My brother and I went to Great Basin National Park today and took a tour of Lehman Caves, an amazing cave system that is truly a hidden gem in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada.
We took the Grand Palace Tour, which was 90 minutes long. Because the cave ecosystem is incredibly delicate, only hand-held equipment was allowed inside. This means that I wasn’t able to bring a tripod, and because of the low light levels I had to use shutter speeds of 1/5 to 1 second, which was difficult to manage. I would say 70% of my shots were out of focus, which is disappointing but definitely the reason I was constantly snapping photos.
There were lots of areas where damage was really apparent. The man who first started allowing people to enter the caves had a “If you can break it, you can take it” policy, which means that many early visitors to the caves took home souvenirs millions of years in the making. It’s encouraging to see new growth on the broken stalactites, and the rangers were very vigilant about keeping people from touching anything.
The lighting inside the caves wasn’t so colorful to the naked eye - the camera picked up much more interesting hues.
The caves are not for the claustrophobic. Most of the time you are able to stand upright without any danger of hitting your head, but there are areas that you have to duck through. One person on the tour immediately realized that they couldn’t handle 90 minutes in such an enclosed space, and had the tour guide escort them back out. I admit, there were times where it was getting to me, too. The park ranger let us experience about 5 minutes of total darkness, and my brain was desperately trying to pretend that it could see things. But in reality, we were in pitch black. I couldn’t even see my brother, who was standing right next to me.
These circular formations are called shields, and are extremely rare. Of the thousands of caves in the United States, only about 80 of them have shield formations, and Lehman Caves has quite a few. They were all over the place.
Stalactites are the formations that hang down from the ceilings. They’re also called “soda straws,” because the water that carries the limestone deposits to build up the formation actually travels through a hollow tube in the center. This is why it’s important not to touch - if the straw is plugged by the oils and grime on your hands, then it stops forming.
It’s easy to think of caves as being empty of life, and we certainly didn’t see any while we were on the tour. But that’s because the creatures that live inside the caves don’t like the light, and hide when the lights are turned on. But there are bats, pseudoscorpions, spiders and millipedes that live there, not to mention extremophile bacteria.
I strongly recommend that you swing by Great Basin National Park if you happen to be anywhere close, and definitely do not skip the cave tour. For you pros, I would recommend trying to arrange a special after-hours tour, which requires a filming permit but allows you to bring in additional equipment, like tripods. Seriously, it’s an entirely different world in the caves, and it’s an amazing and worthwhile experience.