Kartchner Caverns Arizona State Park
Inside the upper caverns of Kartchner, two main galleries the size of football fields are a kaleidoscope of color with 100-foot high ceilings dripping with multi-hued stalactites, and floors jutting up with matching stalagmites. Giant white columns form where the two meet. Dainty white helictites and translucent orange carbonate speleothems beckon the visitor, and shields of white calcite adorn this natural wonder.
An extraordinarily thin stalactite, called a soda straw, hangs tenuously 21 feet 2 inches down from the cave's ceiling. Rare quartz needles forming "birdsnests," nitrocalcite "cotton," and an extensive array of brushite moonmilk appear only during cooler, wet seasons.
In 1974 two young cave hunters began exploring a mountain range in southeastern Arizona they thought might reveal a cave. They found a sinkhole, felt warm, moist air from the tiny hole and crawled down through the muddy tunnels to discover a series of caverns. While elated, they also felt a deep sense of responsibility. This was a wonderful curse...and one that would drive everyone involved with this cave to extremes in their efforts to save it for years to come.
Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen had to keep their secret pact for 12 years before Governor Bruce Babbitt was lured down into the rattlesnake-lined sinkhole. Then after clandestine meetings, onsite visits by blindfolded government employees and quiet work by the legislature, the cave was purchased by Arizona State Parks and the development of the Park began in 1988.
The story of stewardship becomes even more intriguing at this point. The Arizona State Parks Department had to develop the cave without destroying the unique micro-environment that made its calcite decorations so stunningly colorful. The cave has been listed as one of the top ten caves in the world for its mineral deposits by cave experts and the only one open to the public in America. The staff had to protect this underground cave environment by building tunnels with airtight refrigerator doors and chambers that the public would go through.
They had to keep misting with water to keep the humidity at 99% and the temperature at a constant 68 degrees, even when it was over 100 degrees outside. Trails had to be built by hand with no heavy equipment, cement had to be brought through the airlocks in hand-carried buckets, and rocks gently moved one by one to build wheelchair accessible trails. Environmental stations constantly monitor the high humidity and moderate temperatures inside the cave that must be protected as it contrasts dramatically with the dry, hot desert above. From May to mid-September the cave serves as a maternity ward for 1,000 female Myotis velifer bats that roost in the lower caverns.
The Arizona State Parks department opened Kartchner Caverns State Park's "Big Room" in 2003. "The public has marveled at the Throne and Rotunda Rooms in the upper portion of the cave," says State Parks Director Ken Travous. "But the Big Room brings you closer to many of the calcite formations where you can sense the fragile nature of this pristine cave. The Big Room unveils a strikingly different vista of this ecological wonder." It is half of a mile long and takes an hour and 45 minutes to complete, one hour of which is underground.
As you move through the cave, it is hard to fathom the vastness of the 1.7-acre Big Room. Unlike the Rotunda/Throne Room, the Big Room's cave formations hover within arm's reach of the trail, even though the largest part of the room is approximately 400 feet long by 240 feet wide. Cave formations are scattered among the colossal boulders and small chambers. The tour trail winds through the Strawberry Room where the flowstone is renewed with each drip of water onto the red and orange surface. The rare beauty of the cave features is not the only reason Kartchner Caverns is considered one of the top ten caves in the world. The wet glistening minerals that adorn the ceilings and floors make it a wonder from a mineralogical standpoint. Delicate soda straws, helictites, turnips, popcorn, and dramatic shields grow from every corner, with the newly discovered delicate cave cotton only appearing during rains in back windy, dark corridors.
According to Executive Director Ken Travous, "Safety and cave environmental concerns have been our guiding principles as we finish each phase of construction and we have made every effort to ensure the protection of the cave and its fragile ecosystem throughout this development. The key issues are that no one has been injured and our environmental monitoring inside the cave is indicating the predicted level of temperature change as we develop the cave." The cave reports indicate that the temperature is at the upper end of the 1992 predicted scale for the development phase and the cave is warmer and dryer than in the past, but that is partly due to regional drought and warming conditions.
Kartchner Caverns State Park draws international attention because of the variety of formations and for the innovative techniques used to develop the cave. The extensive environmental research program and the state-of-the-art development techniques that protect the cave and its sensitive ecosystem are becoming the model for caves around the world. This technology is being instituted in other newly discovered caves in America and other countries. The Big Room provides another area of this natural wonder that Arizonans can offer to the world.
Pictures copyright Arizona State Parks.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
P.O. Box 1849
Benson, Arizona 85602
Phone information (520) 586-4100
Phone reservations: (520)-586-2283
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