The morning of August 18 was devoted to our tour of Lehman Caves, the highly decorated limestone cave that the south Snake Range had first become famous (and federally protected) for. When our friend Patrick had visited Great Basin National Park on a lark during a road trip from the Bay Area to Chicago, he hadn’t been able to tour the cave because the tours were sold out. We had booked ours weeks in advance so that wouldn’t happen to us. My thinking had been that we would do the cave tour straight off on the morning of our first day in the Park, then we’d have the rest of our time to do whatever we wanted whenever we wanted.
We woke up in the orange glow of our new tent and poked our heads outside.
Jeff Davis Peak and Wheeler Peak glowed in the morning light as the shadows slid down the vertical cliffs of Wheeler Peak Cirque.
Our little cul-de-sac was quietly bustling as those who were departing that day struck their camps. Among the departing groups were Sam and his young sons Jack and Oscar (and Elsa, their German Shepherd) from Utah. We’d met them the previous evening, and Sam had shared that this was by far his favorite National Park.
We took a stroll around our immediate area and IDed which campsites would vacate that day. We had only registered our site for one night in the hopes of moving to a better one. There were a couple promising sites adjacent to ours that would become available at noon.
We broke our fast with breakfast skillet dressed up with avocado before gathering up our things for our cave tour.
We drove back down the mountain. My hands still got a little clammy, but I was definitely getting used to the drop offs and hairpin curves of Wheeler Peak Scenic Trail.
We parked at Lehman Caves Visitor Center, walked in, and got in line. Although we had reservations, we had to check in. There was a woman from Ely, the nearest town of any substantive size, who had an extra ticket. She gave it to a single gentleman also in line in front of us. The woman from Ely had been to the caves multiple times, but hadn’t been for about fifteen years.
We were helped by Ranger Kevin and Ranger Dustin. Because we had been recently to other caves (Wind Cave and Jewel Cave) and were wearing the same boots, we’d have to disinfect them before entering the cave. The process was a caution to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome, which is devastating populations of North American bats. It was first identified in North America in a cave near Albany, New York, where it had likely been inadvertently been spread from a tourist from Europe.
We had to put our boots into a couple of inches of disinfectant in a tub. We waited along with the rest of our tour companions for the ranger who would lead the tour.
The single gentleman said that he was from north of Canada, but wasn’t from Alaska. the others were confused, but right off Sean and I guessed correctly that he was from Detroit (the only place in the lower 48 where you can look south to Canada). He was from Harrison Township, near where both Sean and I had grown up.
There was also a wiry old man from Prescott, Arizona in our group. He had left Prescott at three in the morning to arrive here for this tour. When the ranger leading our tour, Ranger Rebecca, arrived, he expressed a complaint about how confusing Recreation.gov is. Ranger Rebecca said that she would pass the issue along. This wiry old guy talked incessantly during the tour. There wasn’t a thing Ranger Rebecca said or a question she asked that when unremarked on by him. He seemed oblivious to how irritating he was to the rest of the group. And to her immense credit, Ranger Rebecca handled him well.
Ranger Rebecca had previously been posted at Glacier Bay National Park, and she remarked on the similarities between that Park and Great Basin.
Ranger Rebecca passed some cave decorations around so that we could touch them since we weren’t allowed to touch anything (except the occasional hand rails) in the cave. Everyone in the group had been on a cave tour before, but even so there were a couple people who raised their hands about nervousness in tight places. Ranger Rebecca said that she had the same feelings, but had never experienced them in Lehman Caves in part because there was free, natural air flow within the cave.
With that, Ranger Rebecca opened the door, and we processed single file into the artificial tunnel that accessed the cave.
Ranger Rebecca did not stop at the natural entrance (a vertical hole) as we passed. Later she told us that it was for two reasons: first, she didn’t want to disturb the roosting bats, of which there are few in the cave because the entrance is vertical, and second, there are human remains at the natural entrance. The cave had clearly been used as some sort of burial area by Native Americans.
Our first stop was the Gothic Palace, a large room absolutely crammed with cave decorations.
Ranger Rebecca oriented us to the room. She also did the standard plunge into total darkness (much earlier than we’d experienced it at Wind Cave or Jewel Cave). Also unlike those cave tours, Lehman Caves is relatively small, but unusually highly decorated. At each stop, Ranger Rebecca oriented us and then let us look around a bit before moving on.
Ranger Rebecca pointed out the broken stalactites and other decorations. In the early, pre-Park Service era of tours at Lehman Caves, the policy was that if you could break it off, you could take it home. It’s a testament to the sheer amount of decoration that even with the obviously broken formations, there are innumerable others. Still there is this manmade scarring throughout the cave.
