A place of legend and lore: Lovelock Cave

While I don’t really keep a bucket list of places I’d like to explore in Nevada, there are several sites that have long intrigued me and that I had not been able to visit for one reason or another. Until recently, one of those was Lovelock Cave.

I think I first learned of the cave while visiting the Nevada State Museum in Carson City many years ago. A display showed a handcrafted duck-shaped object made of reeds and explained it was a replica of several that were discovered in 1924 in Lovelock Cave, along with fishing nets.

Later, I stumbled upon the fascinating story of the so-called red-headed giants, who, according to the legend, lived in the very same cave. Of course, I later learned the bones of the alleged red-haired giants, which were indeed found in the cave, had simply been mismeasured and they were actually pretty average in size.

Still, such a place sounded pretty interesting so when my wife asked me where I wanted to travel on our vacation this year, I suggested, Lovelock Cave.

Even ignoring the giants, the cave has an interesting backstory. In about 1911, two gold miners from Lovelock, James Hart and David Pugh, filed a mineral claim on the cave and began mining bat guano.

As they removed several feet of accumulated guano from the cave, they encountered human mummified bodies as well as Native American artifacts such as parts of baskets, trays, weapons, pieces of netting and tule rushes. The pair ceased their operations in the spring of 1912, deciding it was too much trouble to screen the guano, which was sold for fertilizer, from all of the other refuse.

Hart and Pugh decided to contact the Paleontology Department at the University of California to tell them of the many native American objects (and bones) they had dug up. The university sent a team to study the site and it later reported salvaging several thousand items just from the guano dump piled out of the cave.

A more formal excavation of the cave was conducted in 1924 by archaeologist Mark Harrington (the same person who, a year later, would discover the Lost City in Southern Nevada), who was sponsored by the Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

Harrington’s dig uncovered portions of the cave that had not been disturbed by the miners and other curiosity-seekers over the years. In all, he and his team, which included several Northern Paiute laborers, found about 40 pits and caches.

Among the most significant of these was a storage pit containing a tule mat on which 11 beautifully-crafted canvasback duck decoys along with bunches of feathers tied with tule string (thought to have been saved for future use on the decoys) and several bundles of snares made of twigs and tule string.

As for the mummified bodies, said to have numbered as many as 60, throughout the years most were sent to various museums where they remained, often in storage, for many years. More recently, the remains have been repatriated in accordance with federal law.

The decoys turned out to be an important discovery as they were later carbon-dated and found to be more than 2,000 years old, making them the oldest decoys of their kind ever uncovered.

Part of what makes the decoys so special is their craftmanship. They were constructed of tule rushes (long reeds) tied together with a tule cord. Other rushes were bent over to form a bobtail while the heads were made from wrapped rushes bound to look like a duck’s head. The decoys were then painted to resemble the real thing with actual feathers wedged into the bodies. The result is a truly impressive and lifelike decoy.

Eventually, the decoys became part of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., where they still remain.

Lovelock Cave is located about 30 miles southwest of Lovelock. To reach it, head to Lovelock on Interstate 80, then take the main exit. From Main Street, turn right on Amherst Avenue, which becomes Nevada State Route 397.

Continue south on 397 for 6.5 miles, then continue straight on South Meridian Road for two miles. Turn left on Derby Road and continue for another 2 miles. After crossing a ditch, the road will veer right. The cave is located about 7 miles farther.

Good instructions are available on Google Maps and there are signs along the way guiding you to the cave site.

Once at the site, you can park and either head up a hillside trail to the cave or take a short nature walk. At the entrance to the cave, visitors are also gifted with a spectacular view of the surrounding Humboldt Sink area.

For a great view of the cave, check out Howard Goldbaum’s 3D video at https://allaroundnevada.com/lovelock-cave/.

For a good overview of the cave and other information, go to https://travelnevada.com/discover/26025/lovelock-cave-backcountry-byway.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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