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Out of the heat of the desert and into the cool of the cave. A welcome break and a visual treat beneath the surface, where the temperature stays a constant 52 degrees.

It was cool air coming from a surface opening, in fact, that led Absalom Lehman to explore further in the mid-1800s when he was ambling around the Snake Valley hills where his ranch was located.Lehman Caves, now a feature of the Great Basin National Park, are not large in comparison with some other caves, but they have some spectacular formations that are duplicated in only a few caves around the world.

The Parachute, Lehman's well-known trademark formation, is a phenomenon even geologists can't fully explain. The caves are, in fact, replete with shield formations of the parachute type - flat, near-round plates that drip stalactites.

Other spectacular views in the Lehman Caves include the Chapel, which actually served as the site for at least one wedding, and the Lodge Room, where nearby units of the Knights of Pythias and the Elks Lodge found a unique meeting place. Unfortunately, many of the formations were hacked away to accommodate the meetings. Lehman himself was known to have taken sections of stalactites back East as sou-venirs when he visited family. Flat-bottomed stalactites and occasional toppled stalagmites remain a testament to man's invasion of the caves.

In some sections of the caves, where daylight creeps into the underground caverns, green algae form an uncharacteristic patina on the white-to-brown formations.

Lehman was proud of the caves and spent his last years preparing to make them more available to the avid adventurers who were willing to crawl by candlelight into the recesses of a mountain.

Today's visitors have it easier. The entry to the caves is right behind a modern visitors center opened in 1963. There is no long climb to get there, as is the case with some other Western caves.

Tours, led by knowledgeable Park Service guides, take off every half hour from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. At 6 p.m., a candlelight tour is offered for the brave of heart willing to forgo electric illumination for the sake of a more mystical trip through the caverns.

It was candles, in fact, that created one of the less pristine elements of today's cave experience. Early visitors who had squirmed through a tight passage (many of them women in the voluminous skirts of the era) to get into one of the larger rooms were rewarded with the treat of writing their names in candle smoke on the ceiling - an absolute no-no for more conservation-minded moderns. Even touching the formations and walls is discouraged because the oil in human skin can interfere with the painstaking work of nature in the caves.

But the names of the early cavers remain, since no one has found a good way to get them out of the limestone surfaces, our guide told us.

Among the signatures is that of Absalom Lehman himself. An adventurous soul who sought gold and other minerals across the United States and in Australia (where he really did find ore in his own back yard), he ultimately settled in the Nevada desert. The caves named in his honor are the only lasting riches he unearthed. Another of Lehman's signatures has been discovered in a portion of a cavern that is entirely inaccessible to all but the dedicated spelunker, showing how extensively he explored the caverns.

He died before his dreams of further developing the caves and expanding the number of visitors could be realized. He was buried in the pauper's section of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Salt Lake City (now the children's section). In 1976, a Salt Lake Boy Scout, Tim Andrews of Troop 195, undertook the erection of a marker as a Scout project. Stonemason Hans Huettlinger created the marker, which credits Lehman with discovery of the caves.

Evidence that the ongoing process of accumulation and erosion that probably began more than a million years ago to create the caves continues is in the tiny droplets of water that slide through stalactites and splash onto the stalagmites below. Each drop contributes a minute amount of mineral to add to their growth.

Visitations to the park, including the caves, have exploded since the creation of Great Basin National Park, said current Superintendent Albert J. Hendricks. Cave tours tend to fill up in the morning, so getting on the list early is a good idea.

After a summer cave tour, the return to desert heat can feel like a smack with a hot mallet, but there is a solution - continue up the road to Mount Wheeler and the upper reaches of Great Basin Park, where cooler temperatures and spectacular scenery are relief in another guise.


Additional Information

About Lehman Caves

Location: 97 miles west of Delta on U.S. 6/50.

Cave tours: Saturdays and Sundays, every half hour, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, every hour, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Candlelight tours 6 p.m. daily. Tours leave from directly behind the visitor center.

Fees: Adults 16 and older, $4; juniors 6 to 15, $3; Golden Age/Access Passports, $2; children 5 and under free.

Visitor Center hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Memorial day to Labor Day; 8 a.m to 5 p.m. the rest of the year.

Other Great Basin Park services: Hiking; four developed campgrounds, Junior Ranger program; Family Adventure Packs with activity ideas and equipment for learning adventures; ranger-guided walks and talks, bristlecone pine hikes, campfire programs.

For information: Call 702-234-7331.