In an introductory film at Great Basin National Park, “Under a Desert Sky”, the narrator called its location farther from an Interstate than any other place in the country. That didn’t surprise me.
One of the great attractions in eastern Nevada’s GBNP is Lehman Caves. Rancher Absolom Lehman discovered its entrance in 1885. Native Americans knew about it but hadn’t explored. For the next 50 or so years many entered the cavern with candles and treated Lehman like a demolition derby entrant. Peter, our excellent tour guide, told us about this in a room that at first I thought was littered with graffiti. Peter explained that it was candle smoke on the cave’s ceiling and walls caused by people from the distant past examining curious formations with weak light.
Men with sledges and other heavy tools made passageways, knocked down stalactites, etc. Finally, Lehman Caves became a National Monument in 1922. Fortunately, 11 years later the National Park Service became its protector. Today, visitors are not allowed to touch anything once inside. Even my camera bag was not allowed for fear that the strap might lasso a formation while I shimmied through a tight passage. Incredibly, despite all the damage Lehman is accurately described in the Great Basin National Park brochure as “one of the region’s most profusely decorated caves”.
Big crowds come to see it in June, July, and August when the average maximum Park temperature, despite elevation ranging from 6,200 to 13,063 feet, is almost 82º. Ruth and I visited in January, average maximum 41º, and took the Lehman guided tour, the only way to get in, without reservations. Inside the cave it’s a steady 50º year round. In the summer, when the road up Wheeler Peak is opened, Lehman is a much busier place. The wise call in advance (775-234-7331, ext. 242) to book cave tours that are limited to 20 with a maximum 12 spaces available via advanced sale. The overworked rangers add as many tours as they can on holidays and crowded afternoons, but the experience surely suffers. The 12 on our tour were given a longer than usual, more complete spelunking experience on a cold but sunny afternoon. Winter has its advantages even though Wheeler Peak is inaccessible and 1 0f 2 visitor centers is closed.
Lehman is described as “an excellent example of a limestone solution cavern”. I won’t turn geologist to explain but be assured that it’s a 5 Compass place. For example, only about 100 of the 40,000 discovered caves in North America have shield formations and Lehman’s one of them. Rangers, scientists, and visitors have discovered more than 40 other caves in GBNP, one quite recently.