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Journey to Kartchner Caverns
Inside the Whetstone Mountains of Southeast Arizona
Hiking the Dragoons, Land of Cochise & the Apaches
February 5, 2000
by Chuck Parsons

At 2:30 PM on yet another beautiful, clear blue Arizona afternoon eleven Motorola Hiking Club members and guests – Rudy Arredondo, Kay Fitting, Shirley Huddy, Laurie Jacobson, Karen Moore, Joyce Parrish, Chuck Parsons, Dennis Robertson, Steve Schauer, David Self, and Marnie Shepperd – met at the newly opened Kartchner Caverns State Park south of Benson, Arizona to prepare ourselves for a subterranean journey of discovery into magnificent Kartchner Caverns. A tour of the Discovery Center gives us a good overall introduction to cave formation, geology, climatology, paleontology, and bat populations within the caverns. An excellent twenty minute video explains the history and discovery of the caverns, while providing eye-popping scenes of what awaits our intrepid little group on our own descent into the caverns.

First discovered in November, 1974 by hard-core Arizona cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, the first humans to ever set foot inside this unknown world (a cavers ultimate dream-come-true), the caverns were wisely kept secret from the rest of the world for the next fourteen years until plans could be devised to protect them forever from the vandalism and destruction that was the fate of so many earlier-discovered caves. Designated an Arizona State Park in 1988, it would be another eleven years before the caverns would officially open to the general public in November, 1999 – twenty-five long years after Tenen and Tufts first set foot inside them on that cold, windy afternoon of November, 1974.

After a short tram ride ascending a winding path to the cavern’s entrance and catching a glimpse of the original entrance Tenen and Tufts used in 1974, now surrounded by chain-link fence, we stand before the new entrance to Kartchner Caverns, bravely prepared to descend into the dark and mysterious unknown. After passing through double air-lock doors designed to keep out the dry desert air and preserve the caverns natural humidity level, we enter a short man-made tunnel blasted through the mountain side to give the visitor easier access, something Tenen and Tufts suffered without, as they squirmed through a very tight, narrow opening on their bellies to gain entry. Passing through yet another air-lock, we are now inside the Rotunda Room, the first of two great rooms that we would see on this tour. Eyes gradually adjusting to the dimly lit caverns, we slowly began our descent on the perpetually damp pathway and start to experience the constant 99% humidity and 68° F temperature deep inside the belly of Kartchner Caverns.

As our very knowledgeable and informative tour guide, Shirley, explains the history and formation of the caverns along the way, we soon start to see our first colorful cave “decorations”, as she calls them: soda straws – long thin straw-like formations hanging from the cave ceiling, including the second longest in the world at 21 feet, 2 inches, helictites – strange formations growing randomly and crazily in all directions from the ceiling, and cave bacon – ribbon-like growths on the ceiling that look realistic enough to eat. Continuing on our journey of discovery, we soon start to see our first stalactites – large carrot-like formations hanging from the ceiling, stalagmites – formations growing upward from the cavern floor, flowstone – waterfalls of dissolved rock, and cave drapery – similar to but much larger than cave bacon.

Continuing onward and downward, we learn from our enthusiastic guide that a series of advancing and retreating shallow inland seas covered most of southern Arizona about 300-million years ago, depositing layer upon layer of sediments that eventually hardened into what is now called Escabrosa Limestone, the primary building block of most of the world’s great caverns. It seems that Arizona did indeed once have beachfront property, although humans were not around to enjoy it at the time. Lucky for us, since we didn’t have to compete with the resident dinosaurs then roaming throughout much of Arizona for choice ocean view property. Millions of years later powerful forces deep within the earth caused this land to buckle and uplift, forming the present-day Whetstone Mountains. Immense layers of limestone deep within the mountain later dropped downward, forming numerous cracks and fissures throughout the rock.

Water then went to work on the highly soluble limestone, dissolving its way in and slowly enlarging the cracks and fissures to room-size chambers over millions of years of time. Kartchner Caverns reached its present-day size about one million years ago. Since then continued ground water seepage inside the caverns has continued to dissolve minerals within the limestone, slowly depositing multiple layers of calcium carbonate and building up the calcite formations that we see before us today in an infinite variety of colors and shapes. This is an extremely slow process, as Mother Nature is taking her time here in the creation of a true masterpiece. It takes on average about 750 years for most of these formations to grow just one inch. This is a living caverns that continues to grow and breathe and develop as long as water is available, and as long as its present day stewards continue to protect it and preserve it for the generations to follow.

