Dennis Cassinelli: Nevada’s Lehman Caves are spectacular
June 20, 2018
For several years before the area now known as the Great Basin National Park was created, my family and I hunted, camped and visited the area, including the spectacular Lehman Caves. Discovered by rancher Absolom S. Lehman and others in 1885 and perhaps much earlier by American Indians, the caves are now one of the main attractions at the Great Basin National Park.
Lehman Caves are an excellent example of a limestone solution cavern. Their beginning can be traced back 550 to 600 million years ago when a warm, shallow sea covered most of what is now Nevada and Utah. Over the next 400 million years, sea creatures lived and died, piling up layers of calcium carbonate-rich sediment on the ocean floor. These sediments gradually solidified into limestone rock.
Millions of years ago, these limestone layers were uplifted, exposing them to the elements. For millennia, rain and melting snow soaked through the soil and combined with carbon dioxide gas from decaying plants and animals to form a weak solution of carbonic acid. This acidic solution trickled downward through tiny cracks until it reached the water table. The limestone around these water-filled cracks slowly dissolved. These cracks grew into the rooms and passageways that make up Lehman Caves. Over time, the water table dropped, and the water drained out of these underground chambers.
Seeping water continued to enter the air-filled chambers of the cave. Every water droplet carried with it a small amount of dissolved limestone. When exposed to the air of the open chamber, the carbon dioxide gas escaped from the solution. Calcite and other minerals formed deposits along the walls, ceilings and floors. These deposits created the beautiful and mysterious formations we know as speleothems.
Today, these same processes of growth continue, slowly decorating the passages and rooms of the cave, adding to the fantastic examples of stalactites, columns, draperies, flowstone, helicities, and rare shield formations. The full story of the discovery of Lehman Caves will never be known, as more than 40 widely differing accounts of this event have been uncovered.
Great Basin National Park awaits your discovery. Here you can experience the solitude of the desert, the smell of sagebrush after a thunderstorm, the darkest of night skies, and the beauty of Lehman Caves. You can take the scenic drive to the face of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak or hike up to see the 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine trees growing on rocky glacial moraines. The park is located near the Nevada-Utah border southeast of Ely.
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This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis' books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.