What do a 19th century rancher, the 13th century Fremont Indians, and a group of Japanese-Americans during World War II have in common? It is their impact on a remote area of eastern Nevada and western Utah.
You can explore this history during a visit to Great Basin National Park in east central Nevada, near the Utah border. Before we arrived at the park, we knew little about it, only that it was a mountainous environment that rose out of the arid plains of the Great Basin, one of the four major deserts of North America. What we hadn’t expected was that the park includes a fascinating limestone cave that you can view in either a 60-minute or 90-minute tour. This is where the 19th century rancher comes in.
It seems that Absolom Lehman, the owner of seven acres on the slopes of what is now part of the national park, literally stumbled upon the cave opening in the early 1880s. Soon, he was providing candles and the opportunity to tour (and to break off souvenir stalagmites) for $1. If his tourists didn’t return in 24 hours, he promised to go looking for them. We paid a bit more than $1, but found the beauty displayed within the cave awesome. The ranger leading our tour was knowledgeable and fun and shared an enthusiasm for the cave that was contagious. We saw shapes and colors formed from calcite that we had never seen before. The only word to describe them was “wondrous.”
Lehman Caves are unique in many ways. Instead of huge cavernous rooms, we found ourselves in an intimate setting—feet and inches from formations that you would normally see way across an open area. Besides the normal stalagmites and stalactites, we were next to calcite shapes named for their resemblance to items common in our lives: shields, draperies, popcorn and bacon. They were so close that we had to be careful not to brush against them.
Digging Up History
Now to the Fremont Indians. Just down the hill from the cave and a few miles outside the park is an archeological dig near the town of Baker. In 1991, Brigham Young University in cooperation with the land’s owner, the Bureau of Land Management, began the excavation of a site containing several pit houses, granaries, and a “big house” from the 13th century Fremont Indians. These weren’t scattered structures; they consisted of over 15 buildings placed along a specific compass direction.
The Fremont Indians were contemporaries of the Ancestral Puebloan peoples of Mesa Verde fame and had long been considered not as advanced. This site, however, has led to speculation that the agricultural Fremonts had developed a method to track summer, spring and winter solstice to aid in planting crops. The site has been backfilled to protect the remnants of the actual structures, but outlines of the buildings have been reconstructed so you can get a feel for the village.
If you are looking for more activities unrelated to tramping around a national park, you can head about 100 miles east of the BLM site to the town of Delta across the Utah border. Delta played a part in the relocation of about 110,000 Japanese-Americans nationwide during World War II. The Topaz Relocation Camp just outside of Delta housed more than 8,000 individuals between 1942 and 1945. As in other camps, the people who were incarcerated created a community complete with schools and churches, organized a government, staffed a hospital and published a newspaper and school yearbook.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for the Topaz Museum, which will tell the story of the relocation camp, were held on Main Street in Delta in 2012 and the museum is scheduled to open in 2014. A recreation hall restored to its 1943 appearance along with some artifacts can be seen at the Great Basin Museum in Delta. You can obtain information about visiting the relocation campsite at the Topaz Museum website, topazmuseum.org. The camp is 16 miles northwest of Delta.
Want more activities? The Great Basin National Park offers much more than the Lehman Caves. It contains Wheeler Peak, which at 13,063 feet is the second highest peak in the state. For the serious hiker, there is a grueling hike of about eight miles round trip, with a 3,000-foot gain in elevation. An easier hike will take you to see the rare bristlecone pines that range in age from 2,000 to nearly 5,000 years. These trees exist in only a few locations in the world. The hike to the trees is three miles round trip, but keep in mind that you will be starting at nearly 10,000 feet. If that’s not enough, you can complete the hike with a side loop to two alpine lakes and views of pristine meadows.
Should you decide to stay in the park, there are four campgrounds that offer vault toilets, picnic tables and campfire grills. Hookups are not available and parking sites are not necessarily level. One campground is open year-round; the others are first-come, first-served from May through October. Accommodations outside the park include motels, a guest ranch, and private RV parks.
Whether you are wandering around in eastern Nevada or are planning a trip to that part of the West, take advantage of these unique sights. You’ll get a high from Wheeler Peak in the national park, will be astounded by the displays in the cave, and probably feel a bit reflective after learning about the Topaz Relocation Camp.
After years of sailing along Mexico and in the South Pacific, Mary Taylor and her husband are pursuing a lifestyle of camping and four-wheel driving in the West. They live in Long Beach, California.
IF YOU GO:
Great Basin National Park: To reach the entrance to the park, travel on Nevada State Highway 487 to Baker and then go west on Highway 488 for five miles. For information on the park and Lehman Caves, visit nps.gov/grba.
Baker Archeological Site: The site is a half-mile north of the Great Basin Visitor Center and is located on a cut-off road that runs between Nevada Highway 487 at Baker and U.S. Highway 6/50. The website is at nps.gov/grba/historyculture/baker-archeological-site.htm
Topaz Relocation Center: The camp is 16 miles northwest of Delta, Utah. The Topaz Museum will be located next to the Great Basin Museum, which is at 45 W. Main in Delta. Websites: topazmuseum.org; greatbasinheritage.org.