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Park Is a Nevada Jackpot Won Outdoors

May 03, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

BAKER, Nev. — It's America's newest national park, a Nevada jackpot you can win this summer without stepping into a casino.

Las Vegas is a natural gateway to Great Basin National Park, where visitors from Southern California may prepare themselves for the fantasies of Lehman Caves and the panoramas of Wheeler Peak.

Great Basin became a national park last October and is preparing summer programs to begin right after Memorial Day.

Park headquarters is next to Lehman Caves, five miles west of Baker near the Nevada-Utah boundary and about a six-hour drive north from Las Vegas. It is easy to access from the Interstate 15 mainstream of vacation travel between Southern California, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and the Rockies.

As part of the new national park, the Lehman "living caves," declared a national monument by President Harding in 1922, will become more widely known as a wonder of the world. They were created 500 million years ago in the earth's Cambrian Age.

The Lehman Caves are small compared to such giants as the Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico. There are 90-minute walking tours that cover about two-thirds of a mile among the rainbow colors of stalactites and geode crystals still being created.

Drive Above the Caves

Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive above the caves climbs for 12 miles to the 10,000-foot level along the slopes of the 13,063-foot peak.

My wife, Elfriede, and I first detoured into this wonderland of nature half a dozen years ago while driving between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Now the Great Basin park center will provide easy-to-follow directions to hiking trails off Scenic Drive. They lead past alpine lakes to a rare and ancient bristlecone pine forest. One trail climbs to the summit of Wheeler Peak.

Summer programs to introduce and interpret the new national park will include nature walks to the bristlecone forest and weekly guided hikes to the top of Wheeler Peak. There will also be evening campfire programs.

Camping and picnic facilities will be near Lehman Caves and at three campgrounds along Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. The concession in the headquarters area includes a small cafe that serves breakfast and lunch, and will also have available natural history research materials.

One is the new "Lehman Caves" booklet published by the Great Basin National History Assn. Researched and written by Jeremy Schmidt, the text is illustrated by beautiful color photos.

The Lehman Caves National Monument Library has an unpublished manuscript of historical value, written by the late Keith Trexler, a park service naturalist who studied and wrote "Lehman Caves--Its Human History," tracing its story from prehistoric times through 1965. The manuscript has been bound in book form.

At least 10,000 years ago the ancestors of later Indian peoples hunted big game in the Great Basin and left petroglyphs in many of the canyons near the caves. About a thousand years ago there existed a Pueblo-like culture with small adobe villages. Toward the Utah border archeologists have found a pueblo site of the agricultural Fremont Indians who raised corn and beans, then disappeared with the arrival of Shoshone, Paiute and other powerful nomadic tribes.

The Father Escalante expedition came close to the caves in 1776, while exploring a route from Mexico to the Pacific. Half a century later, mountain man Jedediah Smith skirted the area, as did John C. Fremont in the 1840s.

Joined Gold Rush

Abaslom Lehman left his Ohio home in 1849, at age 22, to join the California gold rush. Finding no gold, he tried his luck with an equal lack of success in the mining country of Australia. His wife and daughter died there, and in 1869 he followed the silver rush to eastern Nevada.

By that time Lehman had learned that the surest gold rush fortunes could be made by selling supplies to the miners. He established a ranch below Wheeler Peak and one day came upon the ancient caves.

Soon he was promoting tours of "Lehman's Wonderful Cave," and visitors arrived by the hundreds to supplement his ranch income. In 1891 he sold his ranch to devote full time to the cave, but died five weeks later in Salt Lake City.

After a series of private proprietors, Lehman Caves became part of a new national forest in 1909. In 1933, 11 years after President Harding made the caves a national monument, the National Park Service took over administration, although the establishment of Great Basin National Park was still more than half a century away.

Now Lehman Caves, actually a series of chambers that make up a single cave, has been thoroughly explored, described and mapped for visitors, who follow a paved path with stairways so as not to touch any of the works of art sculptured by nature. When illumination is turned off, you have a sense of the evolving life on Earth over millions of years. The booklet by Jeremy Schmidt quotes Thoreau:

"The finest workers in store are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time."

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