No cameras. No cell phones. No food, no drink, no gum or tobacco products. No backpacks, no strollers, no walkers. Have you worn your shoes inside any other cave? If so, you can’t come in. You could introduce white-nose syndrome to our community of 1000 bats. And you can’t touch anything. Your body oils could stop the formations from growing. This is a living, growing cave.
Okay, now you pass through an air lock. This keeps the humidity within the cave at 99%, as opposed to the typical 0% of the Sonoran Desert above. Without this moisture, the cave stops growing. Sure, its formations generally only grow an inch every 750 years, but still, that’s progress.
Next, you pass through an air curtain that blows the lint off your clothing. Lint may not seem like much to you or me, but with all this tourism, it adds up. Then you pass through a hall of mist, to once again combat that lint.
It was all rather intimidating, but well worth the effort. Because after that, you’re treated to about an hour of some of the most gorgeous cave formations on the planet. Kartchner Caverns. Stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, columns, draperies, spar crystals, flowstone, helictites, shields, and cave bacon galore. Golds. Reds. Browns. Whites. A feast for the eyes.
It was hard not to touch. It was hard not to jump over the railings to go exploring. It was hard to grasp the immensity of the formations. One of the columns is 58 feet tall. (At an inch every 750 years, that’s… a heck of a lot of years.)
What kept me respectful was the immense amount of effort it took for people to protect this cave. I strongly suspect such a monumental secret could never be kept in this day and age, but after Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen found this cave in 1974 on land belonging to the Kartchners, they all managed to keep it a secret for another 14 years. But they decided that the best way to protect the cave, oddly enough, would be to develop it. (Let’s face it: if there’s money involved, people take things seriously.) But it was beyond their means, so they approached the governor of the State of Arizona.
Another thing that wouldn’t happen today: the massive amount of behind the scenes political maneuvering it took to turn this place into a state park. Even the state legislature was kept in the dark until the final vote on the bill, because everyone knew that if the information went public, the next thing you knew, the cave would be covered in graffiti and beer cans. So the bill passed in 1988, and Arizona had its park.
And how lucky the public is that this treasure is being preserved so conscientiously. If you ever get a chance, visit these caverns. You’ll be so glad you did. And while there, rejoice in the fact that a vast majority of this cave has still never been touched by human feet, and hopefully never will be.
Since I couldn’t take pictures myself, here are some from the internet, plus one cool photo of a mural we saw in town.