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By Jane Cassie
(for Travel Writers' Tales)

The fit spelunkers suit up with hard hats and headlamps. They're told to remove cumbersome backpacks that may hamper their maneuverability through claustrophobically-confined spaces. "Does anyone feel uncomfortable crawling through dark narrow tunnels?" the guide inquires. Although sticking like glue to the neighboring group of scaredy-cats, my heart does a flip-flop for those heading off in this Wild Cat Cave Tour.

Photo 1 Colossal Cave Mountain Park situated in the Tucson valley

The Colossal Cave Mountain Park situated in the Tucson valley is just an hour's drive from our refined refuge, the Arizona Inn and, although they both share historical happenings, this jaunt to 'down under' also adds an element of excitement.

While the agile explorers lunge into unlit passageways, our group chooses the road more traveled, where paving stones weave through illuminated limestone tunnels. Our unexpected entrance generates the flutter from at least two sets of wings, and before we can focus, they're gone from our sight. "You're lucky," Mickey, our guide, declares with enthusiasm, "Not everyone is privy to bat sightings." In spite our good fortune, I realize that my body chill has nothing to do with a drop in temperature, as this subterraneous grotto remains at a constant seventy degrees year-round.

Photo 2 Paving stones lead the way into the limestone tunnels

As well as home to almost half the bat species in Arizona, we discover that the cavernous cocoon is also a regular hangout for foxes, badgers and legends of the past. "In the 1800's these craggy interiors were a favourite hideaway for train robbers and bandits," Mickey says. "And over a thousand years ago they were used by the Hohokam Indians for shelter." We check out the well-preserved artifacts that bore ritual significance to the Hohokam tribe: prayer sticks, known as Pahos, small-scale bows, and reed cigarettes that once produced symbolic smoke formations.

We come to a glossy limestone protrusion that goes by the name of Old Baldy and are informed to rub it for good luck. "It's a protective measure," Mickey jests. "After all, you wouldn't want to fall into the bottomless pit or lose any body parts!" It's obvious that most visitors have abided by this ritualistic task, as the head of the prominence is smoother than a crystal ball.

Photo 3 Icicle-shaped stalagmites suspend from the cathedral-like ceiling

As we plod through the labyrinth of tunnels that spans six stories our imaginations are stimulated by geological formations: a kingdom of elves, a ruling king, a rock and roll room featuring Kermit the frog. Icicle-shaped stalagmites suspend from the cathedral room's heaven bound ceiling and, like cave bells, create acoustics that are supposedly three times more effective than most recording studios. If all were to come to life, it would be volume overload. Instead, the rocky formations, glazed over by crystals and iron oxide deposits, emit a silence that's golden.

Photo 4 Archways and Tunnels of Limestone

We discover that most caverns are formed by rainwater, but not so with Colossal Cave. Hot sulfur-laden brine has percolated from below and hollowed out and the passageways of this underground wonderland. Instead of burrowing deep, the tunnels recede into the mountain, and are always a comfortable temperature. The cave stopped being formed about four thousand years ago and for the past seventy has been as dry as a bone.

The enchantment continues, and like mice following the pied piper, we are led through more of the maze. "The cave has thirty-eight fractures and one major fault line," Mickey imparts, "which we are standing on now." We can clearly see the crevice that severs the rugged foundation. And feeling a sense of uncertainty we plod on. Shimmering with splendor is the crystal forest and silent waterfall where a dazzling display of flowstone has been frozen in time. We pass by the cave's largest stalactite that weighs two and a half tons and appropriately goes by the name of Fang. We shimmy around Bone Crusher, a stalagmite that attempts to block our path, and we veer into the bottomless pit without letting our curiosity get the best of us.

Photo 5 Kingdom of the Elves

The Living Room is seventy feet below the parking lot and the lowest point in Colossal Cave. According to legend, it's also the location where the bandits set up camp when taking refuge. "It may be a dream home for fugitives, Fodor and even Disney's seven dwarfs," my husband mocks, "but it's sure not the Arizona Inn!"


Colossal Cave Mountain Park

Where to Stay
Arizona Inn
2200 East Elm Street
Tucson, Arizona 85719
(520) 325-1541 or 1-800-933-1093

PHOTOS by Brent Cassie

1. Colossal Cave Mountain Park situated in the Tucson valley
2. Paving stones lead the way into the limestone tunnels
3. Icicle-shaped stalagmites suspend from the cathedral like ceiling
4. Archways and tunnels of limestone
5. Kingdom of the Elves

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