Kartch­ner Caves State Park (Ari­zona)

4 km of hid­den pas­sages

Snowbirds & RV Travelers - - Contents - STORY & PHO­TOS BY DEN­NIS BE­GIN

Kartch­ner Cav­erns State Park is a state park of Ari­zona, fea­tur­ing a show cave with 4 km of pas­sages.

There is a unique tourist at­trac­tion along US90, 14 km (9 mi) north of Ben­son, Ari­zona. At first glance, there is noth­ing to sug­gest that the W het­stone Moun­tains hide the most re­mark­able caves or cav­erns in the United States. For decades cavers (or more ac­cu­rately spelunkers) had searched for vir­gin cav­erns in these moun­tains, but it took two am­a­teur stu­dents from the Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona to ac­tu­ally dis­cover the Kartch­ner Cav­erns.

In 1967, Randy Tufts came across a 5 m (15 ft) sink­hole, but he be­lieved the hole was con­sid­ered to be blind or dry and did not lead to a new cave. Seven years later, Tufts re­turned to the same sink­hole only to dis­cover warm moist air and a bat smell com­ing from the sink­hole. That meant caves! Re­cruit­ing the help of a friend, Gary Te­nen, the two young men re­turned to the sink­hole and squeezed through an ex­tremely small open­ing. They then crawled through a nat­u­ral tun­nel for 8 m (25 ft), en­larged a hole in the bedrock, and dis­cov­ered a sub­ter­ranean won­der­land un­touched by mankind. They had en­tered the Big Room, which lead up­ward to the Throne Room. It must have been a speech­less mo­ment! Can you imag­ine crawl­ing through a tight tun­nel in the dark, cov­ered in mud and bat guano and not be­ing able to turn around? Many of the tun­nel en­trances were only 30 to 33 cm (12 to 13 in) wide, and re­quired the move­ments of a con­tor­tion­ist. Cav­ing is cer­tainly not for peo­ple who are claus­tro­pho­bic or faint of heart.

What hap­pened next is even more un­be­liev­able. Tufts and Te­nen took elab­o­rate mea­sures to keep the cav­ern a se­cret for the next four­teen years, fear­ing van­dal­ism would de­stroy the cav­ern. Work­ing with Steven Kartch­ner, who owned the prop­erty, the men rea­soned that the best way to pro­tect the site was to make the cav­erns into a park. It must have seemed quite the para­dox to turn the site over to the gen­eral pub­lic in or­der to pro­tect it. In 1988, af­ter years of lob­by­ing the Ari­zona gov­ern­ment,

Randy Tufts passed away in 2002 from a rare blood dis­ease. Gary Te­nen still lives in Tuc­son and con­tin­ues to be in­volved with the Kartch­ner Cav­erns pro­mot­ing this fas­ci­nat­ing site for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

the cav­erns were fi­nally des­ig­nated as a State Park, but it would take ten ad­di­tional years and twenty-eight mil­lion dol­lars to ac­tu­ally open the Kartch­ner Cav­erns to the pay­ing pub­lic.

THE FOR­MA­TION OF THE CAV­ERNS

What Tufts and Te­nen orig­i­nally dis­cov­ered be­hind the sink­hole was two large cham­bers, con­nected by a nar­row pas­sage way, all about the size of a foot­ball field. Over many years of ex­plor­ing they dis­cov­ered nu­mer­ous smaller rooms. Kartch­ner is a live or wet cav­ern that is still evolv­ing very slowly. For ex­am­ple, sta­lac­tites grow at 2.5 cm (1 in) ev­ery 750 years. As water per­co­lates down through the lime­stone, a min­eral called cal­cite re­mains. Once the water reaches the cav­erns, car­bon diox­ide es­capes and, drop by drop, the cal­cite forms sta­lac­tites and sta­lag­mites. Sta­lac­tites hang from the ceil­ing, like ici­cles, and sta­lag­mites grow from the ground up. The long­est soda straw sta­lac­tite is 6.45 m (21 ft 2 in). When the speleothem (cave for­ma­tions) grow to­gether, they are called pil­lars or col­umns, such as the Kubla Khan col­umn, which is 18 m (58 ft) high. It took Mother Na­ture 200,000 years to cre­ate this mas­ter­piece. Tufts and Te­nen aptly named their new un­der­ground world, ‘The Caves of Xanadu’, af­ter the first cap­i­tal of Kublai Khan’s em­pire.

TOURS OF THE CAV­ERNS

Kartch­ner Cav­erns pro­vides three guided tours. The most pop­u­lar is the Ro­tunda/ Throne Tour, tak­ing ninety min­utes to cover the tram ride up the side of the moun­tain to the en­trance and a 0.8 km (0.5 mi) tour in the cav­ern. You en­ter the cav­erns through a heavy steel door. The pur­pose of the door is to keep out the hot dry air of the Sono­ran Desert. Mist­ing ma­chines main­tain rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity at 97.5 % and tem­per­a­ture at 22°C (72°F). Low-in­ten­sity lights slow down al­gae growth and ev­ery­one is re­minded “…to keep your hands to your­self ” to re­duce the bac­te­ria. The walk­ing tour fol­lows the orig­i­nal trail of the two cavers, wan­der­ing up­wards to ar­eas with colour­ful speleothems. The tour guides ex­plain terms such as flow­stone canopies, cave rafts and pop­corn. The tour ends at the Kubla Khan col­umn with a light show. Fol­low­ing the tour, the Dis­cov­ery Cen­ter has nu­mer­ous ex­hibits, a film about the dis­cov­ery and of course, a restau­rant and gift shop.

The Big Room Tour is a ge­ol­o­gist’s de­light with mas­sive boul­ders and unique colour­ful rock for­ma­tions. The tour takes one hour un­der­ground. The Big Room is closed dur­ing the sum­mer months be­cause of the hi­ber­nat­ing bats.

A third tour, called the Hel­met and Head­lamp Spe­cialty Tour, pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence the cav­erns as the orig­i­nal cavers did in 1974, with only a head­lamp to light your way. In to­tal, 125,000 peo­ple on av­er­age visit the cav­erns in a cal­en­dar year.

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