In some instances, new soda straws, the very beginnings of stalactites, have already formed in the century or so since a stalactite was broken.
She also pointed out the helictites, formations that seem to defy gravity. Some rise vertically up from cave walls. Others seem to exit a wall and then reenter it. They are likely caused by seeping mineral-rich water (just like a stalactite). The difference is that at a very slow rate of seepage and a very tiny amount of water, the surface tension of the water causes it to sit at the end of the helictite and evaporate instead of dripping. Think of holding a drop of water or a tear on your fingertip. It is likely the same sort of thing.
Before we left the Gothic Room, Ranger Rebecca pointed out a packrat midden. Dating of the layers of material in the midden can help researchers determine when the cave opened to the outside world.
Lehman Caves formed in a limestone layer of the Snake Range. The limestone was laid down in the Cambrian era, around 500 million years ago. Much more recently, after buckling and stretching formed the Great Basin and lifted up the Snake Range, acidified water began to dissolve the limestone, forming the cave. Then as the water table lowered and the cave was exposed, the process reversed, and calcified water began to deposit minerals in the cave. Over millions of years these deposits grew into stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, columns, drapery, flowstone, cave popcorn, and cave shields. Often a formation will include a number of different types of decorations, such as a column with drapery and cave popcorn.
We entered the narrow Music Room, where the Wedding March was once played by striking tones on the formations with hammers. It was on the occasion of one of the four weddings performed in the cave.
Absalom Lehman was the first Euro-American to find and publicize the cave. Lehman was from Ohio. He had followed the Gold Rush to California in 1849 before his search for gold took him to Australia, back to California, and ultimately to Nevada in 1869. In 1885, he began publicizing the cave on his property and soon began to give tours.
We continued on through the Lake Room toward the Grand Palace, our ultimate goal.
Lehman Caves is famous for its cave shields, baffling discs that often form as pairs from water seeping from a wall.
We passed a stalactite that had just reached its corresponding stalagmite to form a column that would thicken over the centuries to come.
We entered the Inscription Room, which was the farthest reach of the tour in the pre-National Park days. Here, after visitors crawled on their bellies through narrow passages, they were encouraged to inscribe their initials on the ceiling with the fire of their candles. Over the decades of Park Service management, some attempts had been made to remove the historical graffiti, often leading to worse looking smudges. Now, the Park Service treats them as part of the cave’s history.
We continued on past the Cypress Swamp and into the Grand Palace.
The Grand Palace was a huge chamber, highly decorated with combinations of cave shields, draperies, stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone, cave popcorn, and helictites.
It also marked the farthest point of our journey into Lehman Caves.
Ranger Rebecca led us toward the exit, backtracking somewhat.
We passed through the Canal, an artificial passage from the early years of cave tourism. Its walls were constructed in part by pieces of cave formations from other parts of the cave.
In the long, modern exit tunnel, we paused to experience the booming, reverberating acoustics before exiting into the late morning sunshine.
It was about ten minutes to ten. We technically had to be out of our campsite up at Wheeler Peak Campground by noon. But we had some time, so we went over to the cafe attached to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center to grab a quick lunch to go.
We ordered hot dogs and cobb salads from a child. An actual child. Her parents were making the food while she and her sisters took the orders and served. It was certainly a family affair, complete with home schooled kids and Christian radio on in the background.
Because they were clearly understaffed, it took over thirty minutes to get our food, which left us pressed for time to get back up the mountain and strike camp.
We drove back up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. By now my hands were no longer clammy on the steering wheel. As we pulled into the loop where our campsite was, two new arrivals, a lesbian couple, shouted at us to slow down even though we weren’t even going the speed limit. Fun new neighbors!
Site nineteen, across the way on the edge of the forest (and actually the highest elevation site in the campground) was open. So we grabbed it. We simply carried our stuff over to it and restaked our tent. Then I drove down and registered us for four nights in this great new campsite.
We ate our hot dogs and salads and settled in to relax for a while. We intended to explore the Bristlecone Trail later on, but first Sean took a nap in his hammock while I alternated between fussing about in our campsite and reading.
Across the way, the lesbians were making a racket, starting and restarting their truck since one of them had seen a chipmunk jump up into the engine well. They were trying to scare it away. In all likelihood it had probably left or certainly would leave if they just let it alone. They were just irrationally upset about it. (It wasn’t like it was actually in the cab of the truck.) And they would still be trying to chase away the phantom chipmunk the next day before they would leave because the chipmunk had stressed them out so much.