Nevada's only national park may look distant to Las Vegans reading a state map, but those who have been there always remark that it was well worth the half-day drive.
Up there in the southern Snake Range, they enjoy some of our state's coolest summer temperatures, take an underground tour of Lehman Caves and hike to their heart's content while seeing spectacular displays of wildflowers. In the evenings visitors can enjoy ranger programs at the campgrounds, or gaze at the stars under skies still as dark as the pioneers saw them.
Earlier this month I made a return visit, which kicked off with a Lehman Caves tour. The "caves" are actually a single cavern in limestone and marble, about one-quarter-mile long. But there's a lot to see in that quarter-mile.
Carolyn Hunt and Tyler Devine were our ranger guides as our group descended into the cavern on a steep yet paved pathway to the main entrance. Although it was 80 degrees outside, it was time to don a jacket because it is a steady 50 degrees in the cavern with 90 percent humidity.
As we traveled through the narrow passageways, Hunt pointed out the stone formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, popcorn, columns and draperies. In every direction you look there are formations, some small and some that appear to be 20 feet tall. What I found most interesting was the variety of colors within the cavern. We also were shown many of the rare shield formations, for which this cavern is famous. Shields are made up of circular plates attached to each other, much like a clamshell. There are a few hundred in this cavern alone.
Devine told us there are more than 40 caves in the park, but Lehman is the only one open for tours. There is one permitted wild cave, but all others are closed to the public to protect the fragile ecosystems.
Although American Indians knew about the cavern, it is named after rancher and miner Absalom Lehman. There is controversy over how and when he found it, but many agree it was in 1885. Hunt showed us the original entrance Lehman found and shared one version of his discovery. According to that story, Lehman was riding his horse when the steed accidentally fell into the opening. Sounded logical to me, until Hunt added that he hung from the opening rim for several days until rescued, and also managed to save his horse by clutching it tightly between his legs. Some dispute this account, Hunt admitted.
My next destination was the Wheeler Peak Scenic drive. This 12-mile drive gains about 3,400 feet in elevation as it serpentines its way up through many plant habitats. At the start of the drive I was in a pinyon and juniper woodland, and once I reached the top I found a subalpine forest that included limber pine, Englemann spruce and stands of aspen.
Most of the best trails lead from the top of the scenic drive, including the strenuous 8-mile round-trip hike up to Wheeler Peak itself, at 13,063 feet elevation. There are two trail heads for this hike, one by the Wheeler Peak Campground entrance and one just down the scenic drive. The elevation gain is about 3,000 feet in total. This trail is best hiked in summer, because autumn snow comes early, and in the morning, because afternoon thunderstorms are common in these mountains and lightning is to be taken seriously. If you reach the peak, the views are some of the finest you can get. On clear days, you can see east more than 100 miles, well into Utah. To the west is Spring Valley and to the north is the northern Snake Range.
Because of the high elevation, altitude sickness can be a problem on this trail. Watch for symptoms, whether in your own behavior or that of your hiking partners. Symptoms might include difficulty breathing, slurred speech, nausea or a headache. If anybody shows warning signs, descend to lower elevations immediately because altitude sickness is potentially fatal.
Hypothermia also can be an issue. While the average temperatures in July at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center are 86 degrees during the day and 57 degrees at night, up at the Wheeler Peak Campground it could be 20 degrees cooler. It can even snow in the park in the high elevations any month of the year. Your packing should contain clothing to keep you warm and dry all night, even if just planning a day hike up Wheeler Peak. A twisted ankle could change your plans, and a good warm fleece and outer shell could save your life.
You should spend your first day in the park acclimating yourself to the high elevation by exploring easier trails before heading to Wheeler Peak. The Alpine Lakes Loop Trail is a moderate route yet also one of the best all-around hikes in the park. This 2.7-mile trail starts at an elevation of 9,800 feet near the entrance of the Wheeler Peak Campground and travels through a forested area with flowing creeks and then over to the subalpine Stella and Teresa lakes. In July, the wildflowers along this trail are often at their showiest. Look for Parry's primrose, Jeffrey's shooting stars, crimson columbine and mountain bluebells.
The Bristlecone and Glacier Trail leaves from the same trail head and takes you 4.6 miles round-trip with an 1,100-foot elevation gain. It first travels up to the ancient bristlecone pine trees, some of the oldest trees on Earth, many more than 3,000 years old. One tree that was found in 1964 in this area was dated to be more than 4,900 years old. Unfortunately, it was cut down and sectioned for accurate dating, years before this was a national park. Continuing on the trail, you will reach the base of Wheeler Glacier at the base of Wheeler Peak, the only glacier between the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and the Sierra Nevada in California.
You probably will see some wildlife during your visit. Mule deer are abundant, and other mammals in the park include mountain lion, bighorn sheep, beaver, elk and marmot. From mid-July through early August you might also be treated to high concentrations of butterflies. More than 100 species have been found in the park, including gossamer-winged, swallowtails, fritillaries, skippers and monarchs.
Established in 1986, the park sprawls across 77,100 acres, so there's plenty of room for activities besides hiking and touring the cavern. There are campfire programs through Labor Day at Upper Lehman Creek Campground and Wheeler Peak Campground. Topics include the park's cultural and natural resources. They last about 40 to 60 minutes.
The park's remote setting gives it some of the darkest night skies in the country, unpolluted by the lights of distant cities. Elevation and isolation also make the air remarkably clear, so this a wonderful place for stargazing. While viewing the stars is pleasant enough as a solitary pursuit, there are organized astronomy programs with the park's "Dark Rangers." These star-themed talks are given Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights through Labor Day; telescopes are provided.
On Aug. 13, there is a viewing party scheduled during the Perseids meteor shower; at its peak one can sometimes see as many as 60 meteors per hour. And rangers will lead full-moon hikes on July 3, Aug. 3 and Aug. 31; they are easy-to-moderate walks of about 2 miles, but don't forget that at elevations of more than 10,000 feet, the temperature after sunset plunges like a falling star.
I have taken many moonlit hikes at this park, but my favorite memories of these night skies were probably gathered while lying on my back outside my tent, wrapped in a cozy sleeping bag. Not so exciting, but I promise you, it was relaxing.
Far from highway noises, out of cellphone range, there were no interruptions to the small voices of natural night: the calls of nocturnal birds, the skitter of field-mouse feet. It was so quiet, I believe a refugee from the city could hear her own blood pressure drop back to normal.