The secret discovery of Kartchner Caverns

Kartchner Caverns underground splendor.
Kartchner Caverns underground splendor.(Arizona State Parks & Trails)
Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 8:00 PM MST
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KARTCHNER CAVERNS, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - The story of Kartchner Caverns is one of discovery, exploration, secrecy, and preservation. It begins in rugged old Arizona’s southern desert where it might be hard to imagine the colorful, fragile formations of a moist subterranean cave beneath the arid landscape. Waiting, undiscovered for millions of years... taking that time to form, the cavern’s secrets were cracked open on an afternoon adventure.

The men who discovered the underground wonder world saw their lives forever changed with their find; for others, the discovery secured the rest of us a chance to witness a living cave, for many years yet to come. In the mid-1970 ′s two college buddies from Tucson, wanted to find an unexplored underground cave. They set out on a weekend excursion to a site that offered some promise, the pair followed an underground fissure and crawled on their bellies into Arizona history!

Formation of the cavern

Hundreds of millions of years ago, what was to become Kartchner Caverns began with the formation of a shallow inland sea over the landscape. When that body of water was gone, the limestone layer left behind, over the course of the next 330 million years, became part of the Whetstone Mountains in southern Arizona. Add slightly acidic rainwater to the equation, and over time, the limestone slowly dissolved away leaving the passages of the cavern filled with water. When the groundwater levels lowered, the water in the cavern did as well leaving the air-filled rooms of the cave.

The caverns’ living decorations then formed, drop-by-drop, over the next 200,000 years. Over time, minerals carried by water filter through the ground and have created beautiful formations with their variety of colors. The variety of formations found in Kartchner Caverns is unique. Located in the area known as the Big Room is the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk. Also found in the same area, the first reported occurrence of “turnip” shields. The tallest and most massive column in Arizona, Kubla Khan, is 58 feet tall and found in the Throne Room.

Discovering “Xanadu”

On a November Saturday in 1974, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen found themselves at the edge of a sinkhole near the Whetstone Mountains of southern Arizona. They’re not too far from Interstate 10 and just a short distance off Highway 90 in the desert. The two explorers gaze down at a narrow crack at the bottom of the depression. Tufts had paid a visit to the same site a few years earlier, but it never showed much promise at the time. This visit was different. Emitting from the crack, the pair can feel a moist air flow, a sign that a cave may lie below. They have no idea what they were about to find.

Squeezing through the small fissure they emerged in an area the size of a small room. It was connected to a second small subterranean room; both dry and dusty, they located some old footprints. They were not the first persons to be here. Still, the source of the moist breeze was not in these two areas, it was coming from somewhere beyond in the dark space. They searched until Tufts located the source of the draft. He crawled about 25 feet into a passage and found a small hole where they could feel a moist air flow. Using muscle, hammer, and chisel, they worked at widening the hole.

Laying in the crawlspace and pounding away at the rock for two hours was the price they paid for passage into a wondrous world yet unexplored. When they squeezed through the opening and crawled through 100 feet of low, belly crawl passages, they emerged in a space large enough to stand up. When they looked around, they saw a spectacular world that, until that moment, was unseen by human eyes. These cave formations had been growing for tens of thousands of years, they were the first to witness this world. They pushed into new wonders with every step, but after spending hours exploring, the two turned and backtracked their way out. They called their new discovery ‘Xanadu’ and were careful not to damage anything as they explored and mapped the cave over the next two years.

The big secret

The vast underground cavern was kept a secret until Tenen and Tufts could gather their thoughts on protecting and preserving the cavern. That process took them a while. It was 4 years after that November day when they found the cavern, now in 1978 when the pair finally revealed their secret to the property owners, James, and Lois Kartchner.

The Kartchner family bought the land in 1942 for grazing cattle. The Kartchners had little clue as to what their cows were moseying around upon. In 1985, Tenan, Tufts, and the Kartchner’s reached out to state officials in order to explore the idea of developing and protecting the cavern under the state’s authority.

Tenen and Tufts went right to the top and approached Governor Bruce Babbitt about their secret site. Gov. Babbitt paid a visit to the cave in April 1985 and became an enthusiastic supporter of bringing it into the Arizona State Parks system. The cave’s existence became public knowledge in 1988 when its purchase was approved as an Arizona State Park.

The process to preserve the fragile environment was no easy task. During the construction of the path through the cavern, less than 20 percent of the cave floor was walked upon.

Keeping the cavern ‘alive’

When the discovers, Tufts and Tenen, found the living cave, they knew they had to keep it alive and took careful steps, literally and figuratively, to do so. The person in charge of keeping the cavern alive is cave researcher, Dr. Sarah Treube. She grew up in the area and explores caves for fun too. “As a caver myself, I’ve seen the damage to these types of environments,” said Treube. “We’re maintaining the temperatures within a couple degrees of when the cave was discovered.”

The Big Room, near the main visitor’s entrance, was 67.3 degrees when it was discovered in 1974. Now it averages a few degrees warmer, around 71 degrees, said Treube. Every little consideration is taken to maintain the living cavern. One thing we’re talking about doing is upgrading the cavern lighting from the existing lighting to cooler operating LED lighting, said Treube. That’s one way we can make it easier to maintain the cavern’s environment.

The ecological footprint of such a compound can take a toll on the natural environment. “Like most areas in Arizona, we’re keeping an eye on the water table,” said Treube. Kartchner caverns lie in the ecological important San Pedro River Valley where the last major, free-flowing undammed river in the American Southwest flows north out of Mexico.

Kartchner Caverns State Park Facilities

The facilities at Kartchner Caverns State Park include the Discovery Center, informative exhibits, a gift shop, a cafe, and picnic areas. The caverns are also home to a colony of bat’s part of the year. During the summer about 1,500 bats live in a part of Kartchner Caverns.

For overnight stays, there are camping facilities and cabins for public use on-site, as well as available rooms in nearby Bisbee, Tombstone, Sierra Vista, and Fort Huachuca. Four hiking trails are located on facility grounds, including a hummingbird garden trail that is lined with a variety of local plants and flowers.