Speleological Pursuits at Lehman Cave: Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park; Snake Valley; nevada The view from Mountain View Trail, behind Lehman Caves Visitor Center. Snake Valley lies before us.

The view from Mountain View Trail, behind Lehman Caves Visitor Center. Snake Valley lies before us.

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In 2013, Great Basin was the 51st (out of 59) most visited National Park..

During the winter, visitation plummets, leaving the park to those adventurous folks that thrive on solitude. However, the park is filled with Aspen Groves that paint the mountain-sides during the fall. No matter the time of year that you chose to visit, the park is still pretty quiet with total yearly visitation hovering between 80,000 and 90,000 a year.

But why the low visitation to such a special place? Some people just do not love the open road. And by open road, I mean really open. The Loneliest Road in America, Highway 50.

Salt Lake City is probably the closest city of note; it lies 4 hours NW of the park; Las Vegas is 4.5 hours South and the Reno/Tahoe area is a whopping 6 hours West. But no matter where you are driving from, services are few and far between. Basin follows range follows basin. It’s a never-ending, albeit beautiful, landscape.

We recommend getting gas when you can, packing extra food and water, and getting some tunes ready to keep you occupied. If you need to stretch your legs, several BLM sites are located along the road (including fee-free campsites).

If you are driving from the Reno area, Ely is  your last chance to hit up a larger grocery store. Baker, just outside of the park, has some resources but is a VERY small town.

Lehman Cave

After a long drive, likely you will be weary. Start your visit with a tour of Lehman Cave. You can reserve tickets online or try your luck with same-day tickets. Tour schedules change with the seasons.

Great Basin National Park; Inscription Room; Lehman Cave; nevada People used to burn their names into the cave. This practice lead to the spread of a bacteria that appears to be red and feeds off the charred inscriptions.

People used to burn their names into the cave. This practice lead to the spread of a bacteria that appears to be red and feeds off the charred inscriptions.

The cave is a delicate environment and White-Nose Syndrome screening is required so be sure to read the park guidelines before leaving home.

This cave is part of the larger Lehman Hill Caves system, 1 of 4 cave systems in the park and is at an elevation of 7,000 feet. For more about this cave system and the others click here.

During the winter months (November-February), only the Grand Palace Tour is available. The tour lasts 90 minutes and takes you through all the open sections of the cave.

We recommend taking the tour but warn that the guide moves quickly through the rooms. If you are interested in cave geology or history, study a little bit beforehand. The “discovery” of the cave was made by Absalom Lehman although various accounts tell different stories. Nonetheless, Lehman, a rancher, entered the cave with his fellow Snake Valley residents to explore the cave in 1885. He continued to lead tours into the cave until his death in 1891.

Great Basin National Park; Lehman Cave; nevada The NPS calls this formations the parachute but i think it looks like a ghost.

The NPS calls this formations the parachute but i think it looks like a ghost.

Great Basin National Park; Lehman Cave; nevada It

It’s hard to imagnine what these formations would look like in daylight. The varrying colors are caused by the various types of lighting.

Since he never owned the land, his homestead and the cave became part of Humboldt National Forest and not much happened in the area until after World War I when Highway 50 was built, making the area more accessible.

In 1922, Lehman Cave National Monument was established by President Harding but the U.S. Forest Service allowed private individuals to administer tours and care for the area. Clarence and Bea Rhodes had already been leading tours so the USFS made their presence official.

Eventually, the Rhodes property made its way into the hands of the federal government via donation around 1930.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6616 in 1933 which transferred ALL national monuments to the National Park Service. Campsites were built, roads improved, and the cave was made more accessible. The USFS continuously fought to regain control but never succeeded.

Great Basin National Park; Lehman Cave; nevada; people These stairs lead into the Music Room (if memory serves). The draperies line the entire pathway.

These stairs lead into the Music Room (if memory serves). The draperies line the entire pathway.

Finally, in 1986, Lehman Caves National Monument was abolished and Great Basin National Park was created. Today, National Park Rangers and docents lead the tours and the caves is investigated by scientists.

The ranger will lecture during the entire tour but you can look around while he speaks, just do so with respect.

The Visitor Center

The Lehman Caves Visitor Center is also a great place to get oriented to the park. Rangers are on hand to give advice or issue voluntary (but highly recommended) backcountry permits.

We highly recommend visiting the auditorium and watching the park videos, especially the Ranger Minutes, to get you hyped for your adventures; these are also available on YouTube.

More exhibits are available at the Visitor Center in Baker if you go during the summer months, but it closes September 30th. Opening dates depend on weather conditions.

For a short hike before or after the tour, take the Mountain View Nature Trail. The trail is .25 mile and provides excellent views of Snake Valley. Borrow the guide from the Ranger Desk to learn about the trees and mining history. This hike is ideal for sunsets/sunrises since you will not need to venture far from your car.

Camping

Find information regarding camping on the National Park Service site. Recycling is available near the Visitor Center at the RV Dump Site.

The park has 5 developed sites, all of which cost $12/night. The fee is reduced to $6 when the water is shut-off which is the case during the winter. Unless you are a group seeking a site at Grey Cliffs, all sites are first-come, first-serve.

Lower Lehman Campground is the only developed site opened year round (although you can backpack into other sites). A trail connects Lower and Upper Lehman Campgrounds.

Hint: Site 11 at Lower Lehman Campground gets the first sunlight come morning.

Strawberry Creek Campground provides free, primitive camping along a dirt road; it has pit toilet, trash cans, and picnic tables. It is the smallest of the campgrounds we visited. Trailhead options are limited but provide access to Osceola Ditch and Sage Steppe.

Snake Creek Campground offers free, primitive camping along a dirt road. Trailhead provides the shortest route to Johnson Lake and connects with Timber Creek and South Fork Baker Creek Trails. It also leads to Dead Lake (route finding involved).

Note: 11/2014 Snake Creek Campground is currently closed for improvements.

Upper Lehman Campground is large but sites are well spaced. If hiking from here, add 4 miles and 2,100 feet of gain for trips to the Wheeler Peak Day Use Area.

Wheeler Peak Campground is also large but offers a few walk-in sites that provide more quiet. It’s the best/closest place to camp for hikes to Wheeler Peak, Stella and Teresa Lakes, Bristlecone Forest, and Rock Glacier.

Baker Creek Campground is a short distance down a dirt road (Baker Creek Road). Views into Snake Valley are amazing from the Baker Creek Trailhead, just 1 mile from the campground. The Baker Creek TH is a jumping off point to Baker and Johnson Lakes as well as the popular South Fork Baker Creek-Timber Creek Loop. A trail connects the campground to the trailhead.

Grey Cliff Campground is also along Baker Creek Road. Upper Pictograph Cave (among others) is next to the campground. Respect cave closures, often times they are in place to provide haven to maternal bat colonies. The Pole Canyon Trailhead is at the West end of the campground. Group sites are available by advance reservation.

Much of the land on the Southern and Western boundaries of the park are managed by the BLM or Humboldt-Toiyable National Forest so dispersed camping is allowed. Respect your public lands by keeping them clean and respect private property boundaries. Cattle grazing, hunting, and trapping are allowed on these land so watch were you put your feet. High-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles are highly recommended.