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Top Ten: Caves & Caverns

“In a cavern, in a canyon, Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner, Forty-niner, And his daughter, Clementine.” ~Percy Montrose

1. Kartchner Caverns – We used to hear rumors about a spectacular cave that had been discovered in southern Arizona. Now instead of speculation, it invites exploration. 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 at the base of the Whetstone Mountains 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 contains lesson plans and student activities.

2. Colossal Cave – This 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 for a virtual tour. The ranch headquarters on the property houses a comprehensive caving museum and research library.

3. Grand Canyon Cavern – 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 tunnel is almost ¾ of a mile long and never gets above 45 degrees F. In some spots the ceiling is only about 3 feet high, while in others it’s 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.

6. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum – This museum contains a realistic life-size model of a limestone cave, complete with stalactites and stalagmites. It explains how a cavern such as this is formed. The simulated cave also features a “true caving experience” which is popular with kids. It is an optional 75-foot trail with low ceilings, rough footing, and narrow passages. Another underground exhibit lets visitors peek into the burrows of many desert animals, insects, and reptiles.

7. Yakulla Caverns – Since its opening in September of 2008, Yakulla (yah-cool-yuh) Caverns has become a favorite spot for children to explore at the Phoenix Zoo. Yakulla is an Incan word that means “water place,” and it’s a combination cave/water play area. This innovative exhibit features a large realistic wet cave with lots of room for kids to splash around. Inside the cave, the graceful features reflect the wondrous diversity of cave geology. Springs gurgle as they cascade down rippling walls, cool and smooth to the touch. The earthy tang of rock and water wafts throughout. Stalactites, stalagmites, shields, waterfalls, columns, and flowstone create a fantastic array of visual and tactile opportunities. Beams of sunlight pierce the heart of the cavern through scattered holes in the rock. Three unique entrances are provided: a waterfall entrance that drips a sheet of water that runs into a stream and provides intermittent flash floods; a slide feature that kids access via stone steps; and a Narnia-style entrance that is obscured by an 6-10 ft. tunnel created by bushes and trees.

The following caves are not actually located in Arizona but they are close enough and well worth visiting.

8. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico – Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains, a range that runs from west Texas into southeastern New Mexico. There are scattered woodlands in the higher elevations, but the park is primarily situated in the Chihuahuan Desert, which is the largest and wettest of the North American deserts. Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 110 limestone caves, formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone, creating some of the largest caves in North America. The most famous of these is Carlsbad Cavern. This cavern receives more than 300,000 visitors each year and offers a rare glimpse into the beautiful underground world preserved under the desert above.

9. El Malpais Lava Caves, New Mexico – Explore a rugged volcanic landscape of lava flows, cinder cones, pressure ridges, and lava caves. These provide many good opportunities for caving. The Big Tubes area is home to a 17 mile-long lava tube system, one of the largest in North America. A cairn route leads to Four Windows and Big Skylight Caves, and to Caterpillar and Seven Bridges Collapses. In the El Calderon area, Junction Cave offers opportunities for limited cavers to explore a lava tube without lights. At Twin Craters, a basalt blister has partially collapsed to form a small cave. There is also the Bandera Lava Tube, much of which has collapsed but some areas have not. Nearby is the Ice Cave, part of a collapsed lava tube in which the temperature never rises above 31 degrees year-round. The trail to the ice cave is relatively short and takes about 20 minutes round-trip. You hike down to the mouth of the cave and look in from an observation platform. Natural layers of perpetual ice glisten blue-green in the reflected rays of sunlight.

10. Mitchell Caverns, California – Mitchell Caverns are the only limestone caverns in the California park system. They are located at an elevation of 4300 ft. in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area, near the Mojave National Preserve. Mitchell Caverns are a trio of caves complete with stalactites, stalagmites and other oddly shaped geological formations. Since the caves are a pleasant 65° year-round, owners Jack and Ida Mitchell thought they would make a nice tourist attraction. They were right, because it was the only place off Old Route 66 between Barstow and Needles where one could escape the desert heat. The Mitchells operated the caves from 1934 to 1954 as a rest stop for Route 66 travelers. Mitchell also held mining rights to the area and dug several prospect holes and tunnels. The Mitchell Caverns area is now a state park and operates from June 15 through September 16 for tours. Trips through the caverns are conducted by guided tours only and last about 1 1/2 hours. There are picnic facilities in the park. The summer tours on the weekends start at 1:30 pm and are limited to 25 people. They do often sell out, so pack a lunch and get there about an hour early to get your tickets. Ranger-led walks through the dramatic limestone caves offer a fascinating geology lesson, one the whole family can enjoy.

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