Walter and Sara Let the good times roll
In Part I we left off as we were leaving Wild Horse Reservoir in northern Nevada. We drove south to Elko, NV and then jogged over to Hwy 278 and went south. Midmorning we stopped at a rest stop just north of Garden Pass (6,686 ft). The area is a huge broad valley surrounded by mountain ranges. This is the view south.

Garden Pass Nevada looking south

And this is the view west.

Garden Pass NV looking west

Hwy 278 connects up with Hwy 50 (which starts out in Sacramento, CA and goes over the Sierra at South Lake Tahoe). We turned east on Hwy 50 and proceeded to go over five passes over 7,000 ft in the 150 miles we were on it! Who says that Nevada is flat? In fact, the Great Basin is a huge bowl whose bottom is wrinkled up by a whole series of mountain ranges.

We stopped for lunch at a rest stop on Hwy 50 and I finally got a picture of the Rubber Rabbitbush that was in bloom in a band about 10 feet wide all along the highway. It turns out the stuff loves disturbed areas and of course the highway verge is by definition disturbed.

Rabbit Bush along Highway 50 NV

After climbing the five 7,000 ft passes and then driving the road up into Great Basin National Park to the campground at 7,700 feet, the transmission of the truck had overheated. It smelled awful and Walter said that it felt mushy. To make matters more interesting it was Friday night and the campgrounds which are first come first served were full. So we turned around and went back down the mountain and found a spot in an RV park (read parking lot) behind a bar/restaurant/motel/gas station. It wasn't beautiful but it did have electrical hook-ups, WiFi and showers! The RV park and restaurant/bar/casino were in Nevada and the motel and gas station were in Utah to take full of advantage of each state's various laws.

That night we pondered our options and concerns about the transmission. We had tickets for a tour of Lehman Caves back at Great Basin National Park the next day and in the end we decided we might as well give the transmission a test by leaving the trailer at the RV park and driving the truck up to the Lehman Caves Visitors Center which is at 6,600 ft. The truck made the drive with no problems so we got to take our tour!

Here's the view from the Visitor's Center looking east across the Great Basin. Isn't the Rubber Rabbitbush along the road's edges amazing? The mountains in the distance are in Utah.

Rabbit Bush Great Basin National Park NV

They offer a 60-minute and a 90-minute tour of Lehman Caves. At first I thought that meant there were two different tours. However, it turns out that the 90-minute tour has everything that's on the 60-minute tour plus another 30 minutes of territory. We opted for the longer tour and I bought the tickets before we left home. I'm really glad I did, since our tour was sold out before we arrived to pick up our tickets an hour plus before the tour.

The caves are lighted by an old system of lights (the wiring has been there since the 1920's) that make the place look pretty eerie. They're in the process of switching the lighting over to LED's trying to find just the right color light to show things off the best. I took this first photo without my flash. Discovering that the place really was too dark for most photos I opted to use the flash even if it washes things out a bit.

Lehman Cave with no flash  Lehman Cave with flash

Leman Caves (which are really one cave with a series of rooms) were discovered back in 1885 and were privately held for years before they became a National Monument and eventually part of the National Park. For years visitors were invited to try to break off stalactites and take them home! The good news is that while there is damage here and there, these caves are so heavily decorated that all that human destruction hasn't dented the magnificence of the place.

Gothic Palace Lehman Caves NV

The tour begins in the Gothic Palace and then winds it's way through 5 highly decorated rooms. Each room has lots of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies and flow stone. Lehman caves is especially well know for it's shield formations, a rare type of formation that consists of two roughly circular plates fastened together liked flattened clam shells with stalactites and draperies hanging from the lower plate. There may be more shields in Lehman than any other cave in the country.

On the left is a shield looking from the top. On the right is one looking up from the bottom.

Shield from top Lehman Cave NV  Shield looking from bottom Lehman Caves NV

Here's a detail of some of the drapery coming off of a shield.

Drapery Lehman Cave NV

Lehman Caves are some of the most heavily decorated caves in the world. Nearly every surface has something covering it.

Lehman Caves NV

The walls and floor are covered in some areas by this knobbly stuff that's called popcorn.

Popcorn formation Lehman Caves NV

The caves also present a huge range of colors. Here you've got beige, yellow/brown, pink, white and maroon all running together like runny cake frosting.

Runny formations Lehman Caves NV

Lehman also has lots of these rare formations called helictites that seem to defy common sense by growing sideways. We saw these at Karchner Caverns down in Arizona and I was really excited to get to photograph them here.

helictites Lehman Caves NV

Lehman's signature formation is a giant shield called The Parachute in the Grand Palace area. Here the ceiling is high and large numbers of shields have formed with long draperies.

Parachute formation Grand Palace Lehman Caves NV

Our tour guide was kind enough to use her flashlight to light up this cave bacon so we could photograph it.

Cave Bacon Lehman Caves NV

In the old days people used lanterns to provide light when they explored the caves. When they reached the area of the caves called the Inscription Room, that was especially difficult to reach at the time, they'd celebrate by signing their names on the ceiling with soot from their lanterns. When the Park Service took over the caves they tried all sorts of things to cover up and remove the soot and nothing worked. So they've left the graffiti as an historical artifact.

