The Kartchner Caverns
in Benson Arizona
by Susan Homestead
Could you keep an amazing discovery a secret for fourteen years? Well, that is exactly what Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen did after their discovery of an underground cave system. It was 1974 and these two amateur cavers were in the Whetstone Mountains in southern Arizona looking for caves when they stumbled upon a crack in a sink hole that led to a 2.5-mile underground cave system. They knew that what they had discovered was truly amazing and in order to protect it from potential vandalism and exploitation, they had to keep their discovery a secret until they could figure out a way to protect it. Fortunately, the cave was located on land owned by the Kartchner family who also understood the importance of secrecy.
With the goal of keeping the caverns pristine for future generations to experience; Randy, Gary and the Kartchner family approached the state of Arizona with the idea of developing the caverns into a cave tour. This would allow many generations to experience the wonder of this amazing find while also protecting it.
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Finally in 1988, the land was officially sold to the state to start Kartchner State Park. Eleven years later, after spending $28 million, the park and cave tours opened to the public.
Today visitors see the cavern much like Randy and Gary saw it in 1974. Throughout the passages are amazing formations. Numerous calcite stalactites hang from the ceiling often pointing to a stalagmite protruding from the floor. In the Throne Room, as they call it, there is a stalactite and stalagmite that have joined together creating a 58-foot column called Kubla Khan. There are also many soda straw stalactites hanging from the ceiling and in the Throne Room is one of the world’s longest formed by years of water slowly dripping creating a long straw like tube of crystallized calcium carbonate. It is amazing to realize how old this cave system is when looking at a 21-foot 2 inch soda straw which is estimated to grow at a rate of about 1 inch every hundred years. One of the coolest formations I saw is called “Cave Bacon” which is formed when water flows down a sloped ceiling causing the calcite to build up in a line. When the calcite is mixed with iron oxide it adds strips of color causing the formation to resemble bacon.
In addition to all the formations found throughout the limestone passages, the caverns are also home to an active bat colony. Each summer the tiny bats return to occupy the Big Room closing it to the public from April 15 – October 15. During this time the maternal bats hibernate roosting close together on the ceiling.
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After hibernation they give birth to a single pup. When the young have learned to fly and can fend for themselves, the colony leaves for the winter; although no one knows exactly where they go. The protection of the bat colony is another reason for the great care put into preserving this amazing cave.
So, if you are every in Southern Arizona, I highly recommend checking out the caverns. Although the Big Room Tour is closed when the bats are roosting, the Throne Room Tour is open year round. There is also a visitor center with even more information about the development and importance of preserving Kartchner Caverns. https://azstateparks.com/kartchner
About Susan Homestead: Prior to her retirement, Susan spent 31 years as an educator in Washington State. Her career included, not only teaching elementary school, but working as a reading specialist and an instructional coach as well. She also developed and published educational materials. Now she spends her time traveling the country and writing reviews in an RV with her husband, Robert, and her two cats, Missy and Greyson.