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Underground Arizona

“This land of Arizona has had an exciting history, so dramatic and inspiring that it needs no exaggeration or fictional embellishment.” ~Barry Goldwater

Would you like to get away from the hot summer sun and chill out for a while? How about going underground? Caves are cool natural wonders, and there are some great caves worth exploring in Arizona.

Even though our state is not considered to be in a cave-rich region of the country, approximately 1,000 caves have been identified in Arizona. Believe it or not, this even includes a few caves with deep pools. Less than three percent of Arizona’s caves have been fully surveyed, however.

Caves that are open to the public and require no special equipment to enter are called “show” caves. Arizona has several beautifully decorated show caves administered by government agencies or operated by private owners.

The majority of Arizona’s caves are unimproved “wild” caves. Many are well-kept secrets, even when they occur on public lands. Cave secrecy in Arizona is legendary, probably dating back to the Old West when bandits used caves as hideouts. Nowadays, the secrecy and limited access help preserve these fragile environments.

Most of Arizona’s caves and caverns occur in exposed limestone near the Grand Canyon, running south to the edge of the Mogollon Rim. The mountainous areas of southeastern Arizona also have extensive limestone deposits that are riddled with holes and caves.

Peppersauce Cave – This limestone cave is located about 10 miles south of Oracle on the north slope of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Peppersauce has three large rooms and many smaller ones. If you go in far enough, there is a “rabbit hole” that you have to go down. Beyond the third large room is a pool with bluish water. Since it was first publicized in the February 1948 issue of “Desert Magazine,” Peppersauce has been heavily visited. It is a wild cave requiring crawling and getting dirty, but still more than 20,000 people visit Peppersauce each year. It also has a reputation as a party cave. Peppersauce has been vandalized, littered with trash, covered with graffiti, and its stalactites were broken off decades ago. Read an interesting article abotu scuba diving in Peppersauce Cave at http://scubalocker.com/main/news.

Colossal Cave – Colossal Cave, located southeast of Tucson off I-10, may be the world’s largest dry cavern. It extends into the mountain approximately 600 feet and descends about 40 feet below the entrance. The interior temperature is naturally 70 degrees every day of the year. Colossal Cave tours have been ongoing since 1923. The guided tour takes around 45-55 minutes to complete, on a route that is a half mile long and goes down and back up 363 stairs. The guide relates the cave’s history, legends, and geology as you view a rich variety of cave formations. Groups and schools of twenty or more can reserve their own tours at reduced rates. Wild cave tours, ladder tours and candlelight tours are also available, or visit www.colossalcave.com for a virtual tour. The ranch headquarters on the property houses a comprehensive caving museum and research library.

Coronado Cave – This live limestone cave is well preserved with nice formations. Located in the Coronado National Memorial south of Sierra Vista, it is a natural undeveloped cave. That means it has no paved walkways, no lights, and no tour guide. Visiting is a self-guided experience. It takes about three hours to hike to the cave and tour it on your own. Visitors must pick up a free cave permit at the Visitor Center and walk a three-quarter-mile trail to the cave entrance. The 68-degree cave consists of two large rooms totaling about 600 feet in length. For more information, see www.nps.gov/coro/cave.htm.

Kartchner Caverns – Considered one of the world’s ten most beautiful caves, this wet limestone cave remained a well kept secret after its discovery in 1974 until it came under the protection of the Arizona State Parks in 1988. It is located near Benson, about nine miles south of I-10. The cave averages 68°F and 98% humidity year round. It is 2.4 miles long and has 13,000 feet of passages. The guided cave tour is about 1/2 mile long and encompasses two big rooms and a stunning passage. Since this is a living cave, the tour is designed to teach “environmental cave ethics.” The adjacent Discovery Center features state-of-the-art interactive exhibits. The park also has a large gift shop, regional displays, food vending machines, shaded picnic areas, hiking trails, and campgrounds. The Friends of Kartchner Caverns website, www.explorethecaverns.com, contains lesson plans and student activities.

Lava River Cave – This impressive lava tube is located in the Coconino National Forest northwest of Flagstaff. From U.S. Highway 180, take Forest Road 245 west for about three miles, then go south for roughly 1 ½ miles on Forest Road 171, and turn left on FR 171B. This cave was formed within a few hours when an ancient volcano erupted. The cave is almost ¾ of a mile long and never gets above 45 degrees F. In some spots the cave is only about 3 feet high, while in others the ceiling is 30 feet high and shaped like a subway tunnel. There is no admission charge, no tour guides, and no facilities. You’re on your own but there is only one way in and out. Small children will need help scrambling down the boulder pile at the entrance. Learn all about this cave at: www.amnh.org/nationalcenter/youngnaturalistawards/2002/amy.html

Grand Canyon Caverns – Open to the public for over 74 years, this dry limestone cave is located on Route 66 just west of Seligman. The fascinating history and geology of Grand Canyon Caverns makes for an interesting field trip. A guide takes you by elevator down 21 stories into the cavern. Prehistoric fossils and the bones of long-extinct animals have been found inside. Geology, natural history, Arizona history and Native Indian aspects are all incorporated into your visit. Educational tours can be customized for different needs. Facilities include a gift shop, picnic grounds, campground, RV park, motel and convenience store. Their website is www.gccaverns.com.


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