Exploring Kartchner Caverns State Park
Kartchner Caverns State Park. One of southern Arizona’s many treasures. And our next destination. Situated on the east side of the Whetstone Mountains in Benson, AZ not only does this State Park offer a lovely 62 site campground with electric and water (review coming), but it also boasts beautifully preserved caverns plus a 23,000 square-foot Discovery Center housing world-class exhibits (including a replica of the cave), a large gift shop, regional and interactive displays, and educational information.
Once we arrived and settled into our site, we were drawn outside by the beautiful sunset painting the mountains in various hues of pink and gold ahead of us. Eventually our walk took us to the Discovery Center. Although it was almost closing time, we still had ample time to explore some of the exhibits and talk to a ranger about the two cave tours offered to the public.
At the advice of the ranger, we decided to make a reservation first for the “Rotunda/Throne Room Tour” which examines the role water plays in creating the caverns. The other tour, the “Big Room Tour” also highlights a wide range of cave formations, but the talk emphasizes cave fauna, living and ancient, and discusses Kartchner’s resident bat population.There is a third tour, the 1-1/4 hour Saturday “Helmet and Headlamp Tour” which allows visitors to experience the cave as the discoverers did in 1974 using only the light provided by the headlamp on your helmet. This tour is not available for children under the age of 10.
The Rotunda/Throne Room tour which is open all year, lasts approximately 1-1/2 hours (50 minutes underground). We were told to expect to walk at least 1/2 mile. Reservations for both tours are recommended because during prime season, they fill up quickly. The tours are a little pricey at $23 for adults, $13 for youth (ages 7 to 13) and $5 for children under 7. The Helmet and Headlamp Tour is $30 for adults and youth. No discounts are offered on any tour. Just as a note, tours are accessible by wheelchair and scooter and by most visitors with limited mobility (for more info see their webpage). And for anyone who is concerned because they are claustrophobic, not to worry, you do not have to squeeze through any rock passages or small confining spaces.
While waiting for the tour, we watched a 15 minute long video presentation (plays twice an hour) which highlighted the discovery aspect of the cave. When it was time for the tour, we headed outside towards the back of the Visitor Center where we met our tour guide who explained that this limestone cave has 13,000 feet of passages and over the past 200,000 years hundreds of formations have been formed including some that are unique and world-renowned. It is an active, “living cave,” with intricate formations that continue to grow as water seeps, drips and flows from the walls and slowly deposits the mineral calcium carbonate.
That was followed by the history of how the cave was discovered. In 1974 amateur spelunkers, Gary Tennen and Randy Tufts, stumbled across a sinkhole. After enlarging it so they both could squeeze through it and doing some initial exploration, they decided to keep their discovery of this pristine cave a secret, afraid that the unprotected cave, like so many others, would be damaged by vandalism. In 1978 they approached the owners of the land (the Kartchners), swearing them to secrecy as well. In 1988 after much political maneuvering, it became an Arizona State Park. Hard to believe but they kept their secret for 14 years, imagine that! After spending $28 million to implement systems that would protect and preserve the cave’s natural environment, the cave was opened to the public as a State Park in 1993.
“Don’t touch anything” was the mantra of the day! But if we did touch something accidentally we were to let our guide know immediately. The touched spot would be marked with a ribbon and at the end of the day, those areas would be cleaned. We were even instructed on how to roll up our jacket or sweatshirt so it wouldn’t hang from our waists and accidentally drag against something. As Rob snapped a picture of the tram, we were told that photographs inside the cave were forbidden! Once we knew the rules, everyone was then directed to board the tram which took us up the hill, past the sinkhole where the original entrance was located and remains the primary entry and exit for the bat population.
When they said the cave was protected, boy, they sure meant it! We’ve been to other caves, but nothing like this! A series of (I think we went through at least 3) heavy freezer type airlock doors protect the active, “wet” cave (meaning that formations are still growing and changing) from the dry desert air outside, helping to maintain the 98 percent humidity level and average temperature of 68 degrees. We learned later on the tour that every aspect of the cave is constantly monitored to ensure it’s health.
After passing through one or two of the airlocks, we were told that we would be walking through a mist tunnel. Our tour guide explained that the misters were used to dampen any loose particles of clothing, skin, and hair so they fall on the trail outside the cave proper instead of traveling down to the formations. Any of these loose particles could increase the risk of a breeding site for fungus and algae which could ruin the stalactites.
Unlike other caves we have been in, it was easy walking throughout the tour along the paved walkways. Hard to imagine how these walkways and railings were built and a lighting system installed without causing damage to the caves but somehow they did it. The warnings not to touch anything continued throughout the tour but somehow the 2 year old on our tour didn’t understand that. There would be lots of cleaning that night!
