Some subterranean wonders safe to explore

Caverns, tunnels and mine shafts call out to the curiosity in many of us. We can’t seem to resist their mystery, even though we recognize their inherent dangers.

A few such dangerous traps have been developed into safe attractions. Old mines open for touring include the Techatticup Mine in Eldorado Canyon minutes from Las Vegas, a portion of a tunnel in Calico Ghost Town near Barstow, Calif., and genuine Comstock-era diggings in Nevada’s most famous mining town, Virginia City.

Since most of the tunnels, mine shafts and prospect holes that pepper Nevada’s landscape have been neglected for more than a century and are unsafe, resist the temptation to explore and just stay away from them.

A few shallow caves scattered across Nevada served as shelters for the mostly nomadic native cultures who inhabited the area in prehistory. Traces of their occupation remain, important clues to ancient ways of life. If you come across one of these caves, demonstrate respect for those who have passed by and leave everything as you find it.

Subterranean caverns are creations of nature that lie hidden beneath the surface of the Earth. Most of them are beautifully decorated with a variety of formations that take thousands of years to grow. Of the few such subterranean treasures that have been identified in Nevada, only Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park near Ely are open to tours by visitors not specially trained and outfitted for cave exploration.

There are a few other deep, seldom-visited caves, such as Whipple Cave in White Pine County. It is open to experienced spelunkers with special-use permits from the Bureau of Land Management.

Lehman Caves have been receiving visitors since the late 1800s. An important attraction within Nevada’s only national park, Lehman Caves are open daily, except Christmas and Thanksgiving, for various ranger-guided tours. A short, introductory tour of the caves’ First Room is best for visitors short on time or for disabled visitors unable to negotiate stairs and narrow passageways. The hourlong Lodge Room tour is a popular option for families with young children. The 90-minute Grand Palace tour covers more of the splendors of this underground wonderland. The main tours are limited to 20 people. A specialized after-hours photographic tour is available with special arrangements. For details and ticket reservations, call 775-234-7517.

Visitors planning a trip to Great Basin may reserve cave tour tickets up to 30 days in advance. Pick up your tickets at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center inside the park about 30 minutes prior to tour time. You may also purchase tickets on-site. In the offseason, Lodge Room tours are scheduled at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and Grand Palace tours run at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. In the summertime, both tours run five times a day.

Lodge Room tours cost $8 for adults, $4 for ages 5 to 15 and for holders of Golden Age or Golden Access passes and are free for children younger than 5. Grand Palace tours cost either $10 or $5.

The only other nearby cavern open to visitation, Grand Canyon Caverns, is about 2½ hours away near Seligman, Ariz. An elevator takes visitors from the above-ground restaurant and gift shop down more than 200 feet into the cave complex, the largest dry cavern in the country. Learn about the cave’s history on the 45-minute tour offered every half-hour daily, except Christmas. Regular tours cost $16.95 for adults and $12.95 for ages 6 to 12. Inquire about other available tours.

For decades, Mitchell Caverns within California’s Providence Mountain State Park was a popular stop near the Mojave National Preserve. Budget woes forced its closure in 2011. Sadly, the unguarded visitor center was vandalized early last year, setting back hope of reopening the caverns for tours any time soon.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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