Kartchner Caverns State Park


Useful Information

Location: From Benson follow I-10 west, from Tucson I-10 east. Use exit 302 Sierra Vista/Fort Huachuca. Follow Hwy 90 south 12km.
Open: Discovery Center: 19-MAY to 06-DEC daily 8-18. 07-DEC to 18-MAY daily 8:30-18. Closed Christmas Day.
Cave Tours: only after prior online or phone reservation.
[2020]
Fee: Rotunda/Throne Tour: Adults USD 23, Children (7-13) USD 13, Children (0-6) USD 5.
Big Room Tour: Adults USD 23, Children (7-13) USD 13.
Sign Language Tour: Adults USD 23.00, Children (7-13) USD 13.00, Children (0-6) USD 5.
Head Lamp Tour: Adults USD 30.00, Children (7-13) USD 30.00.
Photo Tour: Adults USD 125.00.
Park Entrance Fee: Car (1-4 Adults) USD 7, Individual USD 3, Bicycle USD 3.
[2020]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave cave system.
Light: electric
Dimension: L=3,962m, T=21°C, H=99%, A=1,237m asl.
Big Room: H=30m
Guided tours: Rotunda/Throne Room Tour: L=800m, D=90min.
Big Room Tour: L=800m, D=105min.
d Sign Language Tour: L=800m, D=90min.
Head Lamp Tour: L=800m, D=75min.
Photo Tour: D=6h.
Photography: allowed only on Photography Tour
Accessibility: wheelchair accessible
Bibliography: Anon (1999): Kartchner Cavern, 32 pp map illus. SB $7.95
S. Negri (1998): Kartchner Caverns, Paperback, Arizona Highways; (December 1998), ISBN: 0916179656. Worldamazon.com
Kelly Tighe (2002): Best Trails In and Around Kartchner Caverns State Park, Paperback: 128 pages, Best Trails; (September 16, 2002), ISBN: 0971143749. Worldamazon.com
Dave Bunnel (2004): The Sister Caves: Kartchner Caverns and Grotte di Frasassi, NSS News Vol 62 (7) 202-206
Neil Miller (2008): Kartchner Caverns: How Two Cavers Discovered and Saved One of the Wonders of the Natural World, University of Arizona Press, 224 pp. Bookamazon.de
Randy Tufts, Gary Tenen (1999): Discovery and History of Kartchner Caverns. In: Journal of Cave and Karst Studies. August 1999, S. 44ff. Bookpdf download
Address: Kartchner Caverns State Park, 2980 S Hwy 90, Benson, AZ 85602, Tel: +1-520-586-4100.
Reservations: Online cave tour reservations, Tel: +1-877-MY-PARKS, select Option #2.
Public Information Officer Ellen Bilbrey, Arizona State Parks, 1300 W. Washington,Phoenix, AZ 85007, Tel. +1-602-542-1996, Cell: +1-602-228-8518, Fax: +1-602-542-4188. E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1974 discovered by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts.
1988 the cave was purchased by Arizona State Parks and the development of the Park began.
12-NOV-1999 opened to the public.
2003 second phase of development, opening of additional tours.

Description

Kartchner Caverns is one of the very few show caves which was recently opened to the public. This is the chance to see a cave in an extremely well preserved state, since most of the older show caves have a long history of fires, torches, candles, vandalism, lamp flora, and other damages.

Kartchner Caverns was discovered by two speleologists,Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen in 1974. In order to prevent the cave from being destroyed, they kept their secret for many years. After four years they told the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner, for the first time about the cave. The cave was named after the Kartchners, because of their devotion to the protection of the cave. After years of secret talks between cavers, owners and the Arizona State, the cave was finally purchased as an Arizona State Park in 1988. This was the first time the existence of the cave became known to the public.

To preserve the formations, it is absolutely necessary to maintain the natural conditions of the cave. In the undeveloped cave the temperature would always stay at 21°C and the humidity at 99%. To keep this conditions unchanged, even with 200,000 visitors a year and a dry desert climate outside, the cave was closed with airlocks and a special air conditioning system.

The opening of this cave was awaited for several years, first it was planned to open in 1997. But the difficult working conditions, building the trails by hand with no heavy equipment, caused a two years delay. The developing costs were $28 million.

Many people had heard about the cave and the run to booking tours resembled the sale of tickets to popular rock star concerts or football games. In only a few days after reservation was possible, all tours of 1999 and many of 2000 were sold out. Because of its extraordinary beauty, the cave is still very popular and pre-booking is still required. However, after 20 years you may have a good chance to get a ticket during off-season the day before. Nevertheless, prebooking by phone or internet is mandatory.


Preservation of the cave environment is the highest priority in the Cavern's management. At the end of each working day, the pathways are hosed down to remove hair, lint, skin cells and other debris. Pumps then drain off the water. After filtration is it reintroduced as a mist to maintain a high humidity to prevent the atmosphere drying as a result of visitors collecting moisture on their clothing and bodies and carrying it out of the cave.

The tour begins in the Rotunda Room, featuring many beautiful spelothems such as delicate straws, frozen waterfalls and numerous helictites. Lighting is both indirect and frontal, without any coloured lights. The visitor experiences semi-darkness, similar to the effect of the headlamps of a group of cavers. Some of the speleothems are back or side lit and are best viewed close up. The displays are so complex that it is impossible to see everything in one visit.

The other major feature of the Rotunda Room is the mud floor, which has cracked into large polygonal figures. A single-file path, made by the cave's original explorers, and by construction workers, crosses the mud floor near one wall. Fallen soda straws can be seen sticking out of the mud. Throughout the tour, it is almost impossible to realise that other groups are also in the cave, as the lights are skilfully turned on and off behind each group. Tours, with a limited number on each, leave every 20 minutes.

Passing many delicate speleothems, the next major chamber is called the Throne Room. The main feature is a 18 m high column call Kubla Khan. This is the tallest column in Arizona. The path ascends to a platform, overlooking the room. Here the visitor takes a seat for a Son et Luminere show. A spot light illuminates the column, going up and down in time with the music, showing the great flutings and alternate white and brown bands on the column.

Like all good things the visit soon comes to an end and it is time to leave the cave, through the air tight door, off of the Throne Room.

A second longer tour is planned which will include The Big Room.

Current waiting period for a booking is 2 weeks, so book well in advance.


Update 2004: The Big Room was opened to the public in November 2003. The tour is half a mile in length and makes a loop around the perimeter of the room and through the adjacent Strawberry Room. Only open October 15 to April 15 because The Big Room houses a nursery colony of Myotis velifer during the summer. Tours limited to 17 day, max 15 persons.


Text by Tony Oldham (2002). With kind permission.