Wish we could have taken photos because there is no way to describe how beautiful the Rotunda /Throne Room was! Totally awesome! Hard to believe that these wonders exist below the surface of the earth. And how dripping water can create such exquisite formations. Standing on one of the walkways, our guide pointed out the mud flats, complete with the original footprints carefully followed by Tufts and Tenen. Stalactites (grows down from the ceiling), stalagmites (grows up from the floor), helictites (formations that grow in any direction, defying gravity) and one of the world’s longest (21 ft 2 in) soda straw stalactites (thin, delicate, hollow formations hanging in clusters from the cave’s ceiling). Just to put that in perspective, the soda straw grows one/64th of an inch in a year which means that it took 16,500 years to achieve its length. Everyone on the tour chuckled when our tour guide pointed out “bacon” formations, thin, rippled sheets of red and brown draped from the ceiling. They did actually look like large slabs of translucent bacon.
The highlight of the tour though was our last stop in the Throne Room where we sat on rock benches while a light show showcased the majestic 58 foot 370 ton “Kubla Khan” column. It was formed when a stalagmite growing up from the floor merged with a stalactite growing down from the ceiling. It was named by Tufts and Tenen after the Samuel Coleridge poem.
After going through the same airlock doors again, we exited the cave, embracing the drier and cooler outdoor air and boarded the tram for our short trip back to the Visitor Center. Although we hadn’t planned on doing both tours, we were so impressed we immediately made a reservation for the Big Room tour.
Since it was lunchtime, we walked over to the Bat Cave Cafe which offers quesadillas, freshly baked pizzas, Hebrew National Kosher hot dogs, Johnsonville Bratwursts, fresh made sandwiches & wraps (turkey, roast beef, chicken caesar and a vegetarian wrap option) as well as two salad options. Order your food, then eat it outside on their patio. We split a chicken quesadilla ($7.25) which was quite tasty.
The Big Room Tour is the same price ($23) as the Rotunda/Throne Room Tour. Children under the age of 7 are not allowed. This tour is only available during the months of October through April because it is a seasonal home to cave bats; the females spend the summer months here birthing and raising their young in complete darkness. The males hang out in another “Man Cave” nearby.
For the second time that day except with a different tour guide, we were given the history of the cave. Some of the information was the same (same don’t touch rule) but additional information emphasized cave fauna, living and ancient.
The tram followed the same route up the hill but headed towards a different entrance where we went through another set of airlock doors and the mister. The highlight of this tour was a stretch of strawberry flowstone colored red by iron oxide (rust) in the water. Prehistoric fossils have been discovered by paleontologists dating back to the Pleistocene Era (the Ice Age) including an 86,000 year old Shasta ground sloth, a 34,000 year old horse and an 11,000 year old bear.
How these animals came to be in the cave is unknown, perhaps they were sick or they fell into the cave, no one really knows, it is only speculation. The early remains of rabbits, snakes, rodents, a coyote and ringtail, snails, a clam, toad and lizards have been discovered as well.
It was on this tour that we saw the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk sometimes called “elf’s milk”, a sparkling white, creamy-looking substance that occurs when bat guano mixes with limestone. Then there’s the Strawberry Room which has a stretch of the aforementioned strawberry flowstone, colored red by iron oxide (rust) in the water. It also has the first reported occurrence of “turnip” shields and the first occurrence of “birdsnest” needle quartz formations.
Our tour guide told us a lot about the bats that live in the cave. Although the rangers don’t know for sure, they think that they spend the winter hibernating in the cooler caves located high in the Huachuca (pronounced wuh–choo-kuh) mountains, only about 40 miles away from their summer home. About 1,500 myotis velifer, or the common cave bats live in part of Kartchner Caverns for part of the year, entering and leaving the cave via the original sink hole entrance. In April the doors to the Big Room are locked and the Big Room becomes a bat maternity ward and nursery. No humans enter the cave until October. According to our guide, there has been no sign of White Nose Syndrome here which has killed so many bats across the country.
To get a flavor for what we saw, check out the YouTube video created by the Arizona State Parks.
After the tour, we walked back to our campsite, enjoying another beautiful sunset. A perfect ending to a perfect day!
Although we didn’t plan on taking both tours due to the cost, we’re so glad we did. Highly recommend both tours. That wraps up our caving experiences for this visit, but we weren’t done with sightseeing in the area just yet!
I am glad they are making such an effort to protect the bats. We hope to stop there in our future travels.
Hope you do get a chance to visit – it’s well worth it. Let us know if you have any questions.
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