Explore life underground in Southern Arizona's Kartchner Caverns

By Teya Vitu

The water droplet fell on my right cheek. They call it a "cave kiss."

There was no way for me to tell it was brimming with calcite, the primary building block for the spectacular cave formations around me. As I have quickly discovered, Kartchner Caverns, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson, is the jackpot of all cavern tours.

Where else do you get to see the tracks of the explorers who discovered the cave, preserved for 40 years in a small lake of mud with the consistency of extra chunky peanut butter? Where else do you have to go through four tightly sealed, steel doors to get into the cavern? Between two of those doors you get misted down to make sure lint and whatever other tiny particles you bring in stay on you rather than get deposited in the cavern.

Kartchner Caverns was unknown to mankind until Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen discovered this magical world in 1974. Public tours under the auspices of Arizona State Parks did not start until 1999, and each tour is limited to 22 people on their best behavior.

If you've been on other cavern tours, you undoubtedly have heard of broken stalactites, often sawn off by early visitors a hundred years ago. Or they tell you of cave formations that have not grown in hundreds of years because it's a dry cave. Not so at Kartchner Caverns.

Kartchner comes as close as possible to maintaining the pristine conditions-temperatures always at 70-72 degrees and 98 percent humidity-that continues to foster the creation of bountiful cave formations. Kartchner is a rare cavern that offers visitors a look at the entire family of cave formations: stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, cave popcorn, shields, columns, totems, drapery, bacon and the massive 58-foot-tall Kublai Khan column in the Rotunda Room.

If you wonder what it means for a cavern to still be in its virgin state, just check out the soda straws. They are not much thicker than kite string as they dangle from the ceiling for one, two, three, up to nine feet as seen on the tour. Another soda straw not within public view in Kartchner measures 21 feet. Hundreds of them precariously extend downward, many beaded with a drop of water at the tip that will only make them longer. Somehow these delicate formations hang on.

Water indeed is the story here. Weather outside affects the cave tour inside on a delayed basis. Two days after a heavy Southern Arizona monsoon storm, many more cave kisses drop onto visitors.

That cave kiss that found my cheek, better aimed, builds a stalagmite. Our tour group came upon a stalactite pregnant with a water droplet. We waited long enough...

"We saw a drop!" one visitor shrieked.

Freelance writer Teya Vitu has toured some 25 caverns across North America and Europe. He finds Kartchner Caverns in Arizona the most remarkable of all.

Go underground for the Wild Cave Tour at Tucson's "other cave," the former bandit hideout Colossal Cave Mountain Park.

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