Kartchner Caverns State Park's Caverns Are Quite a Sight For Limestone Cowboys

Looming like a fat, ancient redwood tree, the 58-foot-tall Kubla Khan formation is one of the imposing attractions at Kartchner Caverns, about nine miles south of Benson.
Looming like a fat, ancient redwood tree, the 58-foot-tall Kubla Khan formation is one of the imposing attractions at Kartchner Caverns, about nine miles south of Benson. (Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau)
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By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2009

One of southern Arizona's more awe-inspiring natural wonders lies underground about nine miles south of Benson. Kartchner Caverns State Park yawns through seven subterranean acres, and that size, matched with an array of intact formations and impeccable preservation, earns Kartchner consistent accolades among the type of people who assign accolades to caves.

Honestly, as I drive out to the park, I expect to be, at best, initially impressed and then mildly bored by half a day spent underground gawking at rock and mineral deposits.

But when Kartchner guide Jim Flanagan leads 10 other tourists and me through an airlock doorway notched into the hillside, I feel as if I'm sneaking into the bad guys' command center in a James Bond movie, and that always gets me fired up.

A series of sealed chambers deposits us in a cavern called the Big Room, one of two main grottoes here; this one is closed to the public mid-April to mid-October, when a bat colony comes here to give birth. Humidity in the cave system is 99 percent, compared with about 20 percent aboveground. (Credit this disparity to layers of limestone around the cave that capture rainwater and release it slowly throughout the year.)

The cave system was discovered in 1974 by Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, two spelunkers from the University of Arizona. Following a tip, the pair found this cave after feeling a warm, moist breeze emanating from a grapefruit-size hole in the ground, which they widened just enough before crawling for hours through body-width tunnels. Pause here to really envision what this would be like. Pause further to admit you would never, ever do this. Okay, let's continue.

The spelunkers had seen careless management of other caverns (trash, damaged formations, even graffiti) and thus waited four years before revealing the existence of the site to the Kartchner family, which owned the land. Tufts and Tenen called the caverns Xanadu so they could discuss it in public without fear of revealing their find.

In 1988 the cavers and the Kartchners transferred stewardship of the caverns to the Arizona park system, after the state promised to impose strict preservation standards.

Flanagan guides us along a wending paved pathway. Stalagmites, stalactites and -ites I've never imagined abound, tiny and giant, inspiring the usual litany of cave-formation analogies: candles in mid-melt, frozen waterfalls, really thick soup spattered on a wall, petrified drool on a caveman's chin, etc.

Some regions of the cave evoke empires of mini medieval castles, and yet I see no evidence of the hobbits, gremlins and trolls that certainly reside here. We can hear, and occasionally feel, water dripping.

Flanagan points out Tufts's and Tenen's boot prints, still distinct in the mud after 34 years. Their route steers into dark corners with claustrophobically small openings.

To be clear: You can see very similar scenes in other living caves, including Luray Caverns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, and parts of New Mexico's renowned Carlsbad Caverns. But if you're in Arizona and have the time, Kartchner is well worth the diversion.

Later I tour the Rotunda/Throne Room (no bats; open year-round) expecting to hit cave saturation. Instead, I am again spellbound by boggling formations, such as a 21-foot, wire-thin soda straw, the second longest on record in the world, and the Kartchner piece de resistance: a 58-foot column, looming like a fat, ancient redwood tree, that the discoverers dubbed Kubla Khan.

Here the park breaks slightly from its very conservative approach by putting on a light show, backed by recorded Native American music. The column looks like the kind of massive, world-wrecking reactor or last-ditch escape spaceship that James Bond's nemeses might build, and I half expect it to rumble to life and exit through the ceiling, but it stays put, no less amazing for its stoic immobility.

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