Aerial View

Eighth Wonder of the World?
Kartchner Caverns State Park -- Arizona's Newest Treasure

Story by Ron Kilber
Photography by Bob Shane

August 27, 1999

It's an Arizona monsoon morning in August as Creighton Frost and I cruise his 1946 Navion 1,000 feet over Interstate 10. We're heading southeast over the Sonoran Desert on our way to Kartchner Caverns State Park, where they have 60-foot-high rooms connected by 2.5 miles of passageway. Frost is in the left seat while I copilot; aviation photographer Bob Shane is in the back seat riding camera. We're on our way to Tucson International, having departed earlier from Chandler Municipal Airport in the Phoenix area. Actually, we'd simply overfly Tucson and land at Benson, 40 more miles east, however, that brand new airfield is still under construction. Its completion is scheduled to coincide with Kartchner Caverns State Park's grand opening of November 12, 1999. Benson's new airport will then put any pilot within ten easy miles of the new eight wonder of the world.

Twenty-five years ago, two amateur explorers made a discovery that as children we all dreamt of -- our own little secret hiding place. A place that no one else knew about except for our closest, trusted friends. A place to play to our hearts content, free from the constraints of parents, authority, and interruption -- and costing nothing.

Only those two young explorers didn't happen upon so little of a hiding place, but a series of huge limestone caves in Southeastern Arizona's Chiricahua Desert. It would turn out later to be not only a discovery-of-the-century, but known as Arizona's Kartchner Caverns State Park. Not even Cochise, the great Chiricahuan Indian chief whose Stronghold is nearby, nor Spanish explorers dating back to the 16th century, had ever set foot inside this underground sanctuary. In fact, the caverns not only pre-dated Native American habitation, but had escaped Homo Sapiens entry since its beginning maybe one million years ago -- that is, until Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen happened along.

Tufts and Tenen kept their discovery to themselves while they explored and blazed their own private underground playground on land they did not know was owned by ranchers, James and Lois Kartchner. Each expedition expanded their knowledge and range. Unable to contain their excitement and thrill, Tufts and Tenen began inviting friends along on outings to the caverns. Eventually, the secret was shared by ten or so spelunkers who all made oaths to never leak not only the cavern's location, but the fact that it even existed. Their secret prevented anyone from the outside from ever getting the chance to enter the caves -- but not forever.

Without life-and-death penalty attached to any oath, it was only a matter of time before someone would spill beans. Eventually, the Arizona State Parks Department entered the scene. Incredibly, even after the powers-that-be happened upon the place, secrecy from the public of the valuable find continued for more than a decade until 1988. A priesthood among bureaucrats had formed, and only those ordained high enough or through nepotism have ever been allowed inside. Only now, some twenty-five years after Tufts and Tenen first made their discovery, will Kartchner Caverns State Park finally open its doors to the public. No longer off-limits to just mortal souls, ordinary citizens as you and I will finally see for ourselves Arizona's -- and the world's -- newest natural wonder of the world.

Flying There
It's a beautiful day in late August with bellowing clouds on the horizon and scattered-to-broken nearby. Landing on Tucson's Runway 12 takes place without incidence. After parking in front of the Executive Terminal and refueling, we meet up with Lynn Stephens from the Benson-San Pedro Valley Chamber of Commerce. She dropped by to deliver us to the caverns today.

This is an exciting day for all of us, and given the cheerful disposition and energy level of Lynn, I think it is for her, too. While traveling east on I-10, Lynn is non-stop telling us all about the exciting things to do in and around Benson. And to make sure we're comfortable, she managed to borrow a roomy van from Dan Vivian's Rent a Wreck of Benson, just for our comfort. Is this a great reception from the folks in Benson or what?

Once we reach State Route 90 (40 miles from Tucson), it's time to exit the freeway and head south to the Whetstone Mountains and Kartchner Caverns State Park (KCSP). The construction site for the brand new Benson International Airport is only a couple of miles north of this intersection.

Our view while we motor south is panoramic and expansive. Benson (population 4,500) is just on our left a few miles east at the bottom of the valley. Farther east 20 miles are the Dragoon Mountains with the famed Cochise stronghold, and farther near the New Mexico border are the Chiricahua Mountains, known for a geologic story nearly one-billion years long. It's where the Chiricahua National Monument is, a stunning area of weathered-rock sculptures. Forty miles ahead and south is the US-Mexican border, with many interesting stops in between. Bisbee, an important copper mining center in the 1880s, is home to the Copper Queen Hotel, a Victorian-era treasure. Once an important territorial outpost, Fort Huachuca is now a strategic communications center for the US Army. Closer is Tombstone, the "town to tough to die", home of Boot Hill and made famous by Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral -- and Doc Holiday. And of course, KCSP is only 10 miles ahead and south.

