Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Going underground at Kartchner Caverns State Park

In November 1974, two University of Arizona students discovered an enormous cave in the Whetstone Mountains of southern Arizona. In order to protect it, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts embarked on a 13-year mission to turn it into a park. This involved keeping its existence a secret. They also needed the cooperation of the Kartchners, owners of the land that is home to their monumental discovery. An incredible journey ensued, culminating in the signing of legislation in 1988 to create the park that Graham and I recently had the privilege of exploring.

The story of Kartchner Caverns State Park's origin is discussed in detail in a short film at the visitor center and by the park's volunteer tour guides. In the Discovery Center, you can crawl through a replica of the cave entrance the brave Tenen and Tufts initially crawled through. The theme of the story is that the cave must be preserved for future generations. To that end, entrance into the cave's rooms is granted only in guided tours. No photography is allowed in the cave, nor are cellphones, dogs, food and drinks (including bottled water), purses and other bags. No touching of the cave walls is allowed, either. When we walked in, we were escorted through a chamber in which light mist was spray on us and our clothing to keep the lint from our clothes in check. At least two doors were shut behind us. Good thing we aren't claustrophobic.

It's a living cave, meaning that it is still growing and changing. Bats nurse their young here every summer, and signs of their presence are visible in the enormous piles of guano and blacks marks where their roosts had been.

Inside, it's at a constant 72 degrees with a whopping 99 percent humidity. The day that we visited, the low in the nearby Sierra Vista area was 20 degrees, so we were appropriately bundled up in coats, scarves, hats and gloves. This meant that we had to tightly roll up our belongings (before entering the misty room) and carry them with us throughout the tour.

Our tour guide was a walking encyclopedia when it came to cave and bat knowledge. As we examined stalagmites and stalactites (I'm still not sure I can recite the difference without consulting a dictionary.), she passed on her knowledge in a way that wasn't overwhelming. I was impressed at some of the facts she related to us about bats. They eat 2/3 their body weight in insects each night, for example. Also, only the female bats come into the cave, while it's unclear where the males go.

I only wish I could have taken some photos, though the size and shapes of the formations are impossible to forget. Our 1 hour and 45 minute tour meandered through the Big Room and was about a half mile long. The Big Room was dimly lit with a system that allowed the tour guide to spotlight important or interesting mineral deposits. This helped us to notice things that may have been missed with so much going on visually. The view in some spots was so vast that you could spend hours in there admiring the various forms. Graham and I even got what the tour guide called a cave kiss, a drop of water falling on you. This may seem trivial, but water is what continues to carve the cave.

On our next road trip to southern Arizona I'd like to go on the other tour, which scans the Rotunda/Throne Room. (Tip: Each of the tours is about $22.95 per adult, but if you use the code "livingcave" you can get $1 off per person.) The highlight is the "Kubla Khan," the largest column formation in Arizona, at 58 feet tall. I only wish our tour could have gone to that formation too, and that we could have kept exploring.

Have you explore Kartchner Caverns? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

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