Beyond the Wasatch: Great Basin National Park and Lehman Caves

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Three and a half hours west of Salt Lake City, in the middle of the Great Basin between Utah and Nevada, lies a hidden treasure trove of adventure.  Within the 77,180 acres of Great Basin National Park, it’s impossible to get bored. Explore a diverse range of scenery and activities, from the 13,000 feet of its highest mountain peak to its lowest sub-alpine lake. Gaze in wonder at the beauty of a bristlecone pine forest, trek to a glacier, or hike to an arch, but you can’t come without exploring the depths of the magnificent cave system.

Before I visited the Lehman Caves at Great Basin National Park, the most I knew about caves is what I could remember from the cartoon “The Berenstein Bears” that I watched as a little girl. “Stalactites and stalagmites, only caves have got ’em. Tites are always on the top and mites are on the bottom.” I walked away with an education that surpassed that tidbit of information by leaps and bounds.

The Lehman Caves Tour is one of the biggest attractions that Great Basin has to offer, and rightfully so. As I descended underground, I felt as if I had stepped back into a place frozen in time. The marble and limestone caverns were formed 550 million years ago and discovered just under a century ago by Absalom Lehman in 1885. Along with the usual array of stalactites and stalagmites, the Lehman Caves have quite the collection of shields (over 300). These rounded formations projecting upward out of the cave walls are rare, and are thought to form as the limestone cracks and shifts.

The temperature in the caves is a cool 50 degrees year-round and the first room on the tour is the Gothic Palace. Footsteps echo as you enter this grand chamber and you can hear the drip-drip of water sliding down the limestone walls, but your see only darkness. The park ranger leading the tour simulated how it would have felt years ago to enter this space for the first time, as Lehman did. She instructed each of us turn out our lights, then she lit a single candle; the only light source that Lehman had at the time.

This isn’t a cave for spelunking or exploring on your own. Tours are guided by a park ranger, who takes you through the 5 cavernous rooms, each with a unique history and geology. The groups are limited in size to 20 and run at different times depending on the season. The tours are regularly sold out, so make a reservation ahead of time. The $10 fee for the 90-minute tour is absolutely worth the cost. Or, for those short on time, there is a 60-minute tour available for $8.

While the Lehman Caves are very popular, Great Basin is also home to 40 other caves. Most of them are closed for safety reasons and research, and others are closed to protect the bats that call these environments home. For those experienced in caving, Little Muddy Cave is open for recreational use. With a permit, you can explore this cave from October 1st through April 1st. Little Muddy Cave is a little over 1000 ft. in length and it’s filled with mazes of crawl ways. The smooth mud floor is perfect for wiggling through some of these tight spaces.

During the summer, more hikes are accessible, but going in the winter means less crowds. Whenever you decide to make the trip, here are some tips to make it worthwhile:

-Regardless of which direction you’re coming from, the road to Great Basin can get pretty desolate. Driving past endless fields, rolling hills, and snow-capped mountains is a wonderful way to start this journey. Make sure you’ve got a driving buddy, or a really good podcast to keep you awake.

-Between the three campgrounds in the park, there are 70 campsites to choose from. Each site is $12. In the winter, they are first come first serve, so call ahead to check on availability. In the summertime, reservations are available, but they fill up quickly.

-If you’re visiting in the winter, pack accordingly. There are few in-town amenities and water pumps are off until April.

 -Make sure to apply for permits at least two weeks ahead of time. Backcountry camping, climbing, and caving all require permits and the approval process can take a few days. If you’re planning on booking a cave tour, make a reservation at least a week in advance in order to  guarantee a spot.  If you don’t get a permit, don’t fret. There’s plenty to do here:

-Hike up to the Bristlecone pine forest. This moderate 2.8-mile trek brings you to a grove of ancient trees. Just past the trail’s end, you can get a look at Nevada’s only glacier.

– Ascend the highest mountain peak in Nevada. Wheeler Peak (13,063 ft) has breathtaking views of the sage-covered hills and birch tree forests.

– Try your hand at catching a rainbow trout as you fish in either Baker Lake or Lehman Creek. Purchase a Nevada fishing license ahead of time.

– Take the 3.4-mile roundtrip trail for stunning views of Lexington Arch. This natural Arch is six stories tall and carved out of limestone.

e.aboussou@wasatchmag.com

Photos by Esther Aboussou

Last modified: April 12, 2017

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