Historical graffiti Lehman Caves NV

The ceiling in much of the cave is pretty low--Walter whacked his head at least 5 times and came out with a good-sized lump on his forehead.

Low ceiling Lehman Caves NV

When a drop of water hits you in a cave, they say you've received a cave kiss. Here are some cave kisses in the making. If you look carefully you can see that there are helictites starting to grow horizontally off of these stalactites too.

Cave Kisses Lehman Caves NV

Here's another massive shield next to a column covered in drapery.

 Shield formation Lehman Caves NV

This shot shows you the varities of shapes that the stalactites come in. You can also see one that has been broken off and if you look carefully you can see the rings that show how they have formed over the years--just like tree rings.

Stalactites Lehman Caves NV

These weird little formations grown on the high ceilings. At first I thought they looked fuzzy but with the zoom lens you can tell they're pretty solid. No one knows how they form but they do know they only occur in caves that also have shields. So maybe they're shield formations in the making.

Ceiling formations Lehman Caves NV  Ceiling formation Lehman Caves NV

This is the far end of the Grand Palace. Beyond this the ceilings get higher and higher as you enter an area called the Talus Room. The tours no longer go into The Talus Room area because they've discovered it's not stable. The talus on the floors continues to fall from the ceiling making it too dangerous for people walking through on a daily basis. At this point, they're in the process of removing all the wiring and foot paths from the area to give it back to Mother Nature.

Far end of Grand Palace Lehman Caves, NV

I think this column looks a bit like a wedding cake run amok! Maybe it's meant for the Queen of the Fairies' Wedding.

Wedding Cake Lehman Caves NV

This is the entrance to a tunnel in the ceiling of the Grand Palace. They've not been able to explore where it goes because they don't want to disturb any of the decorations that have formed around it's mouth. I'm not sure I'd want to risk getting skewered by any of those stalactites anyway.

Ceiling Tunnel Lehman Caves NV

The drapery in this part of the cave looks like it's been made of chocolate-vanilla nougat and would be good enough to eat.

Drapery Lehman Caves NV

You'll be happy to know that we managed to get out of the cave before I filled up the memory card on my camera. Here's the last section of the cave that you go through before going back out into the bright Nevada sunshine.

Cave Exit area Lehman Caves NV

After our tour we took our lunch up to the picnic area near the Visitors Center where there was a great view of the mountains. Great Basin has a road that takes you to the 10,500 ft elevation on Wheeler Peak (13,063 ft) going from the sage brush up through the aspens all they way up to a grove of Bristlecone Pines. There's even a campground up at 9,886 feet. The yellow sprinkling the mountain sides are aspen trees that had started to put on their fall show.

Great Basin National Park Fall Color

We'd planned to make the drive up Wheeler Peak but decided that it probably wasn't wise to ask the transmission to make the trip. Next time!

We went back to the RV park and just as Walter was settling down for an afternoon nap, the band that had been setting up in the private room at the back of the restaurant began to do sound check with the doors wide open. They were a not too good (but not too bad) 60's rock band and what they might have lacked in quality they made up for with enthusiasm and volume.

About this time, I thought it might be good to close up the windows and turn on the air conditioning. I turned it on and all it did was hum. No fans, no cold air. Wonderful! We were heading for Phoenix where it was 104 degrees and we didn't have air conditioning. No need to freak out. We have family there and we can cope. Better to focus on making sure the transmission is okay so we can GET there!

The band started to play at 8 pm and the crowd went wild, especially after the first break when the drums started throbbing and I looked out the window to see honest to god Go Go Dancers up on the stage! Walter slept through it all. Me, not so much. But they quit at about 12:30 which was awfully civilized of them.

The next morning (Sunday) we decided that the best plan was to take the easiest possible route (elevation and pass-wise) into Utah and I-15. If the transmission acted up we'd turn north and head for Salt Lake City and see if we could get it fixed come Monday morning. If it handled towing okay we'd head south towards Zion where we had reservations for Monday and Tuesday nights.

It was a gorgeous (read clear and hot) morning and I took this shot of Wheeler Peak from the RV park before we pulled out.

Mt Wheeler Big Basin National Park NV

There were sunflowers in bloom all along the highway in Utah. I was amazed how many flowers were in bloom in this dry country in the fall.

Sunflowers in Utah Sept 2010

You'll be happy to know that the truck performed just fine on our drive east to I-15 so we turned south towards Zion. We spent the night in Beaver, UT at the nicest KOA campground I've ever stayed in. It was nearly empty and they gave us a spot in the shade since our air conditioning wasn't working.

We'd seen a series of fires burning in the mountains east of town and asked about them. It turns out they had been burning since mid July and they hadn't had enough rain to put them out! We were lucky and the wind was blowing the smoke away from town that afternoon. The wind changed direction in the night and the next morning the valley was full of smoke. We continued to see smoke for over 150 miles as we drove south the next morning.

In Part III, we're going to Zion to hike The Narrows. The water is only 57 degrees in the Virgin River so you might want to rent some neoprene booties and canyoneering boots so your feet stay warm because we'll be wading in the river for a long way!