Lovelock Cave Backcountry Byway
The Humboldt River along the Lovelock Cave Backcountry Byway
In driving the Lovelock Cave Backcountry Byway, you'll be crossing what was once the bottom of ancient Lake Lahontan, an Ice Age lake that covered much of Nevada more than 14,000 years ago. The Byway is only 20 miles long but you might take up to 3 hours to enjoy your visit. Part of the route is SR 397, part of the route is beside the Humboldt River on the old California Trail. There are places along the route where the remains of emigrant wagon ruts are obvious. Lovelock Cave itself was an archaeological treasure chest when it was first opened up. Some of the artifacts found inside dated to more than 2,000 years ago. There were textiles, woven baskets and some beautiful duck decoys attesting to the skill and ingenuity of those ancient weavers and hunters. The ceiling of the 150' by 35' cave is still soot-stained from those ancient times.
At the parking area below the cave you'll find restrooms, interpretive signs and a nature trail. If you look closely at the hillsides in the distance you'll see the step-like horizontal lines etched into the mountains by the varying shorelines of ancient Lake Lahontan. Lake Lahontan was so deep at times that the mountain peaks you see were sometimes little islands and sometimes under water.
A lot of the archaeological/cultural artifacts that were buried in Lovelock Cave were removed by guano miners in 1911-1912. A significant number of the objects catalogued as being found in the cave were actually found in the mound of refuse left behind when the excavated guano was screened on the slope outside the cave. The guano mining stopped when the operators decided they were finding more artifacts than guano... and continuing to excavate and screen wasn't worth the return. That happened about the same time they dug into a layer thick with tule rushes, broken baskets and other human refuse. More than 10,000 artifacts are recorded to have been found by finer screening of the refuse mounds and it is estimated that many of the best findings were sold to private collectors long ago. Over the years other archaeologists have gotten permits and gone back in to excavate deeper in different areas of the cave with the result that we do have some incredible artifacts left available to the public. A problem with all these various "official" excavations is that the level of disturbance inside the cave has made dating anything rather tenuous. In one area a mound of human excrement was dated to about 1850 CE while several pieces of a broken gun were found across the cave. At this point, archaeologists are relying on radio-carbon dating of the guano surrounding newly discovered artifacts. Outnumbering the human-created artifacts found in the cave area are bits and pieces of human skeletons...
A major excavation was undertaken in 1968-1969 and the findings of that indicate the oldest bat guano in the cave was laid down around 5,000 BCE, possibly as a result of a resurgence of water in nearby Humboldt Lake. The earliest evidence of intermittent human occupation was dated at around 2700 BCE with more intensive occupation beginning around 1500 BCE and continuing off-and-on to about 1829. That was when Euro-Americans began to appear in the area and with the slaughter of the Humboldt Lake area Paiutes by Walker's expedition in 1833, reports of Indians present in the Humboldt Valley essentially ended.
While a lot of attention has been focused on the discovery of the duck decoys there have also been thousands of shell beads, ornaments, carved/chipped projectile points, at least one inlaid pipe and a beaded child's moccasin found at the site. Indications are that there was regular trade established with tribes in central California who supplied the shells and many of the beads. The moccasin was discovered in a burial site dated to the time of the "Little Ice Age," just before the arrival of the Euro-Americans. For most of the archaeological findings, it was the depth and volume of the bat guano that protected all those artifacts over the centuries: if no one had ever dug out the fertilizer, the artifacts might never have been found at all.
Many of the better specimens are now housed at the Museum of the American Indian, the American Museum of Natural History and at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, CA, but it's hard to know because the site was so heavily hunted for potshards and other relics in the early decades of the 20th century. Lovelock Cave was one of the first ancient sites excavated in the Great Basin area and remains one of the finest and most productive.
Also in the area: Leonard Rockshelter is about eight miles to the northeast and Humboldt Cave and Ocala Cave are about 10 miles to the southeast. Excavations at these sites have determined that the area saw increases and decreases in human occupation of the cave and the lakeside sites coinciding with the oscillating rise and fall of water levels in Humboldt Lake.
The Humboldt River just above the Humboldt Wildlife Management Area
The trail to Lovelock Cave
Looking out through the entrance to Lovelock Cave
Looking west toward the Humboldt Wildlife Management Area from Lovelock Cave
The entrance to Lovelock Cave from outside
Lovelock Cave Backcountry Byway area map
Map courtesy of National Geographic Topo!