AN ADVENTURER’S BREAKFAST
“Bacon” and “Eggs” at Kartchner Caverns
“Don’t touch anything,” Jackson reminded us before opening the door to the Big Room complex.
As I walked into the cave for the Big Room Tour, a blast of warm, moist air flushed my skin red and frizzed my hair. Shadows skulked everywhere— behind tall columns and along the ceiling next to thin, clear sheets of dripstone. In front of me, spears of rock on the floor and roof formed a maw of teeth coated with water droplets.
I forgot how damp—and dark—a “living” cave could be.
Kartchner Caverns, renowned as one of the world’s most pristine and beautiful caves, contains a treasure trove of limestone formations that have been growing new “jewels” for more than 200,000 years. Located beneath the Whetstone Mountains in southeastern Arizona, Kartchner Caverns includes more than 13,000 feet of narrow passageways and plays host to thousands of visitors every year.
Tour guides Dorothy Jackson and Cindy Richey greeted us in a ramada outside the main building at the start of the tour. A short tram ride took us to the cave’s entrance. A few feet into the entrance, an air curtain blew lint off my jeans, sweatshirt, and jacket. Misters then forced any remaining lint to stick to the fabric of my clothing. All these measures minimized human impact on the cave.
Photo by Stephen J. Reynolds The Big Room has been growing new “jewels” for more than 200,000 years.
“Don’t touch anything,” Jackson reminded us before opening the door to the Big Room complex. Human hands could easily break delicate formations, and skin oils could stop the growth of cave formations. Air locks deep inside the cave kept the temperature hovering around 67 degrees year-round. They also prevented exposure to the dry outside air, which could cause the formations to lose their moisture and stop growing.
As I walked into the cave, I envisioned the first known explorers—Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts—crawling through chilly mud and chin-deep water, discovering new tunnels and chambers at every turn. On a November afternoon in 1974, these two University of Arizona students found something big. Very big.
After climbing into a small opening, the two amateur spelunkers twisted their way through one of the cave’s chambers. They saw human footprints and hanging calcite formations called stalactites inside a chamber the size of a living room. Other cavers had come this far, they realized, but had anyone gone farther?
A damp breeze smelling of bat guano tempted Tenen and Tufts deeper into the cave. Only a large room could create such a breeze, they realized.
They crawled and at times walked upright until they reached a 2.5-mile-long cave with 26 small rooms and two large rooms, each roughly the size of a football field. The two large rooms, the Big Room and the Throne Room, reached 55 and 70 feet respectively at their highest points. Dripping stalactites and heavy dripstone filled each room.
Rounding a corner, I noticed thin, hollow formations called “soda straws” hanging in clusters from the cave’s ceiling. Water droplets beaded their tips. One of the world’s longest soda straws hung from the ceiling of the Throne Room. The single straw measured 21 feet, Richey said, as she flashed her laser across some shorter straws above us.
Photo by Stephen J. Reynolds Some formations at Kartchner Caverns resemble slabs of bacon.
We laughed as she pointed out other cave formations with funny names—“bacon,” “fried eggs,” and “turnips.” Appropriate names, I thought. Thin, rippled sheets of red and brown draped the ceiling, akin to large slabs of bacon. Thick-rooted white bulbs lined the trail, creating a field of turnips, while water splattering from the roof formed flattened stalagmites that resembled fried eggs. Jackson said that some visitors thought the “fried eggs” looked more like mashed potatoes and gravy. I agreed.
We continued along the man-made walkway, past a limestone tapestry of reds, oranges, and yellows made from iron oxide deposits. These unique color formations formed the Strawberry Room, a small chamber next to the Big Room. As I leaned up against the railing for a closer look, a large pink formation nicknamed Strawberry Shortcake caught my eye. Its streaks of deep pinks and reds marked a distinct contrast with the other hues in the cave.
Corky Cockburn, a visitor from Carefree, said she “was a little surprised at how colorful the cave was all the way through. You’d think you’d get tired of looking at everything, but you don’t. You just keep saying, ‘Wow, look at that!’”
After the Strawberry Room, we entered the namesake of the tour—the Big Room. I stood inches from the delicate formations that Tenen and Tufts kept secret from the public for 14 years. In 1988 the Kartchner family, who owned the land, sold the cave to the state after Tenen and Tufts suggested that it be developed as a state park. The secret was out. Kartchner Caverns State Park opened to the public 11 years later after its development as a tourist attraction.
The Big Room is open only from October 15 until April 15 because it serves as a maternity ward for more than 1,000 female cave myotis bats the rest of the year. Since the naked pups can’t fly, they cling to their mothers for warmth and protection. The babies stay in the depths of the cave while their mothers hunt for insects each evening.
The bat grime on the ceiling and piles of guano on the floor meant the bats had been there recently. As we continued along the trail, eyeing the bat remnants, Richey pointed out a bat’s body embedded in a cave formation. The bats, she told us, played an important role in the cave’s life cycle by providing nutrients for other organisms. I realized they were not the blood-sucking bats from vampire movies, so I continued along with more ease.
Shasta ground sloth
“The Shasta ground sloth is like no animal alive today. It was about the size of a cow and had shaggy reddish brown fur. It had a long neck and relatively small head. A very large stout tail and powerful hind legs enabled it to rear up and reach leaves on shrubs and trees. Its legs were built in such a way that it would have walked with a waddling motion using the outer sides of its hind feet and the knuckles on its front feet.”
We also peeked into the darkness where the remains of an 86,000-year-old Shasta ground sloth were found in 1995. A man on our tour asked why the ground sloth had entered the cave. Our guides surmised that the nearly 7-foot-long creature was looking for food or shelter. It might have been injured, too. Animals don’t usually live inside caves because of the lack of food.
Near the end of the tour, my stomach began growling. It was hard to leave the sunny-side-up “eggs” and slabs of “bacon” for my brown-bag lunch and the long ride home.
IF YOU GO
Photo by Stephen J. Reynolds Stalagmites and stalactites create fanciful formations at Kartchner Caverns.
Big Room Tour
Rotunda/Throne Room Tour
Kartchner Caverns State Park, 2980 Route South 90, Benson, AZ 85602
General information 520.586.4100
The Devil’s Tale showcases the coursework of individual students at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication.
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