Kartchner Caverns


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For more than a decade, two amateur cave explorers kept a very big secret. How was the “living cave” finally discovered? Arizona Stories explains the extraordinary efforts at Kartchner Caverns State Park to balance preservation with public access.


Water, a source of all life in the desert. Throughout time, it has been pulled by gravity from the mountains to the valleys and into the ground, shaping and changing all in its path. It was water that carved the Grand Canyon, filled the valleys of southern Arizona with gravel and rock, and chiseled away Canyon de Chelly. Water's power to shape is not limited to Arizona 's surface. Under Arizona , water, limestone, and time combine to create a spectacular natural wonder:
Kartchner Caverns. Discovered in 1974 by cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, it was kept a secret until 1988, when it was designated as an Arizona State Park . Now open to the public, extraordinary precautions were taken during its development to conserve the cave's near-pristine condition. But Kartchner Cavern's history began well before its discovery, forming drop by drop for over 200,000 years.

Stephen Reynolds:
Limestone's a rock that's fairly soluble in water, so as water interacts with it, it can actually dissolve the rock and carry the material away. When you have an area of limestone below the surface that has water flowing through it, the water goes through the fractures, pulls out a little bit of the limestone, and then carries that material away, Enlarging the fractures, making them more like little slots, and then they become rooms, and then you have a cave. Once a cave's created, then you have water dripping through the roof and making the various cave formations:
the stalactites and the stalagmites are really made from water that drips off the roof and evaporates and leaves behind the material that it's dissolved. So to some extent, it's kind of repaying the cave. It took all this stuff away from the cave to make it, and now it's bringing this material back in to build these formations. And it's those things, the cave formations, that really make caves really interesting, and Kartchner's just beautiful.

Lee Allison:
There are many more caves than we've ever discovered. How recent was it that we just found Kartchner? And that one has exposure to the surface. There are no doubt huge cavern complexes scattered all over the state that don't have any conduit to the surface. I guarantee that there are giant hidden caverns in places all over the state, and we may never find them.