High in the Arizona mountains lies a state park that preserves an amazing find.
By Gerald C. and Sharon L. Hammon, F275831
It is a stunning place, with grand vistas and enticing alcoves. Its colors sometimes resemble the work of a mad artist who shoveled his paint on the canvas with a trowel. At other times, it appears to be the work of a careful beautician combining just the right hue of base and final makeup for maximum enhancement. The formations range from stately masterpieces to bizarre shapes that seem to defy gravity. And wonder of wonders, it is all beneath the surface of the earth.
Kartchner Caverns, an Arizona state park, has been open to the public for 10 years now. Acclaimed by experts as one of the top 10 caves in the world in terms of mineralization, which is what produces the amazing colors, Kartchner is one of only two of these 10 open to the public. The other is in Japan.
Kartchner escaped the outrageous abuse and degradation that other caverns in the world have suffered. Some of the tragic impacts of man came about through simple ignorance, such as a well-known American cavern system where the installation of a parking lot over the top of the cave stopped groundwater from entering and once living, growing decorations became dormant. But many others have suffered unexplainable abuse such as decorations broken off and carted away for personal use; spray-paint graffiti; and the list goes on.
Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts found the cave in 1974. This led to a 14-year odyssey in which the landowners, James and Lois Kartchner and their family, joined the discoverers in a deep commitment to preserve the caverns. It took that much time to determine how to physically protect the caverns; convince the Arizona State Parks system to purchase the land; and, finally, to plan for development that would not harm the pristine condition of the caverns. It took another 11 years of painstaking planning and careful work before the public was allowed to see what the discoverers had found. That effort included consultation with cave owners and operators from all over the the world. Ten years of public visitation have proven the worth of that careful planning.
Two tours are offered at Kartchner Caverns State Park. One, an exploration of the Rotunda and Throne Room, is offered year-round. The second, a tour of the Big Room, is available only from October 15th through April 15th. The rest of the year, the Big Room is closed to allow a colony of female bats to give birth there in summer. The bats depart for points south in the winter.
The two tours are quite different. The Rotunda/Throne Room tour features broad vistas as it follows the perimeters of the two rooms. Passageways offer close-up views of decorations, but the tour’s point of interest is to allow visitors to sense the full size of these great rooms. The tour of the Big Room allows more of an intimate association with many features, as the trail winds down in and among the formations.
Both tours offer an abundance of color. Flowstone walls range from near white to a rich chocolate, with many shades of earth tones in between. Iron oxide gives the aptly named Strawberry Room on the Big Room tour a rich, red hue and gives other decorations on both tours red or orange counterpoints to white calcite.
Pure calcite creates white formations, and calcite containing manganese gives formations deep purples, grays, and even black. Sulphur creates yellow, and copper results in green. Mud, silt, and clay turn formations into a range of tans and browns.
The active force in the creation of Kartchner Caverns is water, and that is the focus of the Rotunda/Throne Room tour. Escabrosa limestone, the rock in which the caverns are found, first took form at the bottom of shallow seas. This form is among the hardest limestone known, and yet, given enough time, it can be dissolved by carbonic acid, which is what seeping water becomes.
Rainwater absorbs carbon dioxide as it sinks into the earth. The carbon dioxide transforms the water into carbonic acid, which over time dissolved the limestone to create more than 20 rooms and smaller passageways that constitute Kartchner Caverns.
Water still enters the caverns today and is readily visible in the glistening surfaces of many of the formations. It dissolves limestone on its journey through the earth to the caverns, but once in the cavern, it acts as the interior decorator, releasing limestone in the form of calcite crystals, which adds to and enlarges speleothems “” the formal name for the decorations found in caves.
The Rotunda/Throne Room Tour features the towering column known as Kubla Khan, a massive calcite structure that stretches 58 feet from floor to ceiling. It was formed when a mighty stalagmite shouldered its way upward until it met a large stalactite stretching down from the ceiling. Organic materials have colored the calcite with a rich variety of yellows, gold, butterscotch, and even orange. Water can be seen dripping onto the column, slowly adding yet more decoration to what is already a stunning centerpiece to the Throne Room. Kubla Khan is acknowledged to be the tallest, most colossal cave column discovered thus far in Arizona.
A pair of deep tracks through the mud that covers the floor of the Rotunda Room calls attention to the dedication of the cavern’s discoverers. Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, in their effort to leave the cavern in as pristine a condition as possible, always used the same trails on their exploratory treks. Today cave staff use the same track across the mud to reach monitoring stations and lighting. They report that it is like wading through peanut butter. It is amazing to realize that there were human footprints on the moon before anyone set foot in Kartchner Caverns. And in light of the number of people who have been in Kartchner Caverns during the 10 years it has been open, it is even more amazing that more than 85 percent of the cavern floor has never had a human walk on it. The discoverers set a high standard.
Since the Big Room was the first major room entered by Tenen and Tufts, the Big Room tour focuses more on the discovery process than on water and the cave formation. Also, since the Big Room is where the cave myotis bats come to have their babies, this tour offers more information about the impact the presence of these bats has on the cave. Decorations are not as massive as Kubla Kahn, but the formations are numerous and contain several types that are not found in the Rotunda or Throne Room, such as the strange fried egg stalagmite. The “yolk” is created by an optically clear, continuous crystal that grows large because it is constantly wet. The “white” is made of tiny crystals in the splash zone that diffract the light and appear white. Other formations, such as “turnip welt shields,” were first documented in the Big Room.
On the Big Room tour, you also will learn about some of the animal remains that have been found here. They include the complete skeleton of a Shasta ground sloth, dated to approximately 86,000 years ago, in the Echo Passage off the Big Room. In another area, gravel beds that washed into the cave through an opening that is now sealed left fragments of an extinct horse and bear. No evidence of human remains has been found.
Kartchner’s parking lot has large spaces to accommodate RVs. The park’s 60-site RV park includes electrical hookups, water, and a dump station, as well as rest rooms and showers. Sites are large and well-separated from neighboring sites.
We currently work as volunteers at the caverns and have been involved in leading tours there. As many times as we have been in the caverns, it still fills us with awe. Kartchner Caverns State Park is a place that deserves to be on your “must visit” list.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
P.O. Box 1849
Benson, AZ 85602
(520) 586-4100 “” information
(520) 586-2283 “” tour reservations
Park admission is $5 per vehicle for up to two adults. The fee is waived for those who have reserved tour tickets.
Tour reservations are recommended. Rotunda/Throne Room tours (1/2-mile walk, 1 1/2 hours) are $18.95 for adults and children 14 and older; $9.95 for children 7 to 13; and free for children 6 and under. On the Big Room tour (October 15 to April 15 only; 1/2-mile walk, 1-1/2 hours), children age 6 and under are not permitted. The cost is $22.95 for adults and $12.95 for children.
Camping with electrical hookups is available at the park for $22 per night.
The park’s 23,000-square-foot Discovery Center houses world-class exhibits, including a replica of the cave. Educational information, a gift shop, and a variety of other displays can be seen there. In addition, the site has hiking trails, a picnic area, and a shaded dining area.