Lehman discovered the cave in 1885. In that year, he guided 800 people through its rooms and passageways; visitors had to climb down ladders into the vertical entrance, using only candle lanterns for illumination, according to the ranger.
When our group was a little farther along the path, the ranger turned off the electric lights, leaving only a candle lantern as our light source. As she raised the lantern from the ground, haunting shadows shifted across the somehow enlarged chamber. “Can you imagine exploring the caves this way?” she asked. After the lights were switched back on, we continued our six-tenths of a mile (1 km) journey through the white complex of narrow, twisting passageways and voluminous chambers. Some corridors were like art galleries displaying their sculptures openly. Other halls obscured their treasures in confounding folds.
The Wedding Chapel and Beyond
After the Gothic Palace, with its arching ceiling and tall columns, we reached the spacious Wedding Chapel used for five wedding ceremonies in the 19th century. In the adjacent Music Room, early tour guides would produce musical notes by tapping on the stalactites with mallets. However, this practice was discontinued after some of the stalactites were found crumbling.
Up past wooden stairs, our group came upon the Tom-Tom Room, which has the most prominent geological feature of Lehman Caves – saucer-shaped plates called shields or pallets, angled out from the walls. No one knows precisely how shields develop. They may form when water, under pressure, emerges through cracks in the walls to deposit thin films of calcite, creating numerous pairs of facing plates that seem to defy gravity. Gradually, water builds columns underneath many of these shields. They only occur in one percent of all known limestone caves, so Lehman Caves would be remarkable if only for its abundance of guards.
Going past the Dragon’s Den and the Queen’s Chamber, the ranger reached the Lodge Room at the crossroads of the trail system in the caves. She described how Clarence T. Rhodes, the first custodian of the cave after it had become public property, had urged members of the Knights of Pythias and the Boy Scouts from nearby Ely, Nevada, to hold their meetings here. Since the government didn’t have any money in the state budget to pay him, Mr. Rhodes was entitled to any fees he might charge for admission and had a vested interest in promoting the caves. Unfortunately for the Lodge Room, those visitors knocked down some ceiling formations to provide headroom, and the soot from their fires is still visible along the walls.
On through a tunnel, the ranger-led us to the Inscription Room. A glance at the sooty letters and numbers on the ceiling and walls immediately told us the reason for the name. After pointing them out, the ranger shined her flashlight beside the tunnel we had come through to show us a low crawl space. “This is the old way to get into this room,” she explained. With only an 18-inch (45 cm) clearance, the passage earned the name of Fat Man’s Misery for those early visitors who made it through. To celebrate their quest, they marked the room with their initials or the date, the earliest from the 1890s.
The plunking of water greeted us in the Cypress Swamp. Miniature gods of Mt. Olympus might have luxuriated in the delicate, rimstone-diked pools along with a few curious, calcite creatures. The most extensive collection was named Lake Como by Mrs. Rhodes after the famous lake in the Italian Alps.
The ranger saved the best for last. The Grand Palace offered us a gopher’s-eye-view of orange carrot-like stalactites, beet-shaped stalagmites, and other root-like shapes in this veritable garden of natural rock formations. On some columns, contorted stubs called helictites – looking as though someone had included wax beans – pointed every which way, defying gravity.
The Parachute, the symbol of Lehman Caves, was frozen in time with its shield catching the air above dangling stalactite cords. We continued thinking heavenward on seeing Angel’s Wing, a vertical guard overflowing with a tapering column and passing by fluted columns called the Pearly Gates. The Glacier, composed of flowstone where water deposited calcite while running over a sloping wall, crept in from one end of the chamber. Elsewhere, lacy crystals of aragonite, another form of calcium carbonate, decorated the wall. On our way back through to the exit tunnel, we were again reminded that Nature’s artful hand had graced Lehman Cave.
