Tucson Caving: An Underground Education

Wet and dry caves in southern Arizona provide a cool way (literally) to learn about the region’s history and geology.

One way to take a break from Tucson’s 300 days of bright sunshine is to explore the area’s fascinating wet (still growing) and dry caves.

Kartchner Caverns State Park

One of the coolest things about Kartchner Caverns is how it was discovered. In 1974, two University of Arizona students and amateur cavers spotted a narrow crack in the bottom of a sinkhole. They followed the unusually moist air and discovered more than two miles of unspoiled cave passages.

What happened next reads like an excerpt from a mystery novel. Concerned about protecting the fragility of the cave, the pair kept its location secret for years. They even blindfolded state park officials when they eventually brought them to the site. It’s said that then-Governor Bruce Babbitt secretly left the state capitol with bodyguards and spent hours crawling through the mud to inspect the natural wonder.

News of the cave was not made public until 1988 when the ranch family, after whom the cavern is named, sold the land to the state so that a park and appropriate protections could get underway.

Living Wet Cave

Kartchner Cavern is a living or “wet” cave, meaning the calcite formations are still growing. Warm, dry desert air would imperil the health of the cave, so the state spent millions on a special system of airtight doors that would preserve the cave’s natural climate. Temperatures are in the high 60s with relative humidity at nearly 100 percent, so dress for the damp chill.

The Caverns finally opened to the public in 1999. Today, visitors begin their tour on an electric tram that runs from the must-see Discovery Center to the entrance of the cave, not far from the sinkhole where the explorers first entered the cave.

After traveling through a long tunnel and the airtight doors, you will emerge into the Rotunda Room, a 200- by 120-foot-wide cavern with a 45-foot-high arched ceiling. My jaw dropped at the sheer magnitude of this hidden space.

Soda Straws

Inside, amid the drip, drip, drip of accumulated moisture and through the dim light, you will be amazed at the stunning collection of multi-colored cave formations. Moving along the trail, you will be in awe of the stalactites, stalagmites and small white helectites, and the many minerals, you learn, are not found in any other cave in the world.

Within the Throne Room, one of three major rooms currently available to the public, you’ll see one of the cave's highlights, a 22-foot-long "soda straw" stalactite. Measuring just a quarter inch wide, it is reported to be the second longest in the world. 


There are several different cave tours from which to choose as well as a plethora of options in the Discovery Center and Park. The latter opportunities are referred to as “above ground” programs and include interactive displays, educational programs, hiking and walking trails and picnic and camping areas. Reservations for cave tours are essential and can be made by phone or online.

The park’s Web site indicates it is “not uncommon” for young children to become uncomfortable during the tour. My youngest son was 10 when we toured, and he had no issues. It did not occur to me that children would find the experience anything less than fascinating. However, this may be something to consider. Also, due to wet conditions, no strollers are permitted.

Rotunda/Throne Room tours: Oct.-July, are $18.95 for adults 14 and older, $9.95 for children 7-13 and free for children under 7; Aug.-Sept., $16.95 for adults, $8.95 for children. Big Room tours are $22.95 for adults 14 and older and $12.95 for children 7-13. Children must be 7 or older to take the Big Room tour. Tel. 520-586-CAVE (2283); www.kartchnercaverns.com.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park

This dry cave is thought to have provided refuge for Hohokam Indians more than 1000 years ago. Miscellaneous bandits and train robbers also hid out in Colossal Cave back in the 1800s. However, it was not officially discovered until 1879, when a rancher came upon the entrance while searching for stray cows.

Today, visitors can choose from ongoing daily tours that provide a good overview of the cave’s formations or participate in more rigorous tours through dark and narrow passages. For that, you’ll need a hard hat and a healthy heart.

Tours by Candlelight

For the most adventuresome, choose a tour where each visitor is given a lighted candle to experience the cave as it might have appeared for the Hohokam Indians. Dark!

The basic cave tour takes about 45 to 50 minutes and covers about a half mile. As your guide explains your surroundings (“yes, there are seven species of bats that live in this cave”) and offers a bit of cave history (“the cave has been dry for as many as 10,000 years”) you will walk down and back up about six-and-a-half stories—363 steps to be exact. It sounds more difficult than it is.

Tours are given daily, year-round. They are not pre-scheduled, but a cave spokesperson said you will never wait longer than 30 minutes after you purchase your ticket. There are many other activities—horseback riding, birding, hiking, picnicking—and interesting exhibits taking place in the 2,000-acre park, so be sure to check the Web site when you plan your visit.

The more rigorous tours have age limits and may require advance reservations, so check specifics before you head to the park. 

Daily park use fees: $5.00 per auto. Tel. 520-647-7275; www.colossalcave.com.

Destinations: Arizona, Tucson

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Caving