Great Basin day: A beautiful “sky island” in the middle of barrenness

The sights and history of Great Basin National Park in Nevada. | Photos courtesy of Susan Manser and Sasha Nielson, St. George News

FEATURE — These days, going to a national park is synonymous with fighting crowds. For parkgoers wanting to avoid the masses, Nevada’s only national park, Great Basin, is a good bet.

Great Basin National Park, StGeorgeNews.com
Wheeler Peak as seen from Wheeler Peak Viewpoint along Great Basin’s Scenic Drive, Great Basin National Park, Nevada, Aug. 28, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The main reason for the park’s lack of visitors is its isolation. It sits close to what was once deemed “The Loneliest Highway in America:” U.S. Highway 50, out in the middle of what many consider a barren wasteland. Some of the first European-Americans to lay their eyes on the Great Basin (thus named because none of its streams empty into any ocean) weren’t complimentary of it.

Early explorer John C. Fremont noted: “the appearance of the country was so forbidding that I was afraid to enter it,” as noted in Terril J. Kramer’s presidential address to the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers (APCG), transcribed in the APCG Yearbook of 1991. 

Famous 19th century American author Mark Twain called it: “a vast, waveless ocean, stricken dead … tufted with ash-dusted sagebrushes,” Kramer remarked.

That description paints a picture of a foreboding landscape one would not want to enter, but anyone who has visited would probably disagree. But they might agree until they actually get close to it.

Even when visitors from Southern Utah cross into Nevada on state Route 21 (which turns into Nevada Highway 487) anjd see a sign that tells them they’ll reach Great Basin National Park in 11 miles, they might ask themselves why the mountainous area they see on the horizon received its lofty designation. From that distance, it just doesn’t seem that special.

Even while driving up the 5.5-mile Lehman Caves Road (NV SR 488) from Baker, Nev., to the park boundary and the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, they still might think, “What is all the fuss about these mountains and their surroundings in the middle of nowhere?”

The magic of this remote park – its “most high-profile activities” according to its Chief of Interpretation, Nichole Andler – are found underneath it, near the top of it and in the dark. They are Lehman Caves, Wheeler Peak and unparalleled night skies. 

This bastion of a quintessential Western landscape, called a “sky island” by some, owes its beginning to an adventurer from the East.

Lehman the discoverer

A native of Pennsylvania, Absalom Lehman was a well-traveled entrepreneur before he showed up in what today is Great Basin National Park. Born in 1827, Lehman headed west during the California Gold Rush of 1849 hoping to, like nearly all 49ers, to strike it rich. After attempting to make a go of it in the Golden State, Lehman boarded a ship to Australia to try his hand at mining there. He was successful in finding gold in the Land Down Under and also operated some wool stores, the Great Basin National Park bio page about Lehman explains.

While in Victoria, Australia, he married Englishwoman Mary Taylor. Two daughters, Lucy and Martha, were born to the couple. However, after Mary and Martha died, Lehman returned to California with Lucy in tow. He mined there with his brother Jacob, with whom he left Lucy when he moved to Snake Valley, Nevada between 1866 and 1869 to try his hand at ranching. He settled on Weaver Creek, a few miles north of the cave he discovered, where he “lived the first summer under a pine tree with Indians for neighbors,” his bio page reports.

Not much is known about his early ventures in the area. It is certain that he returned to Ohio in 1869 and married Olive Smith, then moved back to Nevada by the fall of 1870.

A few months after her arrival in the Nevada wilderness, Olive wrote home lamenting that she hadn’t seen another white woman yet. Soon after, as if in response to her complaints, Lehman’s brother Ben arrived with his wife, Mary, as well as Olive’s brother, Sam Smith, a little while later.

In 1871, Ab and Olive’s first child, Laura Nevada, was born near the mining town of Hamilton. They had two others, Frank and Lawrence. Lawrence died as a toddler and Frank died at age 28 after serving a few years as a Lutheran minister. Only Lucy, Lehman’s daughter by his first marriage, and Laura lived to old age.

By 1875, more families had arrived near the Lehman family’s ranch. By then, Ab tended 25-30 head of cattle and had established a productive orchard and garden. By 1880, things were so good the family had to hire two hands to keep the operation going. In 1890, he had acquired 600 acres, including pasture lands, orchards, cultivated fields, a dairy as well as blacksmith, butcher and carpenter shops, his bio page explains. 

He still delved in mining, staking a claim in Osceola and was active in politics as a member of the county’s Republican General Committee and Grand Jury.

Olive tired of frontier life and returned to Ohio in late 1881 with the children. Lehman kept the ranch operating but headed east when his wife’s health went downhill. She died September 19, 1883 at only 35 years old. Saddened, Lehman returned to Nevada, leaving the children with relatives in Ohio. 

