Exploring Lehman Caves
In Great Basin National Park
A four-hour car trip from Salt Lake City brought us to Nevadas
Snake Mountain Range. We went into the Great Basin National Park visitor
center and waited for the tour. Our guide was a ranger named Abby.
Looking at the mountain we were about to enter, I would never have guessed
there were miles of caves inside. We entered a man-made passageway into
the Lehman Caves, because the natural entrance requires a rappel down
through a small tunnel. Our tunnel was about 50 feet long, with a huge,
locked wooden door at its end.
Being in such a damp, sterile place made the next site we experienced
quite a shock. Our tour-guide informed us that, way back when the caves
werent an attraction, Indians tribes used the cave as a burial site.
She asked us to not talk all the way through the tunnel to show respect
When the large wooden door opened, we walked into the first part of the
cave, and were met by a breathtaking view. The first room was a large
cavern called the Gothic Palace, for obvious reasons. The cave decorations,
very dark and mysterious, were highlighted by a white light fixture placed
inside. The huge stalactites loomed above, and the towering stalagmites
stood tall beside us.
The sheer weight of the room hung down on you as you realized there was
an entire mountain over you, pressing down on walls and ceiling.
The tour then took us through a tunnel full of magnificent rock structures,
into another cavern called the Inscription Room. This room had a domed
ceiling with little broken-off stalactites. There was hardly a rock creation
in the first part of the room; the decorations mainly chose to stick on
the sides of the chamber. The rooms name was properly given; as
you looked up at the ceiling, you saw the entire thing was covered with
initials and dates. They were hard to make out because of the lighting
and because they were so close to each other, you could hardly decipher
which last name initial went with which first name.
Abby told us the more recent signatures were made with charcoal but the
older ones were burnt into the stone itself. Then she pointed out some
of the oldest dates, reaching far back into the late 1800s. We were told
that they signed their names to prove theyd made it as far as Lehman
would allow people to venture.
The tour then took us through many other caverns containing some of the
most irregular looking rock formations I have ever seen. One kind really
caught my attention: helictites, which grow in the most alien way you
can imagine. The incredibly slow water movement through the helictites
causes them to form in a chaotic, sprawling manner, some growing straight
up, some straight out, while others grow twisting around each other.
There were also flowstone towers that appeared to be made from molten
rock, standing majestically tall and mighty. They were very large and
thick at the bottom, tapering as they went up.
But the most curious formations I found were the shields. Lehman Caves
is most famous for its many shields. Shields look like some sort of clam
flattened on the top. The shield is made of two plates separated by a
thin space where water comes out. The shields form from a crack in the
wall with water that has calcium carbonate flowing through it. As the
water comes out of the crack, it releases dissolved carbon dioxide. The
water, unable to hold the calcium carbonate, deposits the mineral on the
The best-known shield is a very large one called the Parachute. It sits
in the Grand Palace, one of the last rooms you visit. The Parachute hangs
some 20 feet off the ground, and is adorned with long skinny, wavy stalactites
that come together at the tip.
At the end of the tour, we double-backed and headed down another tunnel,
out of the cave.
Facts about Lehman Caves
1. These cave is unique because it is profusely decorated with a great
variety of calcite formations. It is one of the most beautiful caves in
2. The name is plural, but it is just one cave with many rooms and passages.
It is located in Great Basin National Park, on the Utah/Nevada border
west of Delta.
3. It was discovered in 1885 by rancher Absalom Lehman. Soon thereafter
he began charging to guide guests through its dark chambers.
4. Native Americans knew of the cave and used the entrance as a burial
site. Evidence suggests they never explored its far reaches; the natural
opening had to be enlarged to allow Lehman and his friends to enter conveniently.
Cave structures were broken off in several areas to allow explorers to
penetrate some passages.
5. The cave consists of a series of passageways and chambers extending
almost horizontally into the mountain. It is not a particularly large
cave. Major passages extend about 1/2 mile into the mountain. There are
many side passages, some too narrow to explore. It isnt known how
far they go back.
6. The cave was named a national monument in 1922, and became part of
Great Basin National Park in 1986. Wheeler Peak is the other main attraction
in the park. The peak is a great place to camp and hike, and offers a
limited amount of fishing in small streams and lakes.
7. The cave began forming about 70 million years ago when carbonic acid
(formed from water and carbon dioxide gas) began to leach through cracks
in the limestone and started carving and decorating the cave. It is a
"living" cavemeaning the formations are still growing.
Major types of features are listed below:
a) Soda strawstiny and hollow in the middle so water can percolate
to their ends.
b) Stalactiteshanging down from the ceiling.
c) Stalagmitesgrowing up from the floor.
d) Columnsformed when stalactites and stalagmites join.
e) Popcornirregularly-shaped calcite balls growing on the cave
f) Shieldsrare in other caves but common here. They are disk-shaped
structures, often with other decorations attached. Lehman has the
largest known concentration of shields.
g) Draperieshang down from the ceiling in many places. Cave
"bacon" is common.
8. Rangers guide people through the cave. Tours of various lengths are
offered. The shortest just goes into the first room. Other require a 60-minute
or a 90-minute walk.
9. Visitors arent allowed into all of the rooms. The "Talus
Room" is closed to public access. It is deemed unsafe because rocks
there are moving.
There are many other caves in the national park and the surrounding area.
People are encouraged not to explore caves on their own. If you want to
get into caving, join a club. There are caving clubs in most major cities.
The National Speleological Society web site, www.caves.org, lists local