To many of us, deserts are though of as places devoid of life. In reality, that isn't the case at all. It's just that deserts are bursting, instead, with other life forms unfamiliar to humans who usually inhabit and prefer lush, more green areas. Given this fact, desert flora and fauna are more plentiful here than in areas where the human hand has encroached upon plant and animal life.

As we motor south while Lynn is chauffeuring and narrating, there are many varieties of cactus everywhere: Saguaro, Cholla, Prickly Pear and Hedgehog. Though we don't see any, the desert supports plenty of javalena pigs, banded geckos, tarantulas, cactus mice, Western Diamonback rattlesnakes, gila monsters and scorpions, to name only a few.

Within minutes we're in the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains. Immediately west of our highway, the KCSP Environmental Discovery Center is a pantheon-like structure in the remote Chiricahua Desert. The distributed design breaks up what would otherwise be a sore thumb in the middle of the desert, and the architecture employs shadows to blend the facility in nicely with the terrain. Included is an outdoor 180-seat amphitheater, picnic area and a play area for kids. Even the parking lot seems well thought out with as much of the original desert left in tact. The actual entrance to the caverns is farther beyond the center, though still within the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains. Since the park is not open to the public yet, happily, no one is around to collect the ten-dollar parking fee.

The interior of the Discovery Center is spacious, well illuminated and delightfully cheerful. Pictures, artwork and exhibits abound (some interactive), and the more-than-adequate-lighting makes you feel part of the natural outdoors. Interesting are the contrasting visuals with the window views to the desert. A multi-screen, audio-visual théâtre awaits anyone who wants to view the documentary of the discovery of the caverns. There's plenty of adequate furniture for waiting visitors to rest and relax.

When the three of us assemble with several other media types to ready for our tour, the Parks people will not let Frost join us. He's as disappointed as anyone told to stay home. Their reasoning is based on the fact that Frost is not a journalist and the caverns are not yet open to the public. The problem is quickly resolved, however, when I step forward to assert that Frost and his airplane are an integral part of my story today. Without him, neither I nor Bob could've flown here, much less write about it for anyone else. Frost's composure quickly changes from disappointment to elation as we begin the tour. His smile tells me there's a new bond between us.

The entrance to the caverns is a half-mile or so farther uphill from the Discovery Center, which was positioned hydrologically below the grade of the caverns to prevent underground flow of waste water and contaminants from entering the 2.4-mile-long underground treasure. As our jitney climbs the narrow, paved roadway, we're actually passing over the lower portion of the caverns, which will not open to the public until a yet-unknown date. We continue on to the upper caverns, and manage to make it to the entrance just in time to meet a fierce Monsoon downpour. Everyone keeps their hair dry, thanks to our construction helmets, which are pulling double duty to keep rain off our heads.

To gain ingress to the caverns, our Parks Department guide leads us through a long cement-fabricated tunnel to an airlock large enough to accommodate, say, 25 individuals. Doors on either end are not unlike those used at the market on walk-in freezers. Although the market uses theirs to control temperature, here they're used to prevent the high-humidity air from escaping the caverns. The idea only works provided the doors on either end are never open at the same time. Without near-100-percent moisture in the air, the caverns would die as geologists know them. Perpetually dripping water is what produces stalagmites and other cave formations, without which effectively freezes time -- geologically speaking.

Once beyond the airlock, our group gathers on a walkway overlooking the immense Throne Room. Without the benefit of our shortcut today, it took Tufts and Tenen four years to find their way here. According to Jay Ream, our Arizona State Parks guide today, no one -- not even he -- has ever been inside these caverns as we are now experiencing them with the brand new lighting, which has just been turned on for the first time.

"Woooow! Ahhhhh! Ooooh!", are various reactions from the dozen or so in our group when the lights come on. In place of words spoken are expressions as I remember on the faces of James Mason and Pat Boone in "Journey to the Center of the Earth" (1959). Even Ream, who has been in here countless times, appears awed.

Although the artificial lightening is dim, I'm fascinated beyond comprehension. Not so much because of the interesting and varied formations, but for the sheer size and expansiveness of this place. Not only is it a long way to the other side of the Throne room (140 feet), but it's a long way from the base to the ceiling (60 feet). The room is large enough for two houses, lots and all -- four if piggybacked. When I look out across this huge, seemingly footless cavern, I experience a little vertigo (normal when visual reference is vague) while just viewing and gazing from the walkway.

Standing is a complex balancing act, only made possible because the brain makes constant muscular adjustments to prevent the body from toppling over. When the eye, for example, has benefit of familiar-looking reference points such as a wall or chair, the brain knows exactly how far these objects are from the body. So, when the body goes off center, the brain does a little trigonometry to arrive at the precise muscular correction needed to maintain balance.

