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Under Arizona’s desert near Tucson a world of weird rocks, caverns and ghosts

Under Arizona’s desert near Tucson a world of weird rocks, caverns and ghosts
Exploring Colossal Cave Mountain Park in Vail, Ariz., can be a family outing. (Colossal Cave Mountain Park)

The desert seems to stretch forever southeast of Tucson, a limitless expanse of dusty yellow earth, a barren, scrub-filled landscape with scraggly saguaro cactus dotted across the countryside like lost signposts.

You need to follow just one small signpost to escape this harsh landscape and find stories to amaze young and old, to explore a fantastic underground world of not only weird and wonderful rock formations but also caverns full of tales about ghosts, gunfights and gritty workers who carved paths so visitors could enjoy an overlooked subterranean attraction.

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Such is Colossal Cave, rediscovered by settlers in 1879, improved in the 1930s, and now updated for the 21st century with light shows, adventure tours and even a prickly pear margarita cocktail hour.

Meeting “Old Baldy” and “Fang”

Although cave exploring may conjure frightful visions of vampire bats, bottomless pits or claustrophobic mazes, a standard tour here is as laid-back and family-friendly as a stroll through a theme park.

(Lou Spirito For The Times)

Well-informed, wisecracking guides lead hourly tours on lighted concrete pathways complete with guardrails and with all the corny jokes of a classic Universal Studios tour: “The blackened ceiling here got its color from hundreds of years of Native American campfires inside the cave. The blackened stalactite over there got its color from hundreds of tourists cracking their head against it and leaving behind hair product and maybe some blood. We like to call that fellow Fang. Watch your heads, please, ladies and gentlemen. Kids, just watch your parents and laugh.”

At a comfortable 70 degrees year-round, Colossal is nice place to visit on a sizzling summer day or a chilly winter evening. The 363 stairs along the 45- to 50-minute, half-mile tour cover about six stories of vertical elevation, but there are stops for descriptions, so even young kids (and their grandparents) have surplus energy at the end.

The tour brings to life dry geological explanations with colorful descriptions such as the “Drapery Room” with its frozen ribbons of rock, the “melting ice cream” of flowstone formations and “Old Baldy,” a rock crystal that has been polished smooth by generations of visitors rubbing their hands on this egg-shaped stalagmite’s “head.”

Illuminated rock formations cast shadows in the unmistakable shapes of a witch and her black cat, the Statue of Liberty and even Mr. Magoo. The imagination-fueled education keeps the kids entertained and adults chuckling.

Tales of ghosts and gunfights

Steven Plyler, 4, marvels at the gems uncovered in the sluice with mom Ashley Plyler at Colossal Cave Mountain Park.
Steven Plyler, 4, marvels at the gems uncovered in the sluice with mom Ashley Plyler at Colossal Cave Mountain Park. (Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star)

Colossal Cave tours highlight not only the natural history of the destination but also the human one. Wild West tales abound about these caves and perhaps provide more entertainment value than historical accuracy.

One wild but true cave story is how in the 1880s a gang in the area stopped and robbed several cash-rich mail trains. The bandits made off with the loot and were tracked to these caves. In ensuing gun battles, some were killed, others caught, but the riches were never recovered.

Visitors are left to wonder whether there are Wells Fargo mail bags filled with gold coins hidden in one of the side caverns. At night are the howling sounds just the wind escaping through small passages, or are they the mournful cry of a railroad bandit on an eternal search for lost loot?

More recent (and more verifiable) human interest stories about the caves include a look at the Civilian Conservation Corps’ role in developing the caves as a tourist attraction in the 1930s. This public service project during the Great Depression sent dozens of young men to live in tents in the desert and construct the cave pathways and visitor center that are still in use. Their pickaxes and other tools are preserved along with Native American artifacts in display cases along the tour route.

Cocktails and campsites

Because it takes about 1,000 years for a stalactite to add an inch to its length, the Colossal Cave Mountain Park isn’t waiting for geology to take the lead in adding features to the attraction.

Ken, right, and Linda Sparks, visiting from Wyoming, walk through the "Crystal Forest" formations on a tour at Colossal Cave Mountain Park.
Ken, right, and Linda Sparks, visiting from Wyoming, walk through the "Crystal Forest" formations on a tour at Colossal Cave Mountain Park. (Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star)

Colossal has recently expanded its visitor options to include ladder tours to more inaccessible spots; intermediate and advanced “wild cave” adventure tours, complete with headlamps and helmets; toddler tours, where kids are welcome to squall like fruit bats; ghost-hunting night tours and candle tours for the brave; and Friday and Saturday happy hour tours with beer, wine and bright pink prickly pear margaritas.

The 2,400-acre Colossal Cave Mountain Park is now about more than just the caves. The park complex has stables offering trail rides, a petting zoo with fuzzy llamas and stubby goats, a butterfly garden, and a meet and greet with Cienega and Shelly, two desert tortoises. Picnicking and camping are also available in campgrounds created by the CCC.

Spelunking enthusiasts can visit two other major cave networks in the Tucson area: Kartchner Caverns State Park, easily accessible on a day trip, and Peppersauce Caves, for more adventurous travelers.

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Whichever underground adventure you choose, Tucson’s caves are a fun way to escape the desert heat and explore a hidden side of Arizona unknown to most visitors. Just keep your eyes peeled for gold-filled railroad bags, and don’t forget to look out for Fang and his sneaky stalactite brothers.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park. (Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star)

If you go

Colossal Cave Mountain Park, 16721 E. Old Spanish Trail, Vail, Ariz.; (520) 647-7275. Reservations recommended for tours.

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