Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Exploring Arizona: Kartchner Caverns

How long can you keep a secret? 

Do these hills look like they are hiding anything special?

Pictures and text by Kathryn
In 1974 two college friends stumbled upon the find of a lifetime, a hidden cave.  And not just any ordinary cave, one filled for miles with stalactites and stalagmites, formations called soda straws, bacon, and moonmilk.    For years they carefully explored the cave, making a third friend stay at the entrance to ensure that they actually made it out alive.  They had secret codes so that no one knew where they were going or what they were doing.  In 1978 they decided to notify the land owners, James and Lois Kartchner, of their discovery.  Thankfully James worked in education and understood the value of keeping the cave protected.  They knew that historically, once discovered by the general population, caves were often destroyed and vandalized.  They wanted to keep this cave preserved in its natural state.  In 1984 secret talks began the process of turning the cave into a state park.  More than a decade later, in 1999, KartchnerCaverns was open to the public.  In 2003 the lower caverns were also opened to the public.    

Kartchner Caverns is located  55 miles southeast of Tucson, near Benson, AZ.

From the outside it looks like a big hill, but once inside, you can see why it took decades to get the cave ready for the public.  And it is AWESOME.  We took a tour of the throne room.  At first, the tour seemed no big deal.  We saw how meticulous the first discovers were in preserving the cave.  We saw the vast expanse of the cave, or so I thought.  I thought we were just going a short ways in, but then the tour kept going and winding through and eventually we got to Kubla Khan! A picture (even if cameras were not banned) could never do this formation justice.  We were able to sit and have a relaxing time during a short presentation.  Definitely an amazing and breathtaking sight and one I think more people should experience.  I loved how our guide really talked about how if those who first discovered the cave would have been selfish in any way, this treasure would not be preserved for our generation or the next or the next and so forth.  As a mother it made me incredibly thankful that my kids could behold such a wondrous creation because of the hard work of others.  And it made me wonder...what other hidden treasures are just waiting to be discovered?    

Kartchner caverns was not a cheap family experience, but to me it was worth it.  Tickets are:  14+ years is $23, 7-13 years old is $13 and under 7 is free (for the Throne room).  When all of our children get old enough we look forward to going to other parts of the cave.  The park also offers overnight camping and other amenities so you can explore the area more.  And I hear that there are new helmet and headlamp tours offered on Saturday evenings for those 10 years and older.  This would be a great opportunity for those really wanting to get a more true feel for exploring a cave.  The cost of this tour is $30 per person.    
Camping and picnic areas
My kids enjoyed the hands on museum.  This is where they go to touch, feel, run around and crawl through man made exhibits.

Hummingbird Garden

- Reserve your tickets ahead of time.  Don't just show up and expect to get a tour.  Summer season is less busy, but, tour space is limited.  Plus, reserving tickets saves you the $6 per vehicle fee at the park entrance.  Reserve tickets here.

- Arrive an hour before your scheduled time.  You will check in so they don't fill your reservation with someone else.  Then you can use that hour to watch a video presentation and tour the museum.

- Photography is not allowed inside the cave.  Sad I know.  Get your tear out now before you go. 

- Leave everything in your car:  purse, phone, camera, food.  You can't take much in the cave and you don't need much.  The cave is warm and humid. 

- Wheelchairs are allowed, but don't bring strollers, crutches or walkers. 

- Know your children.  There are strict rules (like no touching anything!) that need to be followed to keep the cave preserved.  The underground portion of the tour lasts about 50 minutes as well.  Our two sets of twins had just turned 5 and 8.  We toured the Throne Room and we very much enjoyed it.  I was worried about the younger twins being tempted to touch things, but we held hands and were very vigilant.  Had we done this trip when our two sets were 2 and 5 years old, I probably would have wanted to curl up in a ball and die.  If your kids can handle strict rules, walking, darkness and dampness for an hour, you will love it and it will be an excellent experience.  If they can't, it will be hell.   

- The Big room is only for children over 7 years and is closed during the summer months of April 15-October 15 because bats roost there.   

- Hope for a good guide.  Your guide determines much of how your tour will unfold.  Our guide was excellent and made the experience humorous and highly educational.  I'm pretty sure he was a volunteer also so be nice to your guide!   

One fun story:  This painting located behind the front desk in the Discovery Center was done by the artist Ed Mell. My 12 year old nephew was doing a report on it and e-mailed Mr. Mell (actually his nosy dad did).  Though Ed did not previously know my nephew, Ed invited invited my nephew to tour his studio, Ed gave him a signed print of this painting AND he came to my nephew's school.  How is that for being an Arizonan that goes above and beyond to inspire the next generation.  Makes you appreciate paintings more if you know the artist is very thoughtful.

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