Preserving Kartchner Caverns State Park
“Don’t touch!” is the phrase I heard the most when I took a tour of Kartchner Caverns State Park. Preserving these caves is at the heart of all this state park does and after seeing these underground wonders for myself, I knew why. From the reviews of friends and family that have visited before, I knew I was in for a treat. I didn’t know how much I would be impressed until I actually saw the formations that were extraordinary not only in size, but also in structure and how they are preserved.
I took a tour of the Rotunda and Throne Room, one of two options of tours visitors can take, but the methods the park uses to preserve these natural wonders start as soon as you walk in the cave. The first parts of the caves consist of tunnels that lead you back to the big rooms that house stalactites and stalagmites. In these tunnels, there is a section that mists you before you reach the main attractions. These misters dampen loose particles of clothing, skin, and hair so they fall on the trail instead of traveling down to the formations. If the particles were to reach the stalactites, they run the possibility of becoming a breeding site for fungus and algae, which would ruin the formations.
The tour lasted approximately an hour and a half, but I wished I had more time to see all the intricate formations that have formed over thousands of years. The tour featured the Rotunda Room first, which seemed eerily big at first with dim lighting that prevented me from seeing where the cavern actually ended. There were stalactites growing from the ceiling and a clear view of the original trail where the discoverers traveled in and out of the room. A park ranger and our tour guide, Ann Gurr, said these trails are still used today to travel deeper in the cave to monitor its condition. The mysterious feeling of the caves continued when we reached the section between the Rotunda Room and Throne Room where you could faintly hear music, but the tour guides said no music was playing. Gurr clarified they like to trick visitors by pretending they don’t hear the music that is really playing, but it still added to the eerie feeling of the cave.
After the Rotunda Room, we continued our journey to the Throne Room, which was the part of the tour I enjoyed the most. The Throne Room got its name because of Kubla Khan, a grand column over 60 feet in height, the equivalent of a 6 story building. I couldn’t help but think it resembled honey that was slowly spilled over honey pots. Not only were there cylindrical and round parts to it resembling the bottom of honey pots, but the gold color of the column itself also added to this illusion. Although it would have been satisfying to touch this stunning formation, I didn’t want to add to any possible deterioration.
With something so remarkable like Kubla Khan that was created by water dripping, I wondered how they were able to preserve the caverns from deterioration. When the caves were first discovered, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen kept it a secret for the very fact they didn’t want people coming down and tarnishing the vulnerable formations. They found other caves that had been destroyed by people and were determined not to let these untouched caves face the same fate. The caves were on private land owned by the Kartchner family, so although Tufts and Tenen wanted to keep them a secret, they had to let the family know about the treasure hidden underground. Once the secret was out, the race was on to make it a state park. After they overcame that obstacle, the next issue was how to keep it preserved from the public who would want to see what has been hidden underground for so many years.
Gurr, who works in the cave unit, discussed some of the various ways they monitor the cave’s condition. Back in the earlier days, she said the park rangers would bring turkey basters and pie pans inside to collect water samples and measure how much water collected in the pans. They also had about 72 monitoring stations in the early days of the park, which has now been reduced to 14 because the previous ones collected redundant data.
“It’s rewarding to see how far the park has come from the early days of monitoring with so many stations and using turkey basters of all things to collect water samples,” Gurr said.
There are also three wild caves west of Benson, which aren’t open for public tourism, that the park monitors and collects data from to compare it with Kartchner Caverns. This data provides information on whether or not the caverns are changing because of human interference or if it is simply from natural causes. This comparison between the different cave units has been instrumental in determining whether or not humans have had a negative affect on the caves.
“Kartchner Caverns has been slowly drying out, which was initially thought to be a result of people touring the caves, but in comparison with the wild caves we’ve discovered it’s a natural process that happens overtime,” Gurr said.
Although the drying out of the cave is natural, the Park Service has been cautious of tourism because humans can add to this process. Gurr said the water in the air sticks to people as they are touring the caves and brings out some of that moisture. I experienced this first hand when I left the caves and felt slightly damp from the humidity in the cave. The opening and closing of all the doors to the different parts of the cave also lets some of the moisture escape.
“To combat this drying out of the cave, we add artificial humidity to the air twice a day to mitigate these effects,” Gurr said.
To ensure the cave is staying wet enough, park rangers use a number of different tools to measure what is happening inside the cave. They have ground thermometers, air thermometers, and a barometer that measures the air pressure in the different parts of the cave. The air and ground temperature in the cave is vital information because it also signals whether or not the cave is becoming too dry. These tools are also used to calculate the humidity levels in the cave. The trays they place in different parts of the cave to measure if they’re collecting more or less water compared to previous months. This is one of the most important parts of the cave monitoring process because dripping water is the difference between a living and a dead cave.
Although preserving the caves have come a long way from the early days of turkey basters and pie pans, Gurr said they are always looking for ways to improve their monitoring methods. Through all these different precautions the park takes in preserving the caves, they are able to show people like me the underground world of Kartchner Caverns.
“With more people visiting the caves comes more risk for deterioration,” Gurr said, “so we always need to keep advancing our methods to ensure this park is around for many years to come.”
For more information on preserving Kartchner Caverns State Park, please click here.
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
My wife and I just took this tour a few weeks ago. We had visited the cave years ago, before this more elaborate set of precautions was in place. Even though it takes considerably longer to get into the cave itself (due to the multiple air locks and misting procedure), we felt the tour was far more interesting than in the early days. We highly recommend it.
On a related note, we stayed a couple nights at the Kartchner Caverns State Campground, which is very close to the caverns. Like many of Arizona's state parks, it's a beautiful facility, with very clean restrooms and hot showers. The only negative for us was that individual campsites had no provision for fire rings. Rather, there was a large central fire ring instead. That kind of put a damper on the whole sit-around-the fire-at-night part of the camping experience.
We combined a visit to the caverns with a day and a half of exploring, visiting Fairbank ghost town, the old mines around Gleeson/Courtland/Pearce, and then following Matt's directions to Empire Ranch and the Total Wreck Mine. It was a great trip and we were surprised at the effort the BLM is taking to preserve Fairbank and Empire Ranch. .