The Tale of Two Caves

We enjoy caves and tour them whenever possible. We have a good understanding of stalactites (hang tight from the ceiling) and stalagmites (grow from the ground), columns, drapery, flowstone and bacon. We know about bat guano and white nose syndrome. We’re into caves!

fullsizeoutput_43b6There are two show caves in southern Arizona with very different stories.  Colossal cave is  large with thirty nine miles of natural tunnels. It took two years to map the two miles of complex passages that are fully explored.

fullsizeoutput_43b7The cave was “discovered” in 1879, but artifacts indicate that it was long ago used by prehistoric peoples.  The cave’s colorful history began in 1887 when it was a hideout for bank robbers and then bandits in the 1920s.

An early owner of the cave also owned a local hotel. For decades hotel guests were invited to visit the cave and break off stalactites as souvenirs.  Sigh….

P1140540We were sad to see the damage done to Colossal Cave.  Nearly every stalactite was broken off.  The cave has been dry for many years so there is no new growth.


Looking up into the broken stalactites.

The tour guide pointed out that a positive aspect of the destruction is that we can see the age rings of the stalactites, and know the damage that can happen when a fragile cave environment is subject to human interference.


A stalagmite that has been rubbed and handled.

Thankfully, a more responsible owner, Frank Schmidt,  began protection efforts  for Colossal Cave in the 1920s.  He led tours for many years.


In honor of the CCC

Four hundred members of the Civilian Conservation Corps worked in Colossal Cave from 1934 – 1938.  They installed the hand rails and footpaths that are still in use today to guide visitors safely through the cave. The sadness we felt at the damage to Colossal Cave formations was offset by the impressive work of the CCC.

P1140556Our tour guide said the CCC also installed new cave formations “stalag-lights” to enhance a visitor’s trip through the cave.

The second cave open to visitors in southern Arizona has a completely different story. The cave that would become Kartchner Caverns was discovered by two University of Arizona students in 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts. They were amateur cavers intrigued by the geology of the area. They found a sinkhole with a grapefruit size hole that was “breathing”. They dug the hole a little bigger and squeezed their way in, traveling about 400 feet.



For four years they explored the cave believing they were on BLM land. They desperately wanted to protect the cave from damage so kept its existence secret.


Learning they were actually on private land, they approached the owners with a slideshow of pictures taken in this cave and pictures from other caves that were not protected. Landowners James and Lois Kartchner, he a former science teacher and school superintendent, shared the vision of protecting the cave.


It took 10 more years of secrecy, only informing need to know Arizona legislators, for the state to purchase the land which would become Kartchner Caverns State Park.

Once the purchase became common knowledge, guards were hired to protect the cave. The state supported almost four years of scientific study to learn everything possible about the cave’s ecosystem.

P1140478There was no evidence of human visitation and very little evidence of animal trespass. Eighty thousand year old bones from a single Shasta ground sloth were found and identified. A full adult coyote skeleton from more recent times was also found.


The cave appeared to have been a closed environment for hundreds of thousands of years. The caverns were (and continue to be)  “wet” with pristine, growing formations.

The challenge for the park system was (and is) to maintain the ecosystem but still allow visitation. A trail system was developed over several years using strategies to minimize impact to the cave itself.


Electric powered hand tools were used to make cave trails. No gas powered machinery was ever used. One of the two caverns was (and still is) closed six months each year to accommodate the seasonal bat population.

There are strict protocols for visiting the cave – age restrictions, no cameras, no backpacks, no food or water – all designed to protect the cave ecosystem.  (The pictures of Kartchner cave formations in this blog are all from the internet.)

A visitor walks through a series of four air-tight doors and a mister to enter (and exit) the cave so as not to disrupt natural pressures, temperatures and humidity levels. These are constantly monitored and tours may be reduced in size or eliminated to maintain the cave’s equilibrium. We were told it is one of the most protected “show caves” in the world.

After seeing what can happen if a cave is not protected, we were very impressed with the work and commitment the Arizona State Park system extends to Kartchner Caverns. Every cave we see in the future will be compared to these caverns for their beauty and protection.


And we are not alone.  Lots of people are impressed with Kartchner Caverns!




About Serene

Former full time RVers, transitioned to homeowners and travelers. We've still got a map to finish! Home is the Phoenix area desert and a small cabin in the White Mountains of Arizona.
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9 Responses to The Tale of Two Caves

  1. Mark McClelland says:

    Great write-up of a beautiful cave! We first visited SE Arizona in 1998, and visited several times in the next decade. We became aware of the cave and tried to get a trip, but back then entry was tightly restricted and the waiting list was months long!! Finally in 2010 we traveled back to the area and got to tour the cave.

    We’ve met several folks who have volunteered in the park over the years. Apparently they have quite a large volunteer program, especially during the cooler season. Are you guys going to check that out?

    • Serene says:

      Yes there is a large volunteer community. We talked extensively with one couple and Randy already has his eye on the tram driver job. We’re still thinking Texas for winter 2018-9 but someday will likely see us volunteering at Kartchner Caverns.

  2. Teri McClelland says:

    It is a beautiful cave. Great blog. I really enjoyed the history lesson.

  3. Elaine Ehlers says:

    Thanks for the tour. It definitely reminds me how we can destroy the beauty of nature by our own selfishness to gain a souvenir – how sad.

    • Serene says:

      Yes, it was a different time and place. I remember (now with chagrin) that my family took railroad spikes from the train tracks approaching the bridge on the River Kwai in Thailand in the 70’s. Pretty sure that would be frowned upon now but back then it was the thing to do.

  4. rightlaners says:

    That’s quite a contrast indeed! It’s too bad us humans have such short-sighted mentality and can ruin in seconds what it took Mother Nature thousands of years to build. It broke my heart to see giant stalagmites for sale this year at Tyson Wells in Quartzsite. Thank you for writing this excellent article.

  5. Pingback: Serene, Meet Serene | Serene Wandering

  6. Pingback: Outside Nashville: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky | Serene Wandering

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