Kartchner Caves State Park (Arizona)
4 km of hidden passages
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.