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Three National Parks You Never Hear About and Ought to See

Lehman Caves: Cave shields have been discovered in only 60 of the 45,000 caves explored in the U.S.
Lehman Caves: Cave shields have been discovered in only 60 of the 45,000 caves explored in the U.S.
Eric Jay Toll. (c) 2014 All rights reserved

“Kick the door,” ranger Diane says to the two boys she called to the front of the group of 20. They look at her incredulously, and then back at their parents. “Go ahead,” she coaxes. “It’s okay, kick it hard.”

Unlike Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park, Nevada, which are formed by water dissolving limestone, the lava tubes at Lava Beds National Monument are formed by faster moving lava channeling through the cooler, hardening slow moving lava.
Eric Jay Toll. (c) 2014. All rights reserved.

The two boys share glances. Then 11-year-old Malique raises his foot and gives the metal door a mighty, youthful blast. Thunder rumbles back and forth through the tunnel like a wave of sound felt in everyone’s chests. A 20-person giggle floats through the crowd. His partner is not so forceful on the first kick, and a second attempt creates a thunderous roar.

The door opens and Nevada daylight spills into the exit of the Lehman Caves.

Great Basin National Park

The echo is the last feature of the 90 minute tour through the Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park, Baker, Nevada. Great Basin is the most beautiful national park you never hear about. It’s just a couple hours northwest of the often-crowded Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.

Great Basin National Park embraces the Snake Range, capped by the 13,065 foot tall Wheeler Peak. It showcases the environment of the Great Basin—the land between the Rocky, Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains in the American West. This is the rugged and open land where the earth collapsed on itself in a series of reefs, swells, basins and mountains. The national park is a small sampling of the land covering a quarter of mainland America.

Absalom Lehman found the caves bearing his name and calling thousands of cave-lovers to Great Basin National Park. Founded in 2006, the national park replaced the Lehman Caves National Monument with a larger, more diverse region.

The Lehman Caves are seen with guided tours throughout the day. The Grand Palace tour is 90 minutes; others run about an hour. There is a $10 fee for the tours, but no park entrance fee at Great Basin.

There are three other publicly accessible caves at the park—although each is remote with rugged access or hiking required. Other hikes throughout the park include family interpretive and accessible routes, moderate hikes across Alpine meadows to hidden glacier-fed lakes, and several backcountry overnight opportunities. Tricky, but not overly difficult, Wheeler Peak can be summited from the paved 10,000 foot high Wheeler Peak trailhead or nicely developed high elevation drive-in campground.

Three other campgrounds in the Park, Upper and Lower Lehman and Baker Creek, provide drive-in access, water and vault toilets. The campsites in Upper Lehman are heavily wooded and spacious compared to more crowded parks. Motels are available in Baker, about 20 minutes from the Lehman Caves.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

“You just missed him yawning and stretching in the sun,” said the man with a pair of Canon cameras. “He rolled over on his back and it was really cute.”

We’re standing at Point Supreme looking into the plunging sandstone amphitheater where the earth fell away. The rising sun is slowly peeling back the night’s indigo blanket, unveiling one taffy-like layer of color after another. The sun has to wait. Eyes are riveted on a plump, brown marmot sunning himself atop a cream-colored hoodoo about 20 feet from the split rail fence.

Cedar Breaks National Monument, on Utah 148 between Utah 143 from Panguitch and Utah 14 from Cedar City, is one of those places of American beauty that when mentioned usually brings the reaction, “I’ve never heard of it before.” It’s about an hour west of either Zion or Bryce Canyon national parks.

Although in the Great Basin, Cedar Breaks is a place where the earthy simply fell away from the mountains of southwest Utah. In its stead, it left a geologic landscape treat—colors and shapes so different than elsewhere in the Basin or Colorado Plateau, it’s a national monument that should be a “must-see” on any visit that encompasses Zion or Bryce.

There is a well-designed campground in the national monument, several resorts along Utah highways 143 and 14, and motels in Cedar City.

Lava Beds National Monument

“Have you or any of the clothes or shoes you’re wearing been in a cave or a mine in any of these states?” the ranger asks displaying a U.S. map with almost every state east of Colorado marked in a foreboding gray. The question is part of a screening required before entering any of the lava tube caves in Lava Beds National Monument, Tulelake, California.

Located in the remote northeast quarter of California near the Oregon border, Lava Beds is one of the “intentional” parks. It’s a place that must be sought out because it’s far from the heavily travel routes in the West. It should be added to bucket lists.

There a more than 20 lava tubes that are developed for access and dozens. One, Mushpot, near the Visitor Center, is lit and can be accessed without special equipment. The others require flashlights, helmets and gloves—which are loaned by the monument rangers at the Visitor Center.

The monument is a place of major pre-European and American expansion history. The rich lava flows were once settled by the Modoc Indians. A major site at Lava Beds is the battleground where a small band from the tribe held off a much larger cavalry regiment for months.

Lava Beds National Monument is located off California Route 139 near the Oregon border and Tulelake. Travel on Modoc County Road 97 to Lava Beds Monument Road from the south or from the north, take Hill Road from California 161 on the state border. Nearby, camping is the only overnight accommodation. There are some hotels in Canby, California about 45 minutes south or Klamath Falls, Oregon, an hour north.

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