Drip Castle Dreamland

Kartchner Caverns reveal a hidden, fantasy landscape



Pete Aleshire photo

Dissolved limestone seeping out of cracks in the ceiling of Kartchner Caverns State Park have created a fantasy landscape of rock formations in the past 100,000 years. The Mogollon Rim is made of similar layers of limestone, formed in the bottom of ancient oceans.


Pete Aleshire photo


Pete Aleshire photo


Pete Aleshire photo

The earth breathes — its intake and exhalation measured in seasons. Standing in the caverned heart of the earth — red as blood and warm as a womb, people stand and stare, fleeting as cave crickets — sensing both the vitality of stone and the frailty of flesh.

I can feel my whole world view shift, running along the ancient layers of rock. Almost, I can forget about the terrible threat to the state parks posed by the state budget meltdown. Not only has the Legislature cut off all state funding for the 28-park system, but lawmakers have stolen gate fees and raided assorted funds set up by taxpayers.

As a result, the whole system may shut down this year.

Moreover, some lawmakers have advocated selling off parks that can support themselves — which could include Kartchner, the crown jewel of the whole system whose revenues support many of the other parks.

So, best get on down to Kartchner now — before they ruin it.

You’ll find wonders crafted by time and water in one of the world’s 10 most colorful and varied limestone caverns, where air seeps into the cave half the year and breaths out the other half.

After years of painstaking, over-budget, high-tech surgery to build a trail, install massive, airlock doors and string a dim delicacy of lights, the state has made accessible a drip castle fantasy of rock formations.

I’m standing now in the Big Room — 400 feet long and 240 feet wide — part of the lure that draws more than 143,000 visitors annually and generates roughly $2.8 million a year.

A 1,220-foot wheelchair-accessible trail winds carefully through the soaring spaces of the Big Room, past the lurid formations of the Strawberry Room and into the intimate, stunningly decorated Cul De Sac. Tours of the newest section of the cave are limited during the winter to avoid disturbing the colonies of nursing bats who for the past 50,000 years have migrated to this cave to rear their young. But the rest of the cave remains open all year.

Some of the cave’s most bizarre and impressive rock formations adorn the most recently opened sections, the most accessible of 2.4 miles of mapped passages that twist and turn to at least 240 feet beneath the surface — most stretches deep in mud.

Scientists have also found an intriguing scattering of fossils in the caverns — including the century-old bones of a coyote lost in the midst of the Big Room. The body of an ancient bat has also been fused with the floor, like the bones of the extinct, 80,000-year-old giant ground sloth found in another section of the cave.

The extravagant bristles of crystals and fortresses of formations remain the cave’s chief draw, both in the new Big Room section and in the previously opened Rotunda Room (230 feet by 120 feet) and the Throne Room (170 feet by 145 feet), where tours are limited to 500 per day and the waiting list for phone-in reservations stretches for months — especially on weekends.

The stalactites, soda straws, stalagmites, columns, semi-transparent draperies of stone, parachutes, turnips, flowstones, popcorn, helecites, birdsnest quartz, and boxwork demonstrate the astonishing flexibility of stone. One 21-foot-2-inch “soda straw” made of dripped calcite rates as the second longest such feature in the world.

The neck-craning, breath-catching tour spurs one long exclamation. Undulating curtains hang from the ceiling, glowing with the deftly positioned lights shining through the exquisitely thin stone. Ceilings bristle with thickets of spikes that taper to wire-thin points. Drip castle spires of colorful rock rise from the floor, straining toward spikes hanging from the ceiling. The whole crescendo of calcite is so fused, melted, strange and colorful that even Disney would not dare such overstatement.

Rim residents should especially appreciate the geology of the caverns, since it’s one more trick performed by limestone — the fused seabottom sediments that make up the cliffs of the Mogollon Rim and supply the travertine that builds rock cascades in Fossil Creek.

The extravagantly decorated cave offers a vivid lesson in geology and geochemistry. The cave runs along a splintering of faults in beds of 320-million-year-old Escabrosa Limestone, composed of the compressed skeletons of ancient sea creatures. Buried and fused, the limestone layers were pressed again toward the surface between 15 and 5 million years ago. By the time the first homo sapiens were venturing cautiously out of Africa, groundwater seeping through the fault zones had created Kartchner.

After creating the cavern, water set to growing the formations drip by drip. When water rich in dissolved minerals dripped into the cave, the abrupt drop in pressure prompted the minerals to crystallize. This created the formations that have grown like living things for 200,000 years. The growth peaked perhaps 70,000 years ago and dwindled to a drip when the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago dried out the Southwest.

However, Kartchner remains a “living cave,” its formations growing at a rate almost imperceptible in a single, pitifully brief human lifetime.

That has made the development of the cave controversial. Local cave lovers Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen investigated a draft of moist air from an inconspicuous sinkhole in 1974 and stumbled into the caverns. Fearful others would loot the wealth of formations, they told only the property owners and helped protect the cave’s secrets for 14 years, when the Kartchner family sold the caves to the state for $1.8 million, about $250,000 below the appraised value.

Exhaustive monitoring of conditions inside the cave has sounded alarms. Normally, limestone caves remain constantly at a temperature that reflects the year-round average at the surface. Living caves must also maintain high humidity — in Kartchner’s case about 99.4 percent. However, since the state has opened the cave to visitation, the temperature has risen by 3 or 4 degrees and the humidity dropped by about 1 percent.

Initially, cave managers linked the changes to the impact of the lights and visitors, despite the elaborate precautions to prevent the influx of outside air. However, another study found almost the same temperature change in two other unvisited caves on Forest Service land in the region. Therefore, much of the change in Kartchner probably reflects both a severe drought and a warming trend in the region, which might be linked to global warming.

Cave managers have continued monitoring changes and must still account for the differences between the often-visited areas and the muddy back reaches of Kartchner. Researchers say the small changes recorded so far won’t “kill” the cave by drying up the still growing formations, but that the dynamics of crystal growth remain mysterious.

In the meantime, the bats come each season, the mites dig blindly in the guano, the bones of giants lie frozen into the floor and the earth takes a six-month breath — lost in deep dreams. All the while, the curious homo sapiens — who have come this long way from Africa — go down into the cave to stand and stare and wonder in the heart of the earth — amongst the tumescent tissues of calcite and crystal.


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