February 6, 2008 -- Benson, AZ
A couple days ago we visited Kartchner Caverns State Park. We don't have much experience with caves and caverns so this stop was especially interesting for us.
This place was discovered by a couple amateur cavers in 1974. For the ensuing four years they explored and cataloged the extent of their find in complete privacy. In 1978, they told the family that owned the land and together they agreed it must be preserved and kept as natural and pristine as possible. Other caves and caverns around the country had been trashed by the time experts appreciated what they had, and no one wanted this to happen here. As far as they could find, no human had stepped foot in the caverns before they were discovered. It was totally virgin and unbelievably beautiful.
It took 10 more years of secret negotiations with Arizona State Park officials and legislators to make the park a reality. In 1988 it officially became Kartchner Caverns State Park and the public was told of the find.
More years passed as the State Park prepared the caverns for public tours. Concrete walkways and railings were carefully installed, interior lighting put into place, and a system of doors added that create a seal between the caverns and the outside world. The goal is to keep the cavern as natural as possible so it continues to evolve -- even while thousands of people go through it each year.
The inside of the cavern is about 70f degrees with 99% humidity year-round. The only way to get inside is on a guided tour. Visitors are instructed to not touch anything other than the provided hand rails, and if accidental touches happen, the guide will mark that spot so a cleaning crew can address it. As visitors enter the cavern, they're misted with a fine spray of water that makes lint, dust, and loose hair heavier so it falls to the walkway for later cleaning rather then becoming airborne and floating to places that can't be cleaned. These efforts to keep the cavern as natural as possible are impressive, and I think they enrich the experience.
No photography is permitted inside the cavern and even the lighting is set up to brighten as we walk into an area, and then dim as we leave.
The natural formations inside the caverns have been growing for more than 200,000 years and are simply incredible. The colors are spectacular. I'm having trouble coming up with descriptions and superlatives that can relate in words what we saw. Stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, coral pipes, draperies, and flowstone are all terms associated with the formations, and are all created in one way or another with the simple process of flowing drops of water depositing minerals, mostly calcite, from the rock structures above the cavern.
It's not the largest cave and cavern system in the country by any measure, but it's pristine condition and continuing evolution make it a "must see" for anyone traveling through this part of the world.