Here in the caverns, however, the combination of sheer size and lack of perspective makes it very difficult to judge distance. When a body sways off center a little, the brain sends correction signals to the leg muscles. Only problem, it over-corrects. If it were not for the inner ear over-riding visual reference, I'd tip over and fall to the floor. The distant walls of this cavern are actually much father than my eyes perceive them to be, and accordingly the brain over-corrects believing the body is swaying more than it really is. The result is vertigo in response to the conflicting sensory signals my mind first sees and then feels. It's a good thing that there is a barrier between me and the deep cavern in front of the walkway. When I use it for visual reference, vertigo fades.

Just when I get my balance, the lights go out, caused by the Monsoon storms above. It's now pitch dark in here; you don't need any instinct to know the best strategy now is to just stay put. Without light, falling down might be the only other alternative. Ream advises us that backup power will kick in momentarily, and even if it doesn't, he and his staff have plenty of headlamps and battery power. It's a darkness so black there's not a single photon from the sun reaching us. And if there is any measurable light at all, it would only be coming from the dial on my Swiss Army watch.

Had the emergency power kicked on at the exact instance of darkness, none of us would've been the wiser about the effects of the storm outside. I do worry, however, what impact the weather may have on our plans to fly back to Chandler later today. Monsoon storms are a perpetual spoiler not only for FVR flyers but IFR, too.

When the lights come on, it's too late for our eyes, which are now adjusted for pitch darkness. Soon everyone's eyes are back to normal.

Light isn't all these caves insulate from the exterior. While the outside temperature varies from freezing in the winter to 105 degrees F in the summer, in here it remains a constant 68 Degrees F. The humidity, too, remains near 100 percent constantly, while on the surface it varies widely with the season and weather.

For anyone living in Arizona, 68 degrees can be chilling. Many times I wear a sweater to the market during summer. Today I brought one along, but it's not needed even though it's much colder in here than at the market. In fact, while exerting only to walk the trail, the 99-percent humidity actually causes me to sweat.

Of all the different cave features discovered so far in the world, Ream claims only two have NOT been found at KCSP. The largest soda straw in the United States is right here. They only grow one-quarter inch each year, he says, provided there's moisture to feed them. At 21.6 feet long, it's the second largest in the world, meaning it took 106,000 years to form. We're talking early human times here.

Kubla Khan is the largest column formation in Arizona (58 feet tall). Tufts and Tenen named it for Samuel T. Coleridge's 1798 poem of the same name.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

