Located 165 miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona, Kartchner Caverns State Park is well worth the two-and-a-half hour drive. The massive limestone cave has 13,000 feet of passages. It contains minerals from six different chemical classes and is considered one of the top ten caves in the world in terms of mineral diversity.
Kartchner Caverns houses a wide variety of cave formations in different shapes and colours. The formations, known as speleotherms, have formed drop-by-drop over tens of thousands of years as water seeping from the surface dissolved minerals on its trip through the limestone. Stalactites, icicle-like formations growing down from the cave ceiling, and stalagmites, growing up from the cave floor, are the types of speleotherms you may be most familiar with. The form a speleotherm takes is determined by whether the water drips, flows, seeps, condenses or pools.
Here’s everything you’ll want to know about Kartchner Caverns State Park.
In 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered the cavern when they were looking “for a cave no one had found” in the limestone hills at the base of the Whetstone Mountains. They kept the cave a secret until 1978 when they told the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner. They knew the cave needed to be protected to prevent serious damage by unregulated use. Tenen and Tuft spent several years looking into the possibility of developing the site themselves.
Members of the Kartchner family had been impressed with the development and operation of Catalina State Park by Arizona State Parks, so they approached the state. In 1988, purchase of the property was approved as a State Park. Extraordinary precautions were taken during development to conserve the cave’s near-pristine condition. In 1999, the upper caverns were ready to open to the public. The lower caverns opened four years later.
Now the public can see the wonders of the caverns via daytime tours led by trained guides. The Rotunda/Throne Tour is a half-mile in length and takes one-and-a-half hours, fifty minutes of which are underground. On this tour, you’ll see the discoverers’ original trail. Formations of note include one of the world’s longest soda straw stalacities and the 58-foot tall Kubla Khan, the tallest and most massive column in Arizona. You’ll also see 45,000-year-old bat guano. The cave ecosystem is dependent upon a summer colony of cave myotis bats.
The half-mile Big Room Tour is available October through April and takes an hour and forty-five minutes to complete, one hour of which is underground. In the Big Room, you’ll find the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk and the first reported occurrence of “turnip” shields. This tour also teaches about cave fauna, both living and ancient, and new and ongoing scientific research and discoveries.
There is also a one-and-a-quarter hour Saturday evening Helmut and Headlamp tour.
The average temperature in the cave is 70° Fahrenheit year-round with 99% humidity. Most areas are dimly lit, and some passageways are narrow or enclosed. The park website warns this may be difficult for people with respiratory or claustrophobia issues. I have mild claustrophobia and worried about how I’d feel before taking the Rotunda/Throne Room Tour, but I was quite comfortable. Although there were a few narrow passageways, many of the spaces were large with high ceilings and bits of light glimmering through cracks in the stone.
The trail system inside the caverns was designed for persons with limited mobility and most of the above and below ground areas are accessible, but dim light and narrow passageways may still be a concern for those with mobility issues. Kartchner Caverns website contains more information about accessibility.
The formations have been continuously growing for millenia and are still growing today. They grow slowly and are extremely fragile. Damage, even by accident, will stop growth. Therefore, care is taken during tours to protect the cave and ensure it will be there for future generations. You’ll walk through a misting station before entering the cave and must refrain from touching any of the formations.
You cannot take anything with you into the caves — no purses, backpacks, fanny packs, binoculars, flashlights, cameras, phones, food, or water. Lockers are available. Cameras are allowed only on a few special photography tours held throughout the year.
Cave tours follow established nationwide protocols to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease killing bats. Do not wear or bring any clothes or shoes you’ve worn into any other cave or mine you’ve visited since 2005.
Other Visitor Information
Purchasing tour tickets in advance is recommended to ensure availability. Kartchner Caverns advises arriving at the Discovery Center (Visitor Center) at least thirty minutes ahead of tour time. The Discovery Center contains a small museum, a gift shop and a food concession. A fifteen-minute theater presentation about the discovery of the cave plays twice an hour.
Kartchner Caverns are a marvel to see. A visit will leave you appreciative both of the work of nature within the cave and the work of Arizona State Parks to balance opening up this wonder to the public with preserving the cave and its formations.