Arizona’s Deep, Dark Secret
It’s a little eerie inside Arizona’s new underground state park. Otherworldly mineral formations dangle from the ceiling. The walls glisten like frozen waterfalls. And monstrous shadows loom over the landscape.
I’ll admit my previous experience with caverns is limited--mostly to watching TV’s Batman and Robin in the Bat Cave--but Kartchner Caverns rates as spectacular by any measure.
Even the tale of how it was discovered--then kept secret for 14 years--is wild, involving everything from bat guano and blindfolded state officials to the mysterious disappearance of Arizona’s governor.
Buried beneath a stretch of desert about an hour’s drive southeast of Tucson, Kartchner was set to open Friday amid considerable hoopla. Tickets are already sold out for much of this year, and the small-town phone system in nearby Benson has been overwhelmed, park officials said last week. Of the estimated 10,000 calls per day coming in, only 2,000 can be handled. Although dwarfed in size by New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns (which has a main room nearly a mile long versus Kartchner’s 300-foot-long chambers), Kartchner is billed by geologists as one of the top 10 caves in the world for rare mineral formations. It’s also “alive,” meaning its kaleidoscopic stalagmites and stalactites are still growing, albeit at a rate no human eye could detect: 1 inch every 750 years.
Even if you know none of that, stepping into the cavern’s soothing darkness, as I did in April on a specially arranged tour, and viewing its glittering chambers is a sublime experience, the underground equivalent of gazing into the desert sky at night.
To preserve the cavern’s near-pristine condition, Arizona has poured $28 million into an elaborate system of air-lock doors, misting machines and other devices designed to combat the wear and tear of an expected 150,000 visitors a year. But it’s been an agonizingly slow process.
Kartchner Caverns was discovered 25 years ago this month by two amateur spelunkers from Tucson, Gary Tenen, a former Hostess delivery driver, and Randy Tufts, a planetary scientist who wants his cremated ashes scattered on the ground above the cave “so that 10,000 years from now, my molecules will be incorporated into a stalactite.”
The men, who were then college roommates at the University of Arizona, stumbled across a sinkhole while hunting for caves in the Whetstone Mountains, near the dusty town of Benson in southeastern Arizona. Tufts, then 26, had visited the spot seven years earlier but dismissed it as a dead end. This time, however, something was different. A warm breeze reeking of bat guano flowed through a crack in the rocks. They knew there had to be a cave.
Tenen, who stands 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 130 pounds, had trained for tight spaces by wriggling his body through coat hangers. With an 8-pound hammer and chisel, he battered the rocks at the bottom of the sinkhole until he had enough room to slither through. Tufts, at 6 feet and 170 pounds, yanked off his belt, exhaled, and followed. “It was like being born all over again,” he said.
The pair eventually made their way into a labyrinth of subterranean cathedrals--some as big as football fields--full of bizarre, gravity-defying rocks, stalagmites that resembled fried eggs, rippled sheets of iron oxide shaped like bacon, towering travertine columns and upside-down forests of “soda straws,” icicle-like tubes dripping from the ceiling. One of the straws, stretching 21 feet, is the second longest in the world.
The explorers later christened the cave Xanadu, after the opening verse in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.”
They were afraid to tell anyone about it. “We’d seen so many caves that had been trashed,” Tenen said over lunch at Benson’s Horseshoe Cafe. Yet secrecy seemed risky too. The sinkhole was just a half-mile from the highway, so it was only a matter of time before someone else would find and possibly damage the cavern.
They figured the only way to protect the cave from the public was, paradoxically, to open it to the public. So in 1978, Tenen and Tufts approached the landowner, a retired school superintendent named James Kartchner. Kartchner, who died in 1985, wasn’t entirely surprised. When he and his sons rode horses in the area, they noticed a strange echo to the hoofbeats. “You know,” the old man told his sons, “it sounds like these hills are hollow.”
With the Kartchners on board, Tenen went undercover to research what it would take to develop Xanadu. He attended national cave conventions and worked at caverns in Texas and Virginia, but always used an alias and paid cash for fear that other Arizona spelunkers would find out what he was doing--and deduce that he’d discovered a cave in the Whetstones, known as his favorite haunt.
Tenen’s research was discouraging: The price of developing the cave was too steep. The Kartchners eventually turned to Arizona’s parks department. Tenen and Tufts remained so paranoid about leaks that they blindfolded state officials before bringing them to the site.
Even a visit by then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt was shrouded in secrecy. In 1985, a week before launching his unsuccessful bid for the White House, Babbitt sneaked out of the state capitol with two bodyguards and headed south, where he spent three hours crawling through mud to reach the showcase rooms.
Touring Kartchner Caverns is easier now.
After Arizona purchased the site in 1988 and the secret went public, workers spent 11 years carving tunnels into the limestone and building wheelchair-accessible trails and bridges. Visitors now glide up to the entrance from the parking lot in electric trams. Then they stroll into the first of two vaults sealed with giant restaurant-freezer doors. It’s a bit like the opening credits of “Get Smart,” where Maxwell Smart marches through a series of massive metal portals. In this case the goal is to keep out the dry desert air, which could wreak havoc with the cave’s 99% humidity and 68-degree temperature.
