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A Wet Cave in a Dry Desert
Kartchner Caverns State Park is Cool in the Desert Heat

Cave Exploring in State Parks
by Sally Mesarosh

Bats at Arizona State Parks
Bats in the cave. ©1999, AZ State Parks

Travel opportunities are abundant and easy to find in Tucson, Arizona. But if you are looking for a unique adventure that will let you escape into a cool, underground wonderland, check out Kartchner Caverns State Park in Benson, Arizon, just 50 miles southeast of Tucson.

This small town of Benson boasts one of the top ten mineral rich caves in America. Kartchner was discovered in 1974 by spelunkers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts. Smelling bat guano in the breeze, they followed the smell to its source, a hole in the Whetstone Mountains. Squeezing into a small opening, they stumbled upon the fantastic caverns, which they kept a secret for 14 years. Kartchner was opened to the public in November of 1999, after many years of work to ensure a safe, quality experience as well as a protective environment for the cave formations.

The tour begins with an electric tram ride across the desert to the opening of the cave. Once there, visitors enter through airtight refrigerator doors that keep the cave at a constant 68 degrees, with 99% humidity. The tunnel leading down to the entrance allows body temperatures to cool so not as much heat enters the cave. With temperatures outside often reaching over 100 degrees, this is an important precaution. Visitors also pass through an air curtain that blows lint from their clothing. The Arizona State Parks Department has used these cutting-edge cave development techniques to protect this "live" limestone cave's unique micro-environment.

Cave Rock Formations in Arizona State Parks
Rock formations in the cave.
©1999, AZ State Parks

Once inside, soft lighting reveals a fantastic variety of stalactites and stalagmites, many of which are still forming. Among the unique attractions is an extremely thin soda straw stalactite, hanging 21 feet 2 inches down from the cave's ceiling

When I toured the caverns, I saw not only "cave bacon," but also the "fried egg" formation. This unique rock looked like yellow egg yolk was oozing out of it. Our tour guide pointed out "cave popcorn." All these formations made me a little anxious for lunch, but the best part of the tour was yet to come.

We entered a big room where the massive Kubla Kahn column towered before me, 58 feet tall. This is a stalactite and stalagmite joined together, forming a thick, multicolor column. Everyone fell completely silent. In that silence I could imagine what Randy Tufts or Gary Tenen felt like when they became the first people on earth to view this underground wonder.

Thanks to their efforts, countless visitors will be able to share this experience for many years.

The Throne Room and Rotunda Room on the upper level are currently open for tours. The lower level is still under development.

When visiting Kartchner Caverns, make reservations. A two-month wait for reservations is not unusual. The park staff recommends visitors plan for at least three hours at the park. There is an adjacent Discovery Center, as well as a 2-mile moderate-rated interpretive nature trail, a hummingbird trail, and trail access to Coronado National Forest.

For more information, visit Kartchner Caverns State Park's website.