There are two big tourist cave systems in Arizona, and while they both formed at around the same time, and are fairly close in size, they are best described by their differences. One is wet, and one is dry. One is recently discovered, and one has been known about for centuries. One is painstakingly preserved for future generations and the other one is … fun.
I visited both of them on the same day (3 September 2016) and learned a bit about caves and a lot about different approaches to tourist caves.
A disclaimer: I’ve done some recreational spelunking with actual cavers who Take This Seriously, so I had a deeper well of knowledge about caves and the difficulties in preserving them than the average tourist.
Both caves require you to pay for a guided tour to enter the place, and either guide will explain what the formations are called and how they formed, and we’re skipping all that here. In either cave, though, you’ll see big columns, long soda straws, stalactites and stalagmites, shields, flowstone and cave bacon. Both tours follow well lit walkways (at least by cave standards) up and down to the featured rooms. Both of those tours show only a small fraction of the expansive three-dimensional maze that makes up the whole (known) cavern system.
But they are really different.
The visitor center at Kartchner Caverns State Park is a mostly modern museum, with a corner gift shop, giant restrooms, and a cafe where you can buy ludicrously over-sugared prickly pear lemonade. It is far enough from the cave entrance that you ride a tram to get there.
They have lockers at the tram stop for your flashlights, cell phones, cameras and purses because they won’t allow you take those things into the cave, Because you might drop them, is the best reason we were given. If they go off the catwalk into the cave, some unlucky volunteer has to retrieve them, but you will not get them back.
Stolen from the State Parks website because they wouldn’t let me take my camera.
The tram takes you across elevated tramways to refrigerator doors in the side of the mountain. The guide explained that before the state started developing the caverns for tourists, they went to other large tourist caves and asked what they would do differently. Most common answer: Don’t let people in. They let us in anyway.
Kartchner caverns is about 71 degrees F year round, but also 100% humidity. That’s right. Even with that, you walk through misters in one of the three airlocks, because damp clothes do not release as much lint. Somewhere in here the guide told us about the throat lozenge someone spit out, and was found a week later as a baseball sized wad of fuzzy ick.
These caves are alive, in that water still flows through and around them, and formations are still growing. You are touring mother earth’s small intestine. Sometimes water drips on tourists, and they call it a cave kiss. In a thousand years, some of the soda straws could become columns. Makes me wonder what they’ll think of our refrigerator doors, carefully graded catwalks, and choreographed light shows a thousand years from now.
We saw the lesser tour, because bats are still nesting in the biggest chamber until October. Even so, the formations were, honestly, more impressive in size and color than the ones we saw later at Colossal. Some of that is because they are literally still forming. Most of that is because the cave was not discovered by humans of any color until the 1974 when it was discovered by cavers who Take This Seriously. They, along with the Kartchner family who owned the land, kept it all a Big Secret until some plan could be devised to preserve the place – which ended up with the most expensive, and highest revenue generating, state park in the system.
Yes. There was a time when the state of Arizona could be counted upon to preserve resources for the benefit of the general public. Which might be the greatest marvel of the entire tour.
There is no visitor center at Colossal Cave Mountain Park (“Mountain” means county), but there is a gift shop carved out of the old admin building the CCC added when they developed the cave as a tourist attraction in the 1930’s. You could buy a rock in the gift shop, step out the door, and throw it through the iron gate that guards the cave. There are a few sad displays within the cave, but upon this hewn rock balcony there is only a statue of a CCC worker, some small restrooms, the gift shop, and an outdoor food cart that sells beer. Yes, beer.
No lockers; bring whatever you feel comfortable carrying (no food though). But, we were still warned, if you drop it down a hole, it might be down there for years. Our guide talked a little about how we didn’t want to touch the formations (skin oil stains them over time – just like Kartchner) but more time warning us how the stairs were built by hand in the 1930s, and the size depended on whatever rock they had available that day.
There are a lot of stairs.
Colossal Cave is 71 degrees F year round with almost no humidity. Your throat lozenge will lay there and suck up dust. It is a
dead dormant cave. Being a little higher altitude than Kartchner, the water table receded below the formation thousands of years ago. The formations are uniformly brown – not from fingers, but from dust. Nothing drips. Colossal Cave will not kiss you.
There is evidence that Colossal had been used by the natives long before is was used by bandits, long before the original owner gave tours to his friends via candlelight, a bit before it became a “mountain” park and the CCC built it up. Long before any of that, it had stopped dripping, and started to cover itself with dust. So despite our guide being a caver who Took This Seriously, our tour lacked the sense of sacred mystery like they try to evoke at Kartchner.
The maze of stairs and ramps is every bit as impressive as Kartchner because it was all put in by hand, and made up as they went along. The wiring for the lighting is also essentially original. So don’t touch that either. They wind up and down and around through smaller, dimmer rooms.
But it does feel more like a cave, and less like a museum display. Even if Colossal Caves are the cautionary tale that Kartchner Caverns claims to have learned from.
The best part, though, is you can sign up for a longer tour that goes up and down ladders. (This used to be the original tour, before insurance companies took over our civilization). Better yet (for me) there is a “wild tour” where they fit you out with miner’s helmet and pads and you can crawl around in the undeveloped portions of that cave. At Kartchner, you basically have to join a secret society to even get a chance to slither through the mud like a troglodyte and retrieve some tourist’s throat lozenge. At Colossal, you pay your money and sign the waiver.
I’ll let you know when I do that.