Next, in guided groups of 16, visitors step into the cavern’s expansive Rotunda Room. The 1/3-mile trail then weaves past a sea of mud flats into the breathtaking Throne Room, where a majestic 58-foot-tall column called Kubla Khan rises from the floor center stage.
Along the way, there’s almost too much to see: a flowstone shield that conjures an angel’s wing, stringy orange “carrots” suspended from the ceiling, helictite (a twisted, snarled mineral formation best described as Top Ramen noodles on acid) and countless other wonders.
The one-hour tour ends at a small amphitheater on a ridge overlooking Kubla Khan. The grand finale wasn’t ready when I was there, but visitors can expect a sound and light show while seated on the concrete benches. The Throne Room will plunge briefly into darkness, and, as the lights come up, a New Age song will echo over the loudspeakers.
After that, it’s back through another set of air-lock chambers for the return trip to the surface.
Above ground, Kartchner offers a gift shop, as well as a 550-acre state park that features a hummingbird garden, six miles of hiking trails, picnic grounds and a 23,000-square-foot “cave-a-torium” discovery center.
The discovery center is a Cliff Notes version of the real cave--and it’s the only place where people are allowed to touch anything. Inside are replicas of the 21-foot soda straw, assorted stalactites and stalagmites, and even a fiberglass Shasta ground sloth modeled after the creature whose 80,000-year-old bones were uncovered in the cave.
Other fossils from the cavern include an ancient horse skull and a bear jaw. Scientists theorize that the animals entered the cave through a long-closed passageway. But humans apparently didn’t set foot in Kartchner until this century. As state parks chief Ken Travous put it, “There were footprints on the moon before there were footprints in Kartchner.”
Park officials suggest budgeting three hours to take in the various displays, an introductory movie and the cave tour.
That leaves one other stop--part of the “unofficial” tour--in the nearby town of Benson. At first glance, there’s not much to the city besides a ramshackle downtown strip and a slew of new hotels and RV parks springing up to snare Kartchner tourists.
Benson is a logical jumping-off point for several popular tourist destinations, including Tombstone, where actors replay the legendary shootout at the OK Corral, and Bisbee, a funky former copper-mining town packed with antiques shops, art galleries and yet another underground adventure--a mine tour. Also within striking distance are San Xavier del Bac, a stunning Spanish mission southwest of Tucson, and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, also near Tucson and home to hundreds of animals and plants.
But Tenen and Tufts recommend Benson for another reason. “The Horseshoe Cafe is part of the tour,” Tufts said. “It’s obligatory.”
That’s where Tufts and Tenen hung out after their many clandestine trips to Xanadu. Speaking in hushed tones and trying not to track in too much mud, they’d gobble hamburgers, eye the gleaming pie case and plot their next move. No doubt the owners and customers wondered what they were up to, but in the middle of the desert, nobody asks questions.
Even during my visit, the men dined unrecognized. But they hope their efforts don’t get lost. Nobody is sure whether the humidifiers and air locks will keep the cave alive. Kartchner’s fate, Tufts said, depends on whether “other people fall in love with it and take care of it.”
Roy Rivenburg writes the Southern California Living section’s Off-Kilter column.
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The Lowdown on Arizona’s Underground
Getting there: Southwest and United offer nonstop service to Tucson from L.A.; round-trip fares start at $66. America West, Southwest and United offer nonstop service to Phoenix from L.A.; fares also begin at $66. From Tucson or Phoenix, take Interstate 10 south to the Sierra Vista/Fort Huachuca exit and travel nine miles south on Arizona 90 to the park entrance.
Touring the cavern: Kartchner Caverns State Park is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except Christmas. Advance tickets are $14 for adults, $6 for children 7 to 13 and free for those younger than 7. Tickets cost $2 less at the door, but reservations are strongly advised, especially on weekends, many of which are already booked. There is an additional park entrance fee of $10 per carload of four (extra passengers cost $1 each). Reservations: (520) 586-2283.
Where to stay: Kartchner Caverns is a simple day trip from Tucson, but nearby Benson offers several lodgings catering to tourists. I stayed at the Days Inn in Benson, 621 Commerce Drive; telephone (520) 586-3000, $54-$69 a night for two. A more intriguing option is the Skywatcher’s Inn, which has its own observatory and offers the services of an astronomer. Rooms start at $75, including breakfast. Astronomy sessions start at $55. Located off South Benson Airport Road; tel. (520) 615-3886; https://www.communiverse.com/skywatcher.
Where to eat: Tucson has the best restaurants. But in Benson, locals like the Chute Out Steakhouse and Saloon for dinner, 161 S. Huachuca St., (520) 586-7297, and the Horseshoe Cafe for lunch and mouthwatering pies, 154 E. 4th St., tel. (520) 586-3303.
For more information: Kartchner Caverns State Park, tel. (520) 586-4100, Internet https://www.pr.state.az.us/parkhtml/kartchner.html, and Benson/San Pedro Valley Chamber of Commerce, tel. (520) 586-2842, Internet https://www.the river.com/bensonspvchamber/index.html.