In a remote and mountainous corner of Nevada, hundreds of undiscovered caves lay within the remnants of an ancient seabed, lifted high above the valley. These are the caves of Eastern Nevada.
Though the area is cold and dry today, the carbonate rocks which house many of the caves were deposited between 250 to over 500 million years ago, when Nevada was covered by a shallow ocean, bordering a continent near the equator. Millions of years of mountain building extensively fractured the carbonate rocks. They were subsequently buried with ash and lava until around 16 million years ago, when extensional forces began stretching the Earth's crust. Normal faulting lifted up sections of the old seabed, and created hundreds of parallel mountain ranges divided by broad valleys. Areas where the limestone from the seabed was particularly thick were ideal for the formation of caves.
More recently (in a geological sense) lakes, streams and alpine glaciers developed during the cold and moist ice ages of the Pleistocene, about 2 million years ago. This is likely when many of the caves began to form, as some contain fossils of giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), camel and other Pleistocene mega fauna.
Caves are scattered across the numerous mountain ranges of Eastern Nevada, and are typically found in Cambrian, Devonian and Mississippian limestones (carbonate rock). The complex geology of the area makes predicting cave locations difficult and most are fairly remote. Due to the extreme distance from larger populations, and the difficult hike to reach them, these caves receive limited visitation. Many have never been explored.
Great Basin Caving
Most caves in this area are hypogenic, meaning they are formed from an upwelling of water. These caves have no relation to the present topography or local drainage pattern, which makes predicting their location difficult. The irregular caverns of these hypogenic caves contain unique features such as Gypsum crust, ceiling cupolas, crystalline linings, folia, floor vents and other uncommon speleothems. These caves lack fluvial sediment and their floors are generally covered in dust or mud derived from weathered bedrock.
Very few caves in Eastern Nevada have an epigenic origin (formed from water descending waters) but those that do are the largest in the area. The Baker Creek System at Great Basin National Park is over 2 miles long, including 7 hydraulically connected caves all of which formed by stream capture of Baker Creek. Some of these caves periodically flood during spring runoff and water levels in others are in constant fluctuation. Another well known example is Cave Valley Cave, which was first reported by the survey party headed by George Wheeler in the 1870s. Cave Valley Cave is located right at the valley level and connects to a nearby stream. It is over a mile of branching passages filled with unpleasant clay that requires a great deal of scraping to remove from your clothing. Abandoned boots litter one muddy stretch of the cave.
In Eastern Nevada, vertical gear is sometimes required to reach cave entrances, or to enter the caves themselves. Some cave entrances are located high in cliffs and can only be accessed by a rappel. Others have drops ranging from 20 ft to over 200 ft. Additionally, some of the alpine caves have multiple drops and the hypogenic caves offer great climbs.
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With more than 120 mines, Nevada is one of the country's major producers of turquoise. Most is found as nuggets, fracture fillings and in breccias as the cement filling interstices between fragments. Some of this unusually coloured turquoise may contain significant zinc and iron, which is the cause of the beautiful bright green to yellow-green shades.
Major turquoise deposits in Nevada occur along a wide belt of tectonic activity that coincides with the state's zone of thrust faulting. It strikes about N15°E and extends from the northern part of Elko County, southward down to the California border southwest of Tonopah.
White Pine County, home to Great Basin National Park, lays claim to some of the most famous ghost towns in Nevada: Hamilton (the former county seat), Osceola (where the largest gold nugget in the state was found) and Cherry Creek.