We left Oliver Lee Memorial State Park to drive west. On this drive we crossed both the continental divide and the state line, entering Arizona, and even into a different desert, leaving the Chihauhaun for the Sonoran. Arizona is a much-awaited destination on this trip; we have now entered seasonal snowbird territory, so we expect to meet many more full-time RVers, and we are looking forward to visiting the Grand Canyon.

View from the foothills trail of Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona.

View from the foothills trail of Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona.

Our first stop in Arizona was Kartchner Caverns State Park, near Tucson. We choose this park based only on its location, with no intention of actually entering the caverns. The tours are not nearly as good a deal as those in Carlsbad, being much shorter but costing more. We did check out the Discovery Center and while there watched the film about the caverns. I was intrigued, and decided to join one of the tours after all. Once I inquired about the difference between the two offered, I choose the Big Room tour, because it is more technical and less showy (the Rotunda/Throne tour ends in a light and music show to impress the kids, but that was not the experience I was after). John did not want to spoil the special Carlsbad Caverns experience, and choose to relax back at the campsite rather than join me on the cave tour. [ John here: This was a very tough choice for me.  I had such an amazing time at Carlsbad I didn’t want to experience anything less spectacular so soon after.  I think this was a good choice because we had something we didn’t do together and got to talk about it! 🙂 ] As it turned out, I was the only outsider on a tour with a local over-55 singles group; being the outsider and the “lady from New York” as the tour guide referred to me was a bit awkward, but the tour guide was great and I was glad I went.

Walking through Kartchner Caverns is not as grand an experience for the normal civilian as Carlsbad Caverns offers, but they are probably cooler to learn about if you are a serious cave-nerd. The tour is certainly worth the time if you are in area. Kartchner Caverns have a really interesting discovery story, they are more colorful than Carlsbad, they are better protected from human disturbance, and the tour (at least the tour I went on), was more scientific and technical (which of course I loved!).

Kartchner Caverns were only discovered in 1974, and the discovery was kept a secret for 14 years. The cavers who found it felt that it was their responsibility to protect it. Working with the Kartchner family, who owned the land, they were eventually able to ensure its protection as an Arizona State Park. In the development of the park, special care was taken to maintain the natural state of the caverns as much as possible. An entrance tunnel was built to allow visitors to tour the caverns, but special air-lock doors were installed to maintain the humidity of the cavern. Kartchner Caverns are ‘living’, with features still actively growing. It is also a nursery roost for a colony of bats; about 500-1000 pregnant female bats return to the caverns each year to give birth and care for the pups. The population is limited by the entrance hole, which is so small only a single bat can pass at a time. Mothers have to exit to feed and return to nurse about three times a night, so this one-bat entrance is a serious bottleneck. The small hole was widened for initial explorations, but returned to its original size once the entrance tunnel was completed. The tour I attended is only offered in the winter, when the bats are hibernating in the nearby mountains; the Big Room is closed in the summer when the bats are present.

Unfortunately I do not have any photos of the cave to share with you. The park had too many issues with people taking photographs, so cameras are no longer allowed on tours. The caverns are not as dense with formations as Carlsbad, where the only flat surfaces are man-made in the development of the park. Rather, the cave is comprised mostly of familiar stones and boulders, like on a mountain top, decorated with generously with formations. But those formations are very colorful! Iron in the limestone colors some pink, while organic material washed down from above colors others orange, and the pile of composted bat guano is deep black.

Conditions in Kartchner Caverns lead to different cave formations than are found in Carlsbad Caverns. Stalactites, stalagmites, straws, popcorn and flowstones abound, of course, but in a colorful variety of pinks, reds, oranges and browns. Draperies that are striped by changing concentrations of iron during formation are called ‘cave bacon’ because they resemble the fat-laden strips of pork, and bulbous hollow formations hang from the ceiling are called ‘cave turnips‘, named by the first scientist to publish an exposition of these rare formations. How cave turnips form is a mystery. Helictites grow horizontally and angled out of cave walls, shields are elliptical limestone plates growing at an an angle to the ceiling, decorated with smaller formations such as stalactites, and then there are fried eggs. Fried eggs are smooth yellow crystals in the center of a wide stalagmite, giving the appearance of a yolk surrounded by the white of the stalagmite walls. For a fried egg to form, first a stalagmite cup must form on the cave floor, then be filled by a continuous supply of calcium carbonate-laced water. Water pools in the cup, allowing the calcium carbonate to crystalize slowly while the water evaporates. Most formations are built of microscopic crystallites, but the center of a fried egg is one large calcite crystal.

