THE preparations seemed excessive: a 15-minute cautionary film, then 30 minutes of oral warnings not to drop anything, touch anything, photograph anything or step off the trail. Finally -- just before entering -- we walked through an enclosed tunnel and were sprayed with a fine mist of water to remove dust.
The payoff was worth the precautions. Arizona's Kartchner Caverns is a dazzling 2 1/2 -mile-long complex of underground rooms and passageways. It gives visitors a chance to see formations the way the men who discovered them saw them: intact and unsullied.
Kartchner, in the desert grasslands near Benson, is considered one of the world's most colorful and varied limestone caverns. I visited the 6-year-old Arizona state park in October, detouring about an hour southeast of Tucson to take a 90-minute afternoon tour.
Kartchner's caverns aren't as lengthy as those at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky or as deep as those at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. But I found something here that I didn't at the others -- the feeling that I was one of very few to have passed this way. And having passed, I could expect the next generation to follow and feel the same way.
"We need to protect this wonder," said park representative Kelly Jackson. "And we encourage our guests to help us protect it -- to be stewards of the cave."
How Kartchner came to be open to the public is nearly as intriguing as the park itself.
More than 30 years ago, cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts stumbled onto buried treasure here at the base of the Whetstone Mountains. Exploring a crack in the hills, they twisted their way down inside it and found untouched caverns full of massive columns, stalactites, stalagmites and other formations.
And it was still growing, water continuing to seep, drop by drop, from the surface, depositing calcite onto the subterranean formations. It was what geologists call a "living cave" and had taken as much as half a million years to form.
Tenen and Tufts carefully explored the system of passageways, finding two rooms as large as football fields; eventually, 26 smaller rooms also were found. The cavers could tell they were the first people there. And that worried them, they said later. They had seen other caves destroyed by graffiti, vandalism and carelessness. So the caverns became their secret.
"They knew what a fantastic discovery they'd made. They'd been in other caves previously and knew what could happen," Jackson said. "They wanted to keep this one as pristine as possible."
It was four years before they told James and Lois Kartchner, the owners of the land, about the cave system, and 10 more years before the public learned about it when Arizona State Parks purchased it. Eleven more years elapsed while the park was developed. In 1999, it finally opened -- with stringent environmental rules.
The park's strict regulations may come as a surprise to the uninitiated. The headquarters, a striking taupe-colored building that blends with the environment, is on a hillside overlooking the wide-open spaces of southeastern Arizona. The introductory film is interesting; the lecture by a park ranger is too. But there are many rules. No purses, fanny packs or other bags; no strollers or baby backpacks; no sunglasses; no chewing gum, food, drink or tobacco products; no cameras or camera phones; no walkers or crutches. And, by the way, "the cave formations are protected by law," the ranger said.
As dark clouds skittered across the sky, we left the brush-covered hillside and entered the sanctum. Two 90-minute tours are available: the Rotunda/Throne Room trail -- the one I visited -- and the Big Room trail, which is open only from Oct. 15 to April 15. During the rest of the year, the Big Room is a nursery for about 1,000 female bats.
A cool gust of air hit us when we finally stepped inside. The cave is damp -- its humidity almost 100% -- and the temperature 68 degrees year-round, a pleasant change during summer months.
The half-mile Rotunda trail circled downhill, winding along walkways and passing beautifully lighted formations. At its deepest, the cave system is about 200 feet below the surface. We saw ceilings spiked with stalactites and castle-like columns glistening with moisture.
The ranger pointed out soda straws, thin stalactites about the size of drinking straws; popcorn, deposits of calcite on walls of the cave; and bacon, draperies with mineral deposits of different colors.
There was time to stop and ask questions or meditate on the cavern's beauty. "Some people describe the experience as spiritual," Jackson said.
The highlight was a stop at a huge formation called Kubla Khan. It is five stories high -- the tallest and most massive column in the state. A dramatic sound-and-light show by the park service plays off its jagged surface.
Arizona has gone to extremes to protect the caverns, setting up 22 environmental monitoring stations to measure air temperature, relative humidity, evaporation rates, trace gases and airflow in the cave 24 hours a day. And when it was developed for the public, care was taken to disturb the environment as little as possible.
During our tour, our ranger guide pointed out a line of footprints in the distance that crossed the 200-foot-long Rotunda room. The footprints, the ranger said, were made by Tenen and Tufts on their original exploration.
Every workman, scientist and researcher who has crossed the room since then has stepped carefully into those original prints to avoid leaving other marks on the fragile environment.
"We're doing the best we can to protect this fantastic place," Jackson said. "We want it to last for generations to come."
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Illuminating journey into the Earth
From LAX, United and Southwest offer nonstop service to Tucson; from LAX and other Southern California airports, Alaska, America West, Continental, Delta, Frontier and US Airways offer one-stop service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $96.
From Phoenix or Tucson, take Interstate 10 west to Arizona 90. Kartchner Caverns State Park is on 90, nine miles south of I-10. It is 49 miles from Tucson and 160 miles from Phoenix.
WHERE TO STAY:
Accommodations and dining can be found in several nearby cities, with large chain motels and other lodging available in Sierra Vista, Benson, Tombstone and Tucson. Kartchner Caverns State Park has 62 camping sites with electric hookups and water.
Kartchner Caverns State Park, P.O. Box 1849, Benson, AZ 85602; (520) 586-2283, www.pr.state.az.us/parks/parkhtml/kartchner.html. The park is open daily, closed only Dec. 25. Reservations, available by phone or online, are strongly recommended. The Big Room tour is $22.95 for adults, $12.95 for children 7-13; no children younger than 7 are allowed. The Rotunda/Throne Room tour is $18.95 for adults, $9.95 for children 7-13 and free for children 6 and younger. Park entrance fee ($5) is included in the ticket price.
-- Rosemary McClure