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Big Room Underground Hike
Kartchner Caverns State Park
March 7, 2009
by Debbie M.
We made it through the caverns, but where’s our missing cave man?

The Arizona Trailblazers were long overdue for a trip down to southeastern Arizona to experience the underground world of Kartchner Caverns. Back in 2000, the club did three back to back trips to accommodate the number of members who wanted to tour the newly opened Rotunda Room. Since then, Kartchner Caverns State Park has opened a second cave, the Big Room, for pubic tours starting in 2003.

Eleven Trailblazers (Mike, Joe, Terri, Barry, Anne, Doug, Ted, Jacque, Julie, Ray, and Debbie) met at the Kartchner Caverns State Park just west of Benson to experience the stunning underground world of this “living” (and still growing) cave. Meeting at the park entrance, some had time for a picnic lunch; others toured the Discovery Center, gift shop, and watched the educational video. Someone tipped off the tour guide that it was Jacque’s birthday, so the group got to join in to wish her a happy birthday before setting off on the tour. By 11:45, the group was more than ready to go underground. Taking a trolley to the cave entrance, we received instructions: no photography, no purses, backpacks, or videos; visitors may enter the cave with the clothes on their backs and nothing else.

Barry explores a narrow passageway in the Discovery Center.

Abundant with unique minerals and calcite formations, the cave was discovered in 1974, by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts.

They were looking for a cave that no one had ever found before and that is exactly what they found.

They kept their discovery a secret for four years; at that time, they told the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner, about their discovery.

It took ten years of overcoming numerous challenges before the upper caves were finally opened for public viewing and four more years before the lower caves were opened for tourists.

The caves formed from surface water dripping down limestone rock and dissolving minerals in the process. The water seeped into the rock, creating fissures, which widened into large rooms over time. As the water levels dropped, the large caverns remained. Dissolving minerals as it continued to seep through the rock, carbon dioxide escaped from the water. This left the mineral deposits which are visible in the caves today: stalagmites growing up from the ground and stalactites dripping down like icicles from above.

Is something giving you a headache, Debbie?
Barry makes a new friend on the street in Tombstone.

In addition to the fascinating formations, the Big Room is a birthing home for female myotis bats who arrive by the thousands every April. They roost in the caves, each giving birth to a single pup in June. They live in the caves until September when they leave for hibernation. There are large piles of bat guano in the caves which are part of an elaborate food chain system.

The Big Room closes down during the summer months so the bats can give birth and nurture their young.

The tour guide was very informative. Some interesting facts he shared with the group:

•   Skeletal remains have been found in the cave of a wide variety of animals including a horse, coyote, snakes, a ringtail, a bear, and most amazingly an 86,000 year old sloth.
It’s interesting to think that we had a man on the moon well before the caves were even discovered.
The cave maintains a constant temperature of 70 degrees and 99% humidity.
Although it’s hard to know for sure, these caverns probably began forming over 200,000 years ago.
No evidence of human habitation has ever been found in the caves.
The bats roost in the same location in the cave each year.
Water covered many areas of the caverns as late as the 1980s, but today there are very few areas of standing water.

The group completed the 90 minute guided tour and then went their separate ways.

After the tour, some people headed back to the valley; others set off to visit Bisbee, while still others decided dining, drinking, and dancing in Tombstone was the perfect way to finish off the weekend.

Listen up!  Handlebar Ray tells it the way it happened.

Supplemental Report
by Ted Tenny

Kartchner Caverns was magnificent! We had been there once before but never to the Big Room, which is occupied by bats half the year. It has unique and wonderful cave formations along a very environmentally conscious walkway.

Debbie Mulgrew led the group magnificently, and the Trailblazers wished Jacque a happy birthday.

Trailblazers at Kartchner Caverns.
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updated May 26, 2020