/ The Phoenix Traveler
Phoenix — By Heather Wright Schlichting on November 25, 2009 at 5:00 am

Discover The Underground Wonderland of Kartchner Caverns

In 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts were exploring the limestone hills at the eastern base of the Whetstone Mountains near Benson, Arizona looking for a cave no one had ever found and found it. Keeping the discovery a secret for four years, they later approached James and Lois Kartchner, the property owners, with a proposition to uncover the cavern.

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Overcoming more than 20 years of unforeseen challenges, the stunning limestone formations of Kartchner Caverns State Park opened to the public on November 5, 1999. Earlier this month the Park celebrated their 10th anniversary.

Two guided tours available to the public highlight the main features of the cave, the Rotunda/Throne Room opened year round and The Big Room open for tours October through April. The cave hosts an ever-growing assortment of stalactites and stalagmites formed by calcite layers of travertine, particularly in the Rotunda/Throne room, home to one of the world’s longest soda straw stalactites, measuring an impressive 21 feet, 2 inches and Kubla Khan, named for its large, looming presence, the tallest and most massive column at 58 feet.

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This bell canopy in the Rotunda-Throne Room is formed by water flowing over a bump on the wall, then dripping to create this beautiful formation.

A series of sealed chambers in the Big Room uncovers a wide variety of unique minerals and formations. As our guide says, “Everything is alive.” This is evident by the sounds of water dripping as you tour the cavern.  The water is the life force responsible for creating this underground wonderland and over time has dripped down the rocks to form stalactites that look like icicles. My favorite formations, the bacon draperies are thin, clear sheets of dripstone with mineral streaks that have an uncanny resemblance to bacon. The whole experience is eery, yet fascinating at the same time. It reminds me of the villains command center in a James Bond movie.

Beyond the strange and colorful formations of the caves, Kartchner Caverns also features campgrounds, an amphitheater, hiking trains and a hummingbird garden. It’s a great learning ground for kids and adults, alike. Only thirty minutes southeast of Tucson, it is well worth the diversion.

Kartchner Caverns State Park
2980 S. Hwy 90
Benson, Arizona 85602 (map)

All tours are led by a trained guide. The park recommends that tours be booked as far in advance as possible to ensure availability. Try to arrive at least 1 hour in advance of your tour time.

Big Room Tour
Length: ½ mile Time: 1½ hours
Tours are available from mid-October to mid-April

Admission:
Children age 6 and under are not allowed on this tour
Ages 7-13 $12.95
Ages 14 and older – $22.95

Rotunda/Throne Tour
Length: ½ mile Time: 1½ hours
Tours available year-round
Admission: Ages 0-6 – Free
Ages 7-13 – $9.95
Ages 14 and older – $18.95

Park Entrance Fees*:
Per Vehicle (1-2 Adults): $5.00
Additional Adults (14+): $2.00
Individual/Bicycle: $2.00
*Entrance Fee Waived for Reserved Tour Ticket Holders

Park Hours
The operating hours of the park are from 7 am – 6 pm. year round. The park is open for a half day on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve and is closed on Christmas day. The Contact Station is open daily from 7 am – 4 pm to sell Day Use Permits and Camping Permits.

Photo images courtesy of Arizona State Parks

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