Glorious national park 'basement' is science wonderland

Published: Tuesday, April 8 2014 11:16 a.m. MDT

At the Great Basin National Park, near Baker, Nev., there's an underground complex known as Lehman Caves. Some of the formations in the cave are over 1 million years old.

John Hollenhorst, Deseret News

BAKER, Nev. — Suppose you could enjoy the splendors of a national park without being outside and exposed to the elements.

That's possible in one of the region's lesser known but still beautiful national parks.

On a recent day when snow blanketed much of the scenery at Great Basin National Park, visitors hiked in a place where feet stay dry and it's always a balmy 52 degrees. It's an undergound complex of natural beauty known as Lehman Caves.

"It doesn't matter if it's hot outside or cold outside," said National Park Service ecologist Gretchen Baker. "The temperature in the cave is always the same."

A few steps inside the cave, Baker noticed a bat clinging to the limestone ceiling.

"We don't have very many bats in Lehman Caves," she said. "But this one has come in and is resting."

A bit farther into the cave, park service paleontologist Gorden Bell stopped to admire natural "draperies" hanging from a ceiling.

"It's just like a curtain. It develops these folds," Bell said as he pointed to the delicate formations. "It's just all calcite crystals growing outward."

That's just one of many wondrous sights in the basement of Nevada's Great Basin National Park, located 10 miles from the Utah border. Nature has been working for eons to create the amazing features, and it's only now that experts are beginning to realize just how long it's been going on.

In recent years, the National Park Service has been conducting studies to figure out how water moves through the caves and how far back in time the flowing and dripping water created some of the features.

"We've learned very recently that some of the formations in the cave are over 1 million years old," Baker said. "That came as a bit of a surprise because we thought they might be younger than that."

In the not-so-distant past, visitors to the cave were often disrespectful of nature's long underground labor. Baker pointed to the bottom of an abandoned wooden stairway in a side tunnel a few feet away from the primary walkway that visitors use today.

"This is how visitors entered the cave over 100 years ago," Baker said. "They would pay a $1 entry fee."

In those days, before the area was protected as a national park, visitors would sometimes grab the scenic features and break them off, she said.

"In the early days, visitors would take a stalactite with them as a souvenir in the cave," Baker said.

Some of the broken stalactites are growing back now at the relentlessly slow pace of dripping water. New growths hanging from the broken stumps are just an inch or so in length.

In the pre-national park era, commercial guides would often put on a musical show by banging on the cave's fragile features, Baker said.

"The tour guides would play a song on the different fluted formations in here," she said, pointing out some of those features in the so-called "music room." "(That's) not recommended these days. You have to sing your own song in here."

A visitor to Lehman Caves doesn't see too much in the way of wildlife. One might see a spiderweb here and there, and a bug or two crawling on a wall. But tiny, seldom-seen creatures do live in the cave full time, and they're fascinating to scientists because they evolved to live in total darkness. They include exotic species of millipedes, pseudoscorpions and mites.

"They often have lost their eyes and they're white because they don't have any pigment because they don't need any protection from the sun," Baker said.

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