Kartchner Caverns

It all began with a drop of water. More than 330 million years ago, a shallow inland sea covered part of Southern Arizona and deposited layers of sediment that eventually hardened into limestone. This limestone, along with other rock layers, rose up to form southern Arizona’s Whetstone Mountains. Kartchner Caverns’ modern story began in 1974 when two cave explorers barely out of their teens, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen explored the Whetstone Mountains. When they felt warm moist air rise from a tiny sinkhole, they knew they had found a cave.

Tufts and Tenen climbed down the hole through tunnels and discovered a series of amazing caverns. Four years later they shared their secret with the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner. Tufts and Tenen spent the next two years exploring the caverns which they called Xanadu, a place of great beauty, was taken from Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan. They knew that Kartchner Caverns required protection and for twelve years they kept their secret from the public. Both the owners and the discoverers realized that they could not develop and preserve the caverns on their own.

They needed the Arizona government. They lowered Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt down into the rattlesnake infested sinkhole. During several clandestine tours, trusted government employees were blindfolded and taken into the caverns. Through quiet legislative work, Arizona State Parks purchased property and Kartchner Caverns State Park development began in 1988.

Not only did the underground need development but there had to be an above ground discovery center. The Kartchner Caverns’ Discovery Center features museum exhibits, a large gift shop, regional displays, theater, and educational information about the caverns and the surrounding landscape. There are also campgrounds, hiking trails, lockers, shaded picnic areas, a deli, an amphitheater, and a hummingbird garden. The exhibits describe the important paleontological finds including an 80,000 year old Shasta ground sloth, a 34,000 year old horse’s head and an 11,000 year old bear, but no human remains.

Inside the cave, two large galleries present the visitor with a kaleidoscope of color displaying 100-foot ceilings dripping with multi-hued stalactites and stalagmites jutting up from the floor. Kartchner Caverns is a “living” cave, whose formations are still growing. Dainty white helictites, translucent orange bacon, and shields of white calcite adorn this natural wonder. Rare quartz needles form “birds nests” nitrocalcite “cotton” these are two separate formations birdnest quartz needles and nitrocalcite cotton and array of (brushite moon milk always) during the cooler wet seasons. Kartchner Caverns has the -4th longest in the world is the recorded longest in the United States. This extraordinary thin stalactite hangs tenuously for twenty-one feet sand two inches from the cave’s ceiling. The soda straw grows one/64th of an inch in a year and it took 16,500 years to achieve its length. Besides the unique Xanadu and soda straw, Kartchner Caverns features the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk, this is located on the top of rock calcite moonmilk is on the ceiling (should a drop fall on you it is a fairy kiss and you will have good luck), the first –described by Carol Hill in Cave Minerals of the World occurrence of “turnip” shields, and the first cave occurrence of “birds nest” needle quartz formations

Then staff at the park developed a Natural History Curriculum in honor of its discoverers, with a view of children becoming stewards of the environment. Many exhibits in the Discovery Center will appeal to young people. A “caving wall” allows children to create the experience of crawling through narrow cave passages. Animal displays introduce kids to the unique creatures that live in and around the cave. Having their picture taken with the Giant Sloth is a favorite activity. Through activities and lessons, it is hoped that students in grades K through 6 will develop an appreciation of the geological and biological forces that have created such a magnificent cave as Kartchner Caverns. These lessons are also intended to promote an understanding of the relationship between humans and their environment. Students will be encouraged to think about their choices the consequences of their actions. 

There are two tours: the Rotunda/Throne Tour and the Big Room Tour. The Rotunda/Throne Room tour, opened in 1999, is available year-round.   During the tour the visitor learns about the role that water plays in creating the cavern, while seeing the discoverers’ original trail, 45,000 year-old bat guano, delicate formations and “Kubla Khan,” the magnificent fifty-eight-foot column.  The Big Room Tour, which opened in 2003, is available from mid-October to mid-April when there are no bats. During the summer months, the cave’s Big Room serves as a nursery for more than 1,000 female cave bats Myotis velifer. The pregnant females return to Kartchner Caverns around the end of April, where they give birth to a single pup in late June. The babies remain in the roost each evening while their mothers forage for insects in the surrounding countryside. During the summer the colony consumes about half a ton of insects, consisting of moths, flying ants, beetles, mosquitoes and termites. Mothers and their offspring will leave mid-September, to begin their migration for their winter hibernation roost.

After returning to the bat roost from their nightly forays, the bats excrete waste, forming large guano piles. Most life forms in the cave depend on these guano piles for their food. No items such as bags, purses, packs, bottled water, etc are allowed into the cave. The cave has an average temperature of -70° Fahrenheit (22° Celsius) and 99% humidity year-round, so it will feel very warm and – humid. Most areas are =-gently lit and some passages may pass through narrow or enclosed areas. 90% of the tour has handrails. All of  the trails are wheelchair, and scooter accessible and are barrier free. If a person has mobility issues we have wheelchairs available to accommodate them. This may be difficult for persons with mobility, respiratory or claustrophobia issues. Young children may become uncomfortable in the cave environment. In these instances, the child and parent will be allowed to leave the cave tour for their well being and safety. Extraordinary precautions have been taken during its development to conserve the cavern’s near-pristine condition

Kartchner Caverns State Park,,PO Box 1849, Benson AZ 85602, Tel No. 520- 586-4183, Web Site: http://www.AZstateparks.com/Parks/KACA

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