This historic photo shows early tourists congregating at the natural entrance to Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Sasha Nielson, St. George News

Most reports corroborate that Lehman discovered the caves that now bear his name in 1885, turning them into a tourist attraction. 

He charged $1 to anyone who wanted to explore it. He allowed the cave explorers of his day to take anything they wanted from the cave as a souvenir. It is easy to spot stalactites broken off in many places in the cave. 

Early on, it was called “Ab Lehman’s Wonderful Cave,” and quickly became a regional tourist attraction after its discovery, Kramer explained. It became such a profitable business that Lehman wanted to devote most of his time to it rather than ranching.

He built a house near the caves’ entrance, just above his orchard, with the idea that he would further develop them to attract more curious onlookers. He sold the lower part of his ranch on Sept. 1, 1891, but was never able to put his aspirations into fruition as his health failed and he died on Oct. 11, 1891, at the age of 64. 

“Those who knew Lehman remembered him as a kindly man with a quick wit, who never turned a needy person from his door,” his bio page says. 

“His liberality knew no bounds,” one obituary explained. “To many a wanderer, he was a benefactor. His life was indeed an eventful one, full of romance and adventure.

Lehman Caves administration

Tonopah mining broker and national director of the Grand Central Highway (U.S. Highway 50) Association Cada C. Boak took on a fascination with the caves during the construction of the road through Eastern Nevada, which was completed in 1920. White Pine County and the U.S. Forest Service cooperated in constructing a road from the highway to the cave in 1921, wrote Harlan Unrau in the park’s resource study completed in 1990.

Boak became the biggest proponent of designating the caves as a national monument and forwarded glowing reports and photographs of the caves to high places, including to the desk of National Park Service Director Stephen Mather, urging that the caves speedily receive national monument status. Soon after, Nevada Senator Tasker L. Oddie also wrote Mather supporting the same designation. 

The Park Service was amenable to the request, but since the cave was located on Forest Service land, that agency had to lend its support as well, which it did. In December 1921, it reached Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace, who had a long acquaintance with Boak. In January it went to the president’s desk, Unrau wrote.

The Warren G. Harding administration designated Lehman Caves a national monument on January 24, 1922.

In 1923, Nevada designated the caves and its surroundings a State Recreation Ground and Game Refuge, the cave history page notes. White Pine County proclaimed Wheeler Peak a Wildlife Preserve.

Great Basin National Park, StGeorgeNews.com
The trail winding through Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of National Park Service, St. George News

At first, the Forest Service administered the monument, appointing Clarence Rhodes, a former restaurant owner who had purchased 50 acres of Lehman’s property, as the caves’ first official custodian. With little presence at the cave, the Forest Service allowed Rhodes and his wife, Bea, to keep guide fees as their pay for their work. These approved fees amounted to one dollar per person with children under 12 fee. It was quite a bargain for a tour that regularly lasted three hours or more, the history page notes.

Under the Rhodes’ watch, the caves saw many improvements including floor excavations to give more head room and the replacement of rope ladders with stairs. In their quest to improve business at the cave, the Rhodes developed the Lodge Room into a large-group meeting place that hosted events such as weddings and dances. In 1928, they built a log lodge that hosted Saturday evening concerts and 15 cabins as accommodations for cave guests. One of those still remains near the visitor center and is known as “Rhodes Cabin.” Their tenure at the caves ended in 1930.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1933 that transferred control of all national monuments to the National Park Service. That transfer of administration led to better protection and included renovation and clean up projects. 

“Lehman Caves was littered with debris, tin cans, lumber, and broken formations, all evidence of the heavy impact early visitors had on the cave,” the cave history page explains. “The Wishing Well was a small room filled with trinkets left by visitors who believed that if they left an item and made a wish, it would come true. One pool alone yielded 700 objects, including coins, a garter and an American flag.”

Over the next 30 years, big changes at the cave included the addition of electricity and lights (candles were used as light before) as well as excavating tunnels to enter and exit the cave rather than traverse its more precarious natural entrance.

In the 1960s, parts of a movie were filmed inside the cave: the 1965 science fiction film Horrors of the Red Planet.

The Wheeler Peak Trail provides up close glimpses of its glacier and snowpack that lingers most of the year, Great Basin National Park, Nevada, September 2020 | Photo courtesy of Susan Manser, St. George News

Establishing a park

“The establishment of (Great Basin National Park) was the result of a rather lengthy period of conflict and compromise,” Kramer said.  A lot of the rationale for establishing the area as a park lied with Lehman Caves’ establishment as a national monument. Even in the 1920s, there were informal movements to expand the acreage and designate it a national park. Grazing interests were adamantly opposed to the park and Congress quickly lost interest, Kramer explained. 

