I can’t see my hand in front of my face. The tour guide, who had just extinguished the lights, chuckles from somewhere in the darkness. After a long minute, he lights a single candle.
“This is how the caves appeared to Absalom Lehman when he discovered them in 1885,” he says, his face barely visible in the candle’s faint glow. “They must have seemed enormous and very, very mysterious.”
The flickering flame barely illuminates the walls of the underground chamber. The cave’s limestone formations take on the appearance of giant teeth while the shifting shadows reveal other, stranger shapes.
The guide blows out the flame and once again we’re in total darkness. I’ve never been anywhere that was so dark and quiet.
“Now if I can just find the switch,” the guide says. Everyone in our tour group laughes nervously. He turns the electric lights on and, once our eyes adjust, we can see everything. The caves don’t seem that threatening now.
As we continue on the tour, the guide explains that Absalom S. Lehman, a local farmer, was the first to discover the caves. Lehman had prospected in California and Australia before settling in Eastern Nevada to grow food for nearby mining camps.
One day, Lehman discovered an opening in the mountainside above his ranch. He climbed inside with a candle lantern and found a labyrinth of underground chambers.
Millions of years ago, the caves were carved out of limestone by underground streams. The unique rock decorations were created by carbon-dioxide-charged water gradually filtering through cracks in the limestone. The water dissolved the limestone and then slowly reformed it into fascinating stone sculptures.
In places, sharp-edged stalactites hang from the ceilings and imposing stalagmites rise from the floors. Occasionally, the two merge into huge pillars.
We pass from one room lined with long, draping formations—they look like giant elephant ears—to a larger chamber where we can see a picturesque pool of water.
“See that narrow space up there?” the guide asks. “In the early days, visitors had to crawl through there to get into the caves. That passage was known as ‘Fatman’s Misery.’ I think you can see why.”
As we pass through Lehman Caves’ narrow passages, I understand why all backpacks, camera bags and large purses were collected at the start of the tour. There’s not much room.
The guide asks that we not touch anything because the oils from our skin can interfere with the growth of any future cave formations.
We move into another room, where he points to streaks of dark soot on the low cave ceiling. Upon closer inspection, I can see that the dark lines are sets of initials and dates burned into the roof.
The ranger explains that it was once a tradition for visitors to mark the cave with their initials—although, of course, such vandalism is frowned upon today.
He also shows us places where some of the hanging rock was removed in order to create a large meeting room. In the early part of the century, the room was used for dances and as a lodge for local fraternal organizations.
Additionally, in the old days, visitors were allowed to break off souvenirs.
Fortunately, despite any previous negligence, there is still plenty to see in Lehman Caves. Geologists consider them noteworthy because of the unusually wide variety of formations found inside, including twisting helictites and a large number of circular shields or palettes.
Lehman Caves was named a national monument in 1922 and became part of Great Basin National Park, when it was created in 1986.
At the end of the 90-minute tour, we step back into the daylight, just as another group enters the caves.
Enjoy the dark.
Lehman Caves are open year-round, weather permitting. Two guided tours are available: the 60-minute Lodge Room Tour and the 90-minute Grand Palace Tour. Admission to the former is $8 for adults, $5 for children and seniors while admission to the latter is $10 for adults and $5 for children and seniors.
The caves can be accessed through the visitors center at Great Basin National Park, which is located about 70 miles east of Ely (about a half-day drive from Fallon via U.S. 50). For more information contact Great Basin National Park, Baker, NV 89311, 775-234-7331, http://www.nps.gov/grba/index.htm.
Richard Moreno has a passion for Nevada, its towns and people.