Most Popular Attraction at Great Basin National Park
With stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites, plus more exotic geologic phenomena, Lehman Caves offer a cool activity in the western United States every day of the year.
Hikers at Great Basin National Park agree that Lehman Caves is the park’s most popular walk-about, even though the trail through the caverns is underground.
Historical accounts relate that the caves (pronounced LEE-man) were discovered when Absolom Lehman almost fell into them one day in 1885 while out walking (some accounts say riding) on the rocky hillside above his ranch. He announced his discovery in the local newspaper and during that first year guided more than 800 people into the caverns.
Since the early days, passageways have been opened and the old ladders replaced by stairways. Several inaccessible areas have been opened so that now about 60 percent of the caves can be viewed. They were declared a National Monument in 1922 and became part of the national park when Great Basin was created in 1986.
The path through the caves (technically they’re considered only one cave system) meanders through marble passageways and underground rooms decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, spaghetti-like helictites, and a variety of other geologic phenomena.
There are lacy aragonite crystals, popcorn-shaped lumps, and rippled curtains of stone, called draperies, whose ribbon-striped coloration resembles oversize bacon strips. Though they’re found in abundance throughout Lehman Caves, the discs of calcite called shields or palettes are uncommon in most other caves. Rubble on the floor, geologists speculate, is the result of an earthquake that occurred some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago.
The Gothic, Talus, and Wedding Cake Rooms
First of the rooms, the Gothic Palace is a fantasy of fluted columns. In the Cypress Swamp, “Spanish moss” festoons the ceiling, while strange alligator shapes lie in the pools of water on the cave’s floor. The largest cavern, the Talus Room, is the length of one and a half football fields.
Through the years, an occasional wedding ceremony has been performed in the Wedding Chapel, with its low stone altar and 23-foot-high columns suggesting organ pipes. The 5-1/2 foot,11-layer Wedding Cake is around the corner in the Reception Hall.
Though graffiti is usually associated with defacement, in the Inscription Room it adds a human warmth to the cold stone formations. Original access to this area was through a low crawl space called Fat Man’s Misery and visitors who were able to slither through the narrow passageway recorded their triumphs by marking their initials on the room’s ceiling with candle soot.
Guided 90-minute tours are conducted at least hourly between Memorial Day and Labor Day, four or more times daily during the rest of the year. The caves’ air is damp, ranging from 95 to 100 percent relative humidity with a constant temperature of 52 degrees F, (about 11 degrees C.), so dress warmly if you plan to take a tour. A good source of further information on Lehman Caves is greatbasinheritage.com