We’ve been to Kartchner Caverns State Park once before and camped at the campground there as well. It was over the kids’ fall break in October a couple of years ago. There are two separate cave tours: the Rotunda/Throne tour and the Big Room tour. We could only do the Rotunda/Throne tour because at that time the bats were nesting in the other cave so no one is allowed in there outside of October 15 to April 15 (we just missed it when we were there last time). So we decided to extend the camping season a little and head down to southeast Arizona so we could tour both caves this time. The long Thanksgiving weekend would be ideal because no school, no work, and we’d have three days there. Karen’s father also joined us with his own RV because he’d never been there.
What would come to be called Kartchner Caverns were stumbled upon by a couple of guys looking for caves to explore. When they found these caves they knew they had to keep it a secret in order to keep them from getting vandalized (people would be able to see them going in and out of the original sinkhole from a highway nearby as they explored and mapped it). The Kartchner’s (the land owners) gave the land to the state so that it could be developed in to a state park and protected.
We got to the campground in the early afternoon and got in to our spot pretty easily. It only took me one try to back in to the parking spot for the trailer. I would think that camping would not be that popular on Thanksgiving weekend but the campground was completely booked.
The campground has water and electrical hook-ups at the sites but no sewer connection. There is a RV dump on the road that leads out of the park though. I had to make sure with the host that we were fine with leaving the water hose connected overnight since it was supposed to get down to freezing temperatures at night and she said it was fine since they had electrical heaters on the hose bib.
It’s camping but it’s still late November in Arizona and so it does get chilly as the afternoon turns in to the evening, that means that not a lot of people hanging around outside after dark. We did our usual s’mores over our propane fire pit after dinner and then quickly made our way inside every evening we were there.
The trailer has a propane furnace and we brought along a small electrical space heater to not get too cold at night. We’ve used the furnace in the trailer exactly two times before this and those were summer camping stays were it got unusually cold overnight a couple of times. The thermostat in the trailer is kind of like a household one in that you set a temperature and then set it to heat or air conditioning. With the trailer’s thermostat there is another fan setting that I had forgotten about. When I was trying it out the first night to make sure we’d have heat overnight, it was only blowing cold air. Eventually we got it figured out and warm air did start blowing out of the vents (except in the bedroom, which is something I need to look in to). We just set it to 50° so as to not use up all of the propane just for the furnace and we all had warm sleeping arrangements anyway.
They take many precautions to keep the caves free from foreign materials. Air locks keep the cave air in the cave as much as possible (the cave stays a pretty constant temperature with the humidity at 99%). The cave “breathes” naturally but they don’t want additional air to escape from the entrances added for tours. As we entered through the man-made tunnel to the caves we passed through a light mist (also man-made) that is meant to make any loose fibers on our clothing not easily come off in the cave. They also ask if the clothing we were wearing for the tour has ever been in another cave (especially shoes). This is to prevent the spread of White-nose Syndrome, which is easily spread between caves and is fatal to bats by waking them up when they’re in hibernation and they starve to death.
We did the Rotunda/Throne Room tour on Saturday. This is the tour we’ve done previously. We decided to do it again because we we’re there and Karen’s dad hadn’t seen it. Unfortunately, they do not allow pictures to be taken inside the cave. Also, you cannot touch any parts of the cave. The intricate formations form with minerals dissolved in water that works its way down into the cave slowly dripping over hundreds or thousands of years. Oil and water don’t mix so if people touch the active formations, the oil from their skin would cause the water to take a different path as it drips on the formation, changing it forever. Most of the larger formations are on the order of 10,000 years old or more. At the end of this tour is the Throne Room where they have wired up a light show that plays along to music that highlights the different formations.
The Big Room
The other tour here is The Big Room. This is the tour we couldn’t do last time because the bats were hibernating in there at the time. This time of the year the bats are not there. True to its name, this tour is basically just in one large “room” in contrast with the other tour where we made our way further and further in to the cave.
What’s now known as “The Big Room” was actually where the two guys that discovered this cave system entered. They originally found a rift in the side of the hill with an air current coming out of it, which is an indicator that this wasn’t just some small hole in the side of the mountain. After crawling through the rift and for several hundred feet inside the mountain, the came upon a rock wall with a small opening in it where they could feel the air rushing out of the opening. They knew that there was something big on the other side. The expanded the hole to not much more than a foot wide and were able to fit themselves through it and ended up in this area.
The floor of The Big Room is pretty muddy because of all of the natural moisture present in the cave and the water table. As the two discoverers made their way in and out of the cave they were careful to continually use their same tracks so as to not leave footprints everywhere in the mud.
There was a lot of focus on the cave formations like the other tour but since this is the cave where the bats hibernate, there was a lot of discussion about the lifecycle of them and where they stay in the cave. Yes, there’s lots of piles of guano around where they roost.
Kartchner Caverns is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There’s not much around it. So once you’ve seen the caves, that’s pretty much it for the park. There are some hiking trails there too but we didn’t do that this time. Tombstone, Arizona isn’t too far away by vehicle so we made a day trip there.
Tombstone is famous for the O.K. Corral and the shootout that happened there back when Arizona was a little more wild. Now, it’s pretty much a big tourist trap. The main road is dirt and there is a wooden boardwalk on both sides to somewhat recreate what it was like. There are characters wandering around in costume. The shootout is played out in the O.K. Corral (or what they’ve recreated as the O.K. Corral). There’s lots of stores with trinkets.
We wandered out there one afternoon after one of the tours. It was enough entertainment to kill a couple of hours. We basically wandered up and down the boardwalk on both sides of the street twice.