Bats are a key factor in cave formations and life. For instance one bat skeleton is just barely visible on the side of a stalagmite in the Big Room, and in another 30 or so years the skeleton will be entirely obscured by the layers of calcite covering it, but the shape of that formation is altered by the presence of the bat bones. It makes one wonder how many other formations are shaped by hidden bat remains. The biggest effect of the bats, though, is that they support a whole ecosystem that thrives in their guano. Fungus and bacteria decompose the bat guano, which form the base of a food chain supporting mites, beetles, cave crickets, spiders,  millipedes, scorpians and more specially adapted cave creatures.

We actually saw a bat or two outside the bathroom in the campground. I asked the ranger about this after she informed the tour that the bats migrate to the mountains for the winter to hibernate. Due to the unseasonably warm weather in the southwest this year (caused by the same effect that is slamming the east coast with winter storms), the bats are confused and coming out early, as are the buds on the trees. A cold snap came through a few days after we visited the park, followed by record-beeaking temperatures, which are likely all wrecking havoc on the ecosystem. Frost kills the buds that grow too early (the exact same pattern happened in New York State a couple Marches ago, devastating the apple harvest) and the bats may not find enough insects to survive the early awakening from hibernation.

Map of caves in the US displayed in the Discovery Center; we’ve seen a couple limestone caves, now I want to tour the other types!

Map of caves in the US displayed in the Discovery Center; we’ve seen a couple limestone caves, now we want to tour the other types!

In addition to cavern tours, Kartchner Caverns State Park offers some hiking opportunities. After the tour I walked the 2.5 mile Foothills Loop trail in the park, and the following day I hiked on the Guidani Trail in the abutting Coronado National Forest. The Guidani Trail is a 4.2 mile loop; to extend my hike I turned on the Saddle Trail that starts off the loop about halfway through. This latter trail was overgrown and difficult to follow. After about a mile I gave up and turned back to finish the loop and end my hike early (all for the best, as I needed some time to write the blog!)

Once back on the portion of the Foothills Trail that connects the National Forest trailhead to the campground, I ran into Ranger Dawn who led the cave tour the previous day! We chatted for sometime. She was out on the trail determining what to write in the interpretive guide for the trail. I had noted shiny metal numbered signs along the trail, but did not know what they were for. It turns out that someone had volunteered to install the signs for an interpretive trail some months back, but park staff had not had a chance to decide where to put the signs, so the volunteer just went ahead and placed them with no guidance. Now the rangers are tasked with finding something interesting at each of these 12 signs to describe in an accompanying interpretive guide. Not really the best way to build an educational program. I mentioned the overgrown trail and she theorized that the forest service does not maintain the trail because they don’t want people using it due to illegal border-crossing activity, mostly drug smuggling. This was the first but by no means the last time we were warned about this activity by park officials in our time around Tucson.

 This bush was the only plant in bloom on the trail, and it was teeming with bees and butterflies, but they refused to pose for a picture.

This bush was the only plant in bloom on the trail, and it was teeming with bees and butterflies, but they refused to pose for a picture.

Sunset on our final day at the park.

Sunset on our final day at the park.

One Thought on “Another State, Another Cavern

  1. I checked Google Images for Karchner Caves – LOVELY! The Oliver Lee photos were incredible (comments were closed on that one). I never thought I could enjoy info on plants so much. John your shower solution looked a bit Rube Goldberg and I would love to know how all those red string tie-ups worked.

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