The thinking of the day was that parks should be carved out of land that was economically useless but which may have some “monumental” characteristic, Kramer noted. 

Interest renewed in the 1950s, when the Wheeler Peak “glacieret” was proven and the rumor of the gigantic limestone arch, Lexington Arch, was verified, Kramer said. The bristlecone pine grove was found to be larger than expected, which helped the cause as well. Detractors still held that, besides Lehman Caves, what else is there to attract visitors other than mountain scenery, of which there is an overabundance in the west.

One of the arguments for the park was that it would bring tourists and enhance White Pine County’s economy. 

In 1958, Nevada’s congressional delegation introduced resolutions calling for the Secretary of the Interior to complete an advisability study for potential park status and in 1959, that same delegation introduced a bill to establish a 147,000-acre national park. In 1961, amendments to that bill chip away at the size, reducing it to 123,260 acres with the caveat that grazing privileges be protected, Kramer explained. 

The Senate passed the bill in 1962, but it did not “see the light of day,” according to Kramer’s writing because Nevada Congressman Walter Baring added amendments reducing its size to 53,000 acres to protect mining, grazing and hunting interests.

Baring even reintroduced the same bill in 1965, having the gall to change the words “national park” to “national recreation area.” Not surprisingly, the bill failed. 

From 1965 to 1985, behind the scenes activities promoting the eventual park occurred, including National Park Service inventories and studies throughout the Great Basin itself. 

In 1985, the Nevada congressional delegation introduced bills to create three designated areas within the Great Basin, including a Forest Service wilderness area. Both bills included acreage in the Snake Range, but no national park, Kramer wrote. It was later amendments to these bills, proposed by Congressman Bruce Vento from Minnesota and not a member of the Nevada delegation, that proposed a 174,000-acre national park. The actual park, established a year later, was less than half that size.

In May 1986, the Nevada delegation proposed a 44,000-acre national park to protect mining and grazing interests. After House and Senate committee deliberations and compromises on the size of the park President Ronald Reagan signed the bill to create on October 27, 1986, becomes 77,109 acres and encompasses the former Lehman Caves National Monument as well as acreage in the Humboldt National Forest. 

Great Basin is smaller than all but two other parks in the Western U.S.: Arches and Bryce Canyon.

“A telling blow to the mining industry was the argument that if the mineral resources of the southern Snake Range were so valuable, why hadn’t they already been developed?,” Kramer surmised. “As it turned out, the eventual boundary of the park was adjusted for several active claims; the park, however, is withdrawn from further mineral development.”

Most grazing in the park was eventually phased out visitors not used to sharing a national park with cattle increasingly complained. This sparked conversations with the park superintendent and local ranchers and eventually Nevada Senator Harry Reid. After nine years of discussing, compromising and fundraising, monies were secured to essentially buy out the ranchers’ grazing permits in December 1999.

astronomy trailer, Great Basin National Park, StGeorgeNews.com
The back of the park’s astronomy trailer, which declares that one can see the Milky Way in the park and that “Half the park is after dark,” Great Basin National Park, Nevada, Aug. 27, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Visiting Great Basin

Tours of Lehman Caves, the main draw in the park, originate only steps from the visitor center which bares the same name, provide otherworldly experiences viewing stalactites (which cling tightly to the cave’s ceiling), stalagmites (which rise up from the cave floor), and columns (fusions of stalactites and stalagmites). It also includes helictites (blocks in the flow of water in stalactites that shoot off in other directions, some defying gravity). Cave-goers also are treated to “menu items” such as cave bacon and popcorn as well as over 300 rare shield formations, which are flat, angled rocks with stalactites emanating below them.

Today’s visitors do not exit or enter the cave through its natural entrance, but by the aforementioned man-made tunnels. While passing by the natural entrance, tour guides ask tour-goers to be silent in order to not disturb the caves’ sleeping bat population, which has dropped dramatically as of late because of White Nose Syndrome: a disease for which every visitor is screened by park rangers before entering the cave.

Two cave tours are available: the Lodge Tour, recommended if accompanied by children under 5, and the Grand Palace Tour, recommended for children 5 and over. The Lodge Tour is 60 minutes and covers less ground than the 90-minute Grand Palace Tour. Tickets for cave tours can be reserved and purchased through recreation.gov.

The Scenic Drive (https://www.nps.gov/grba/planyourvisit/wheeler-peak-scenic-drive.htm), which originates from Nevada Highway 488 just before the Lehman Caves Visitor Center, climbs over 4,000 feet in elevation and provides sweeping views of the Great Basin Desert below as well as a vast array of vegetation, from sagebrush, Rocky Mountain Juniper and Pinyon Pine at the lower climes to groves of White Fir, Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Quaking Aspen up higher.