A winding, descending trail through the Imaginary Passage takes us to the Rotunda Room, our destination. At this spot, we're about equidistant within the caverns. From here you can take passageways northwest through the Subway Tunnel to the Pirates Den or, via the Mushroom Passage, visits Sue's Room. Otherwise, you can go southeast through the Shelf Passage to Tufts and Tenen's discovery entrance, a trip that took them two to three hours crawling on all fours through mud and chin-deep water. In the same direction lies Grand Central Station, the Big Room, the Strawberry Room and Cul-de-sac and Echo Passages.

```` All excavation and construction within the caves has been done by hand -- everything was hauled in or out by wheelbarrow and buckets. The walkways have been carefully constructed to shunt visitors away from vulnerable features easily broken by touch. More attention has been given to prevent damage to cave features here than is given at zoos to prevent harm to children from dangerous animals. You can get closer to a bear paw in a zoo than a soda straw here.

Of all the life forms inside these caverns, the common Cave Bats are the most interesting to me. They feed on insects (good bats in my opinion) consuming ten times their body weight daily (really good bats). About the size of a dime, they've been flying in and out of here for a very long time, using only the fist-sized entrance, which Tufts and Tenen enlarged after they made their discovery. It's a miracle how 1,000 sightless creatures can not only find the entrance nightly, but fly through the long narrow tunnel that once had only a very small opening. When you consider that bats can only take to flight from a hanging position (they need gravity as a catapult), their sonar-navigation system must perform flawlessly to avoid colliding or grounding -- both spelling certain death. Flight is a bat's only lifeline. Even with the advanced technology available in 1999, aviation navigation is primitive when compared to the on-board sonar system used by these featherless creatures.

All other life forms in these caverns -- eight new to science -- consist of insects, crustations, centipedes and nematodes.

It's interesting that there are no steps in these caverns. In a society where the disabled can't get around inside most buildings, this place is barrier-free. In other words, anyone in wheelchair can get around, provided s/he has the strength or battery power to negotiate the twelve-percent grades.

Also unique here is the pristine condition of the formations. All are exactly as Tufts and Tenen found them in 1974, meaning things here today are pretty much the same as they have been for thousands of years. While caverns in New Mexico, Kentucky, Tennessee and other places all have broken stalagmites, KCSP is destined to remain in pristine condition for all time.

Not size wise, but mineralogically speaking, according to Ream, KCSP is among the top-ten caverns in the world. It was ranked by Carol Hill, a cave expert associated with Caverns of Versace in Italy. She didn't even rank hers among the top ten.

When it's time to finally exit the caves, Ream sends ahead his assistant through the moisture locks to retrieve something -- having to remind to make sure she closes the door behind her. Both air-lock doors would've been open simultaneously had he not intervened to close the one behind her first. According to Ream, she's a new employee who heard about the caverns back in Ohio. She wanted to work here bad enough that it mattered little to move to Arizona first without a job.

Once we make it back to the cave entrance, I'm curious about a large rack on the wall similar to one that a valet parking attendant uses to store keys after he parks your car. Only this rack isn't used to store keys, but employee dog tags. When all of the tags are hanging on the left hooks, I figure, it must mean that no one is left inside the caverns -- and so it's okay to lock the door and go home. When our guide turns off the lights and starts to lock the cave entrance, I alert him to the fact that there are still four employees inside. He assures me no one is left inside, and explains he knows the individuals who forgot to "check out". In no uncertain terms, he also assures me he will have a talk with the tag scofflaws come Monday. What employee can be faulted for forgetting when it's TGIF?

Once the tour is over, we're fortunate to have use of the Parks Department offices so Frost can call the FAA to check the weather. He discovers it's not good (no surprise to me). Thunderstorms are wall-to-wall between Tucson and Phoenix, and Sky Harbor Airport is closed. Chandler's wind is 080 compass at 18 mph with gusts to 28 mph; visibility is one mile, there's blowing dust and the ceiling's base is 200 feet broken in stages to 8,000 feet.

We're pretty sure we won't be flying to Chandler today. At least not without a bat to guide us. Shucks. Now what?

Shane, Frost and I are frantically trying to figure out what to do about getting home. When it's coming up on 5 pm, an office supervisor is getting nervous that we are still here.

"Don't you know guys know when it's time to go home?", she barks.

Sure, it's close to Miller time, but without favorable weather, we're stranded. We need time to regroup so we can either find transportation or accommodations. Her concern for our predicament is zip, and it might suit her fine if we waited outside until tomorrow for the weather to clear.

Fortunately, Ellen Bilbrey is near with a keen ear. She's Arizona State Parks public information officer, and guess what? She's not only driving all the way to Phoenix right now, but she invites Shane, Frost and me to join her. Bilbrey saves our day.

While riding home in the State Park's vehicle, Frost and I conclude we can drive to Tucson tomorrow and pick up the Navion. Bilbrey is quite an aviation enthusiast in her own way, not to mention a Navion fan, and we all learn mor

the eight types of problem customers

I caught up with Randy Tufts by telephone. Still an explorer, only now he's studying Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Gary Tenen is a Tucson businessman. ```

Gammons Gulch Western Movie Studios and Ghost Town Contact: Jay Gammon PO Box 406 Pomerene, AZ 85627 (520) 212-2831

Horseshoe Restaurant Casual Dining Specializing in American and Mexican Food Contact: Lorene Whaley 154 E. 4th St. Benson, AZ 85602 (520) 586-3303

Kocopelli Services, Inc. DBA KSI

Rent a Wreck of Benson Car Rental connected to Benson Auto & RV Repair Contact: Dan and Vicki Vivian 625 W. 4th St PO Box 2347 Benson, AZ 85602 (520) 586-7716 Fax (52]0) 586-8648

11,000-year-old horse skull found. Interesting, inasmuch as I always thought the Spaniards introduced horses to North America in the 1500s.

Getting There
Chochise county Opens November 12 nogales, mexican war and bomb-dropping airplanes? Before you go: at least reservation for cave tour
Benson's new airport will open sometime during 2000, but there are many airports nearby that can be used interimly. Tucson International, Sierra Vista

Kartchner Caverns State Park
Information (520) 586-4100
Reservations (520) 586-CAVE (2283)
Mail: PO Box 1849, Benson, Arizona 85602
Shipping: 2980 Route S.90 Benson, Arizona 85602

Copyright (C) 1999 Ron Kilber All rights reserved.

Ron Kilber ( is a private pilot and flying enthusiast living in Arizona. His stories have appeared in many aviation publications.

Story by Ron Kilber (
Photography by Bob Shane (
Xanadu Chiracahuan Desert--spelling? 27-million-dollar air-lock doors look like the beverage cool ones at Frys.