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By Jane Cassie
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

When my husband suggests that we go underground and check out some caves in Arizona, I respond with a big, "Really?!" He knows that I'm not a fan of dark, enclosed spaces, let alone bats that love to hang out in this subterranean environment. "Have no fear," he says, as if reading my mind. "There's no need for spelunking gear at Kartchner Caverns."

Jane and Brent at the entrance of Kartchner Caverns

Credit for the discovery of this popular tourist haunt, fourteen kilometres south of Benson, goes to Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, two cave gurus who happened upon this find in 1974. Little did they know that the sinkhole they were exploring on the east flank of the Whetstone Mountains would lead them to four kilometres of underground passages and a number of pristine caves. With a mission to preserve the caverns and guard against vandalism, they made a pact of secrecy and withheld the news publically for fourteen years. In 1978, they shared the findings with the Kartchner family who also embraced the idea of protecting this section of their land. In 1988, they sold the land to Arizona State Parks and the news was finally announced to the public. And on November 12, 1999, after sinking thirty-five million dollars into its development the park and world class caverns were opened.

Batman aka Brent Cassie

Hummingbird gardens and nature trails embrace the Discovery Centre, an information hub, where we're provided with an impressive overview. After watching a fifteen minute captivating story in the Tenen-Tufts theatre, we browse through an adjacent museum where placards and video clips prepare us for our tour. We have three options to choose from. If we take the Rotunda / Throne Tour, we'll discover the role that water plays in creating the caverns. The Big Room Tour, which is closed from April to October because it's a nursery roost for the cave bats, will provide us with colourful cave formations. And the Helmet and Headlamp Tour will give us a taste of what it was like for the discoverers -without any lights other than the ones on our heads. Although nowadays there's absolutely no belly travel required, after seeing the film of these two slithering around in the bat-loving dark, I quickly opt for tour number one.

Kartchner Tour Group

Over the next hour and a half, knowledgeable guide, Ranger Tonya, provides a history, geology and hydrology lesson rolled into one. We learn that the cavern space began forming about 500,000 years ago and the oldest dated formation is approximately 200,000 years old.

Pathway through the Big Room

After a short tram ride we're dropped off at the opening of the caverns. There's no need to squeeze through a tiny opening these days. Heavy insulated doors that keep unwanted things out and protect the treasures within are large enough to accommodate wheelchairs. They also help maintain the interior at a constant 72 degrees F and 98 to 99% humidity. Our educated leader takes us along paved curbed pathways that descend deep beneath the earth's crust and each area lights up as we approach, then dims as we depart, a tactic to minimize the growth of algae.

Big Room Cave

"We're standing in living caves," Tonya informs, as we enter the Rotunda. I glance guardedly over my shoulder, half expecting to see the flutter of wings. Aside from the sound of trickling water, all is still. "The growth of these geological formations is created by mineralized rainwater that seeps through cracks in the earth. But it's a slow process."

Throne Room Tour

It's estimated that the stalactites grow about an inch every one hundred to one thousand years. They must have started forming in the Ice Age as some of these suspending sharp fangs are a dozen feet long. They also look like they're preparing for their next meal. And what a menu selection there is before them; Okra-striated stone that looks like strips of bacon, stalagmites with shimmering crystal centers a.k.a. fried eggs, pencil-thin stalactites that hang like soda straws from the cavern rooftop and drapery formations that look like decadent caramel. Ranger Tonya rattles off the names of these geological beauties as if they're items on a buffet. My stomach growls and I regret not stopping for lunch at the Discovery Centre's Bat Cave Cafe. But the visual feast in the adjacent Throne Room is enough to keep me going. The fifty-eight foot tall column, Kubla Khan, takes centre stage. Like an emperor, the architectural flowstone boasting countless shapes, is draped in rich golds and reds. It truly conquers all and we sit mesmerized by this monolith.

Rotunda Tour - Kubla Khan

"It's been quite the cave tour," I say to my husband. "Beautiful, educational, and today, totally bat free!"



Kartchner Caverns:

PHOTOS by Jane Cassie and Kartchner Caverns as noted below

Photo 1& 2 by Jane Cassie

Photos 3-7 -compliments of Kartchner Caverns

#1. Jane and Brent at the entrance of Kartchner Caverns

#2. Batman aka Brent Cassie

#3. Kartchner Tour Group

#4. Pathway through the Big Room

#5. Big Room Cave

#6. Throne Room Tour

#7. Rotunda Tour - Kubla Khan

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