Turnouts, such as Mather Viewpoint, on the way up offer breathtaking vistas of the park’s 13,159-foot sentinel, Wheeler Peak, and the forests surrounding it. It’s the park’s higher climes that are its hiking mecca.

“The trails in the Wheeler Peak area are most popular,” said Andler. “During the warm summer months hiking at high altitude is a bit more pleasant and the scenery is gorgeous. On top of that you can visit the oldest single living organisms, Bristlecone Pines, and see a rock glacier, the only one in Nevada.”

An up-close look at a a mature bristlecone pine tree can help one realize that they are extremely old organisms, Great Basin National Park, Nevada, September 2020 | Photo courtesy of Susan Manser, St. George News

Besides Wheeler Peak, the two main attractions near the top, as Andler describes, are a grove of approximately 8,500 Bristlecone Pines, some of which are as old as Egyptian hieroglyphics. The two-mile trail into the grove originates where the paved road ends below Wheeler Peak. Another attraction is the glacier, located at the base of the peak at approximately 11,500 feet. It is the only rock glacier between the Sierra Nevada and the southern Rockies.Near the glacier, hikers can play in the snow even in the summer.  

The park also has communities of “Mountain Mahogany,” a shrub that is a member of the rose family which ancient inhabitants to modern-day campers have used for firewood. Its hard logs produce a hot flame that 19th and early 20th century minders used to fuel their smelters, Kramer noted.

Besides the caves and Wheeler Peak, Great Basin was recently designated an International Dark Sky Park for its distinguished and unique opportunities to experience dark nights. 

“On a clear, moonless night in Great Basin National Park, thousands of stars, five of our solar system’s eight planets, star clusters, meteors, man-made satellites, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye,” the park’s astronomy website declared. “Low humidity and minimal light pollution, combined with high elevation, create a unique window to the universe.”

During a typical astronomy program, held in the Lehman Caves Visitor Center parking lot at dusk, visitors are able to see celestial bodies such as Saturn, M13 (a cluster of stars) and the Andromeda Galaxy through one of the park’s telescopes. Additionally, “Dark” Rangers such as Annie Gilliland, with a special flashlight in hand, point to Polaris, the Summer Triangle, and Cassiopeia, to name a few. 

On any given night, if there is little to no cloud cover, Great Basin visitors can see the faint white aura of the Milky Way forming a stripe across the sky and seemingly numberless stars filling its vast expanse. 

Great Basin started its astronomy program in 2009 and has given it a special focus ever since.

“It has grown quickly to become one of the things people seek out when they come here,” Gilliland said of the park’s astronomy programs.

“Watching visitors make a new connection to the sky, the dark, and the park is my favorite part of the job,” Gilliland explained. “Most of us get very little education in even basic astronomy now and I love helping people see why it matters. I find it very rewarding to hear ‘I’ve never thought about this before,’ especially with the topic of light pollution.”

“I consider being able to see our galaxy and a sky full of stars is a way of finding a connection to something we’re all part of,” she further explained. “Some people look at the stars and feel small, but I feel big. We are part of something enormous and beautiful, and to me, the Milky Way is our neighborhood. I like to know where I live.”

Baker, a non-typical gateway community

Sitting 62 miles from Ely, the closest major city, Baker is not a typical national park gateway community. It doesn’t have scores of restaurants, accommodations and souvenir shops. Visitors won’t find any “tourist traps” in this remote town. With a population of only 65 permanent residents, it only has a few restaurants (none of them chains) and six small motels.

Most visitors who stay more than a day camp while at Great Basin, Andler said. That might be due to its remoteness and lack of motel accommodations and because the park boasts four campgrounds in its most highly visited area, including Baker Creek, Lower Lehman Creek, Upper Lehman Creek and Wheeler Peak.

Andler said that there are two typical types of Great Basin visitors, those that come for the day to take a cave tour and drive the Scenic Drive and “another group that camps for a couple days and hikes several trails.”

“The remoteness probably does keep some people from coming,” Andler explained. “But there are people who come here for it.”

Great Basin is just over three hours away from the St. George area. Take I-15 northbound to exit 62 (Cedar City), then take state Route 30 north to Milford. Turn left in Milford onto SR-21 and follow it to Baker.

For more information, visit the park’s website.

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people, places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

For previews on Days Series stories, insights on local history and information on upcoming historical presentations, please “like” Wadsworth’s author Facebook page.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

Email: rwadsworth@stgnews.com

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!