The Nature Trail
Outside the exit tunnel, a nature trail begins. By following it, you can learn more about the park’s history at the old cabin where Clarence Rhodes once lived and get acquainted with the trees and shrubs of the garden. The Snake Range allows you to explore five diverse plant communities, representing vegetation changes from Mexico to Alaska. The first community, the upper Sonoran, named after Sonora, Mexico, surrounds Lehman Caves with piñons and junipers and extends down toward the Snake Valley.
By driving 12 miles (23 km) toward the Wheeler Peak Campground, you can see the rest of the life zones. The transition zone of ponderosa pines, white fir, and mountain mahogany begin around the Lehman Creek Campground, which has the most extensive mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus led Filius) in the world. Quaking aspens are here and on up the mountainside.
Higher up the steep, twisting road near the Peak overlook, the Canadian life zone begins, with Douglas fir and Englemann spruce predominating. From the tower, craggy Mount Jefferson Davis is to the left, and Wheeler Peak is right.
In a sense, you’re nearing the Hudson Bay by the time you make it to the Wheeler Peak Campground at about 10,000 feet (3048 meters). Limber pine, Engelmann spruce, and aspens shade the campsites. A trail system leads you to a timberline, the highest margin of the Hudsonian zone, where an interpretive trail shows you the oldest living things on the planet – bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva). At almost 5,000 years, the oldest bristlecone grew on the slopes of Wheeler Peak before being cut down in 1964.
It was named Prometheus by locals, who gave individual trees names including Buddha and Socrates. The story has it that a geographer studying Ice Age features tried to take a core sample of Prometheus to find its age. When the core sample boring tool broke, he resorted to cutting it down with the Forest Service’s permission. It was only afterward, when he counted the rings, that he realized he had cut down the oldest known tree on Earth. It was later determined to be 4862 years old. Older bristlecone pines have been measured over the years since, but Prometheus held the record for a time.
Lastly, the Arctic-Alpine zone extends up to the summit of Wheeler Peak, attainable by ascending 2,600 feet up a strenuous four-mile (6.5 km) trail. Little grows in this zone, except lichens, mosses, hardy wildflowers, and grasses in protected places.
On the way up to the campground, turn at an interpretive trail that tells the story of early gold mining in the area. To facilitate placer mining, the Osceola Placer Mining Company constructed a 30-mile (48 km) long ditch from Lehman Creek around the mountains in the early 1880s. Their most notable find was a 24-pound (10.9 kg) nugget. The trail leads out to some of the remains of this project.
Another interpretive trail lies along the dirt road to the Baker Creek Campground. The Forest Service has laid out a course of rock art made by the native culture pre-dating the present-day Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone tribes.
The best rock art in eastern Nevada is the sculptures that Nature herself created in Lehman Caves.
To get to Great Basin National Park, drive about 68 miles (110 km) east from Ely, Nevada, along combined U.S. Routes 6 and 50 to their junction with State Route 487, then south Baker and, finally, west along Route 488. Cave tours, which last an hour for the Lodge Room tour to an hour and a half for the Grand Palace tour, cost $8 and $10 for adults, or $4 and $5 respectively for children 5 – 15 years old and seniors, but are free for children under 5 for the Lodge Room tour. Children under five are not allowed on the Grand Palace tour. Today, a paved path and tunnels make spelunking skills unnecessary, but it still helps to have some fitness level for these tours.
The park has five developed campgrounds and seven primitive campsites. The town of Baker has a motel and two private campgrounds, while additional accommodations are available in Ely’s cities in Nevada and Milford and Delta in Utah. Trails lead through these forests to mountain peaks and lakes and creeks of the Snake Range. The visitor center is outside the park in Baker’s town, so you can check on getting a campsite while arranging for your cave tour before you arrive at the park itself. For more information, write to Great Basin National Park, 100 Great Basin National Park, Baker, NV 89311 or call (775)234-7331.
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Robert Robinson is a freelance writer/photographer/videographer specializing in naturalist subjects. He has contributed articles to the Sierra Club Bulletin, Sea Frontier magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many others.
Richard Robinson is a freelance writer/photographer/videographer specializing in and national parks and Nature. He has contributed articles to the Los Angeles Times, Trailer Life, and others.