Cave / Karst Systems

reflective pool with speleothems
A pool with many speleothems in Lehman Caves

NPS/Gretchen Baker

What is a Cave?

In the Park, a cave is defined as a natural opening in rock, accessible by a human, which is at least 30 feet long and has a dark zone. Great Basin National Park contains 40 known caves, filled with unusual cave life and unique features.

What is Karst?

Karst is a landscape capable of supporting caves. Great Basin National Park has over 41,000 acres of karst.

The most famous cave in the Park is Lehman Caves, which is open to the public via park-ranger guided tours. It is also the longest cave in Nevada, at over 2 miles in length. Check out the Virtual Cave Tour.

Although Lehman Caves is filled with speleothems, some caves in the park have none. Some are muddy, some require ropes to enter, some have streams running through them, and some have perennial ice. A few can be visited by experienced cavers who obtain a Wild Cave Permit. All other caves remain closed to protect their fragile ecosystems.


Caves are Treasure Troves of Information

Caves are amazing places. Protected from the sun and elements, they can preserve what is in them for thousands and even millions of years. Geologic processes occur in caves that still puzzle scientists. Endemic creatures that live nowhere else in the world are frequent in caves. Cave climate usually has stable temperatures and high humidity, but park staff are finding it changing in some caves. In fact, management of cave resources has become more important as we learn about these special ecosystems.


Cave Life

Over the past 15 years, over 10 species new to science have been found in caves at Great Basin National Park. In addition, many species of bats use park caves. Our biggest invertebrate predator is the Great Basin Pseudoscorpion, a cool false scorpion first found in Lehman Caves and now known from additional caves, including some high elevation ones. Find out more about these amazing creatures that have adapted to the dark on the Cave Life page.
white upside-down icicle like speleothems projecting from the cave floor
Encrusted drip tubes in the Gypsum Annex portion of Lehman Caves give clues about how the cave originated.

NPS/Gretchen Baker

Cave Geology

The understanding of cave geology has changed rapidly over the last few years due to researchers who have seen the cave with fresh eyes and ideas. We are currently working on updating our Cave Geology website pages.

For an excellent, in-depth discussion on how Lehman Caves originated, see this report by cave geologists Harvey DuChene and Louise Hose.

Formation of Lehman Caves

Several small bones and teeth
Incisors, cheek teeth, and partial jaw bones without teeth of yellow-bellied marmot, Marmota flaviventris. Quarter is 2.5 cm in diameter.

NPS/Gorden Bell

Cave Paleontology

Paleontology is the study of fossils (evidence of past life). Caves turn out to be a great place to preserve that evidence of past life. Although much of the rock in the park is metamorphic, with heat and pressure erasing fossils in the rock, many bones, teeth, and other evidence have been found in park caves.

In 2013, a park paleontologist found an exciting discovery: bones from a small rabbit (Aztlanolagus agilis) that lived in the Pleistocene period (about 11,700 to 2.6 million years ago) in a park cave.

Nearby woodrat middens have revealed tens of thousands of years of information on the plants and animals in the area.

You can find more information about cave paleontology on this NPS website.

Cave Archeology

Caves preserve a variety of archeological resources such as rock art, historical signatures, and more. Within Great Basin National Park, you can easily see pictographs on the outside of Upper Pictograph Cave.
people standing in cave
A group of visitors in 1921 pose in the Grand Palace, below the Parachute shield. Note the ties and dresses.

Cave History

Lehman Caves is the longest running show cave in the state of Nevada, with tours starting in 1885. You can read more about the rediscovery by Absalom Lehman in 1885, how Lehman Caves became a national monument in 1922, and other Lehman Caves history.
group in cave with flashlight letters spelling out LINT CAMP
Lint Camp volunteers take a break to spell out LINT CAMP with their headlamps in Lehman Caves.


Cave Management

Each person who enters a cave inadvertently leaves behind a little bit of clothing lint, hair, and skin cells. With over 30,000 people going into Lehman Caves this year, this adds up. Each year, the Park holds a lint and restoration camp to help clean the cave.

Park staff also manage the wild caves in the Park. You can see some science being done in this Model Cave video.

Further Reading

Follow these links for more information about caves, cave geology, exploration, conservation, and science.

Last updated: November 13, 2021

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Baker, NV 89311


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