Take time at Kartchner Caverns to hike above ground, too - East Valley Tribune: Outdoors

Take time at Kartchner Caverns to hike above ground, too

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Posted: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 6:00 am

In a state full of wonderful and beautiful topography, Arizona also boasts a number of places to see nature from a different perspective — underground. The most famous of these sites is Kartchner Caverns, about 9 miles south of Benson.

There are two ways to do the caverns. You can make a direct hit — arrive, do the tour, and depart — or you can make a day of it. We decided to do the latter.

Underground

In 1974, two spelunkers, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, were at the bottom of a sinkhole when they found a narrow crack in the earth. Following the source of warm, moist air drifting upward, they ended up exploring more than 2.5 miles of pristine cave passages. To protect the cave from vandalism, they kept the location secret for 14 years. The caverns weren’t open to the public until 1999.

Today, the entrance to the cave is more spacious and more elaborate, especially for those choosing the most popular Rotunda/Throne Room Tour, which was our option. From the administration building, a small jitney train takes visitors on a five-minute ride to the entrance.

The man-made cave entrance boasts a series of thick doors, which maintain the natural, inner temperature, humidity and environment of the caverns. This is important because the cave, with its constant temperature of about 70 degrees and 90 percent humidity is still, in a sense, a living environment, always changing, always forming and reforming. It’s also home to numerous species of fauna, including bats.

A visitor no longer needs to belly crawl through narrow passages to reach the cave, as cement-floor paths have been constructed along with formidable guide rails. A person in a wheelchair can make this tour as well as a 3-year-old child.

The tour begins in the Rotunda, a large, deep cavern that plunges like an underground landslide. By the time you get to the bottom, you will have passed stalactites and stalagmites of unusual size, formation and odd names (i.e., curtains and soda straws).

It’s all very natural except for the last stop — the Throne Room — where a short light show accompanied by music illuminates this vast, unusual part of the cavern and showcases one of the world’s longest (more than 21 feet) soda straw stalactites and a 580-foot column called the Kubla Khan, named after the Samuel Coleridge poem.

The tour takes about an hour and a half, but underground time is fleeting. It all went by in a flash of a headlamp.

Above ground

The park totals 550 acres on the bench of the Whetstone Mountains. Besides the caverns themselves, there are a number of hiking trails. The most extreme is the Guindani Trail, which extends 4.2 miles and rises almost a 1,000 feet into the Whetstones. The intermediate trail, called the Foothills Loop, runs 2.5 miles and climbs into the limestone hills north of the caves.

Checking our watches after our lunch and estimating how much time we had before our 3 p.m. cavern tour, my wife and I chose the Foothills trail. There were a few rough points, but this trail proved very scenic and even in its limited geography covered many different elevations and topographies. It crossed washes and ravines, overlooked floodplains, and ascended and descended in numerous twisting pathways.

It took us about an hour to leisurely complete the trail, leaving us an hour before our tour. So, I should note, good tourist infrastructure has been built at the park, including a café, gift shop and small museum/interactive area. What grabs everyone’s attention is the giant sloth diorama, which is there because bones from this extinct animal were found in the cave.

• Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer based in Mesa, and the author of “The Death of Johnny Ace” and “Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis.” Reach him at Redroom.com/Stevebergsman or smbcomm@hotmail.com.

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