Great Basin National Park: Going deep underground in the Lehman Caves

Road Journals Blog—It wasn’t a question you really wanted to ponder at a moment like this—240 feet underground, in one of the deeper recesses of Lehman Caves, in Great Basin National Park. “So what happens if there’s an earthquake when we’re down here?” one of the members of our small tour asked.

An uneasy laugh rippled through the group.

“It’s a good question,” said Mason Danner, the park service ranger who was our tour guide. “This happens to be one of the most seismically active areas in the country.”

No laughter this time.


Inside the Lehman Caves | Frank Kovalchek/Flickr

“But the cave is also probably one of the safest places you could be in an earthquake,” he went on.

I wanted to believe him. No buildings or broken glass can collapse or shatter on you. Also, the caves and their intricate stalactites and stalagmites, fashioned over countless centuries by the slow drip of water droplets, have withstood innumerable tremblors without damage.

“If an earthquake hit right now, you might not even know it, except for the sound of the pressure wave passing through the cave,” Danner said.


Deep within the Lehman Caves | Frank Kovalchek/Flickr

He demonstrated what that might sound and feel like just before we left the cave at the end of the tour. With our group assembled in the long narrow passageway that climbs back up out of the caves, he slammed the heavy metal door that seals off the entrance. Hard.

Boom!

A thunderous pressure wave passed through us and then echoed through the chambers we’d just come through, one after the other—boom, boom, boom—gradually receding into the earth.

Perhaps even more than the sight of the immense underground chambers illuminated by floodlights, that reverberating rumble gave us an awesome sense of the size of Lehman caves, only part of which is accessible to visitors.

As the last boom died away, Danner opened the metal door, and we shuffled our way back up into daylight. Maybe Danner was right, and being underground was as safe a place as any during an earthquake. I was just as happy we didn’t have to test his theory.

This blog post was first published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.