Working our way ever-deeper into these magical caverns, we finally reach our final destination – the football field size Throne Room. Initially we can only make out dim shadows of larger formations in the distance, as our guide instructs us to gather around the railing overlooking this vast chamber. She then dims the lights even further and requests that we all maintain a few minutes of silence, as we adjust to the darkness of this subterranean world beneath the mountain. Then slowly and ever so subtly a narrow shaft of soft white light begins to play across an immense and unbelievably spectacular column of multi-hued and multi-layered rock about thirty feet in front of this hushed and spellbound group.

This is our breath-taking introduction to Kubla Khan, at fifty-eight feet from floor to ceiling, the tallest and most massive column known to exist in Arizona. As the lighting intensifies and slowly sweeps across different facets of Kubla Khan, eventually bathing the entire structure in soft white light, it seems to literally glow from within as it casts its magical spell over this now dazzled and totally enchanted audience. This massive and imposing structure represents everything we have seen so far in these great chambers, combining every type and color of formations found in these caverns, from soda straws to stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, helictites, drapery, shelfstone, and spar crystal.

We are given a few more minutes to take in the numerous other spectacular structures in this great room, as the lights continue to sweep and play across an unbelievable variety of colorful stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, shelfstone, soda straws, drapery, and helictites growing from every corner and every surface of this vast Throne Room. All too soon our guide turns down the lights once again and informs us that we must now start our return journey back to the entrance. Our sixty-minute tour suddenly seems like it has lasted about fifteen minutes, as we seem to lose all prospective of time inside these magnificent caverns.

As we pass through the air-lock doors and back outside into the daylight, an immediate cooling effect takes place, as all of the moisture from the caverns that has absorbed into our skin and clothing immediately begins to evaporate in the cool, dry desert air. We are now literally walking evaporative coolers. As fascinating and amazing as this experience has been, it will be even more so in the near future as the tour expands to include parts of the Big Room, another vast football field size chamber still under development in this seven-acre subterranean world of enchantment known as Kartchner Caverns.

As we say our good-byes and part company, most of the group heads back to the valley, as Laurie, Dave, and I head to our Benson home for the night, and Rudy and his lady-friend, Donna, head down to Tombstone for the saloon and dance scene. After checking into our motels in Benson and resting up a bit, our little trio decides to head to Tombstone as well and catch up with Rudy and Donna for the Tombstone night scene, such as it is. Who knows what adventures await us in the town too tough to die.

We found a quaint little place called Nellie’s Restaurant, just around the corner from Big Nose Kate’s Saloon on Allen Street, the focal point for the Saturday night action scene in Tombstone. Named after its founder and original owner, Nellie Cashman, this is the oldest continually run restaurant in Tombstone and one of the oldest in the state. A resolute and tough-minded Irishwoman with a good head for business, Miss Cashman opened and ran a number of restaurants and hotels in mining camps and boomtowns throughout the southwest, at a time when running a business was a very rare venture for the average woman.

Tombstone was a booming silver-mine town in the late 1880s when she arrived and opened her soon thriving restaurant. It wasn’t long, however, before she became restless once again and followed the Gold Rush to Alaska and later to South Africa, before returning to the southwest, running still more restaurants and hotels until her death in 1925 at the ripe age of 80. We salute you, Nellie Cashman, for personifying the thousands of brave and adventurous women who helped settle and tame the Old West, bringing a touch of class and civilization to an otherwise wild, unruly, and often hostile and unforgiving land.

After a great dinner at Nellie’s, we strolled over to Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, and is this joint ever jumping tonight! Big Nose Kate was a real character of the Wild West and gained fame and a certain degree of notoriety as the long-time girlfriend of Doc Holliday. As the talented little three-piece band played an amazing variety of music, from country to rockabilly to folk, the dance floor is really hopping with locals and tourists alike, and yes indeed, Rudy and Donna are among them. Go, Rudy, go! As we swill down our pitcher of beer at one of the back tables, enjoying the music and the dance scene, the time slowly slips away, and before we know it the clock shows 11:30 PM It’s been a long day, and we have some serious hiking to do in the morning, so we bid our good-byes to Rudy and Donna and the happening scene at Big Nose Kate’s and head back to Benson to settle in for the night, as the band plays on.

After a hearty breakfast at Reb’s Café early Sunday morning in Benson, we hit the road and head for the Dragoon Mountains due east of the Benson area. After about an hour of driving (and stopping to report an injured Cooper’s Hawk we found on the roadside near the turnoff into the Dragoons), the road came to an abrupt end at the south side of Cochise Campground. We were now in the Cochise Stronghold and prepared ourselves to start hiking the Cochise Trail that starts at the south end of this campground.

Memorial plaque to Chiricahua Apache leader, Chief Cochise
Named after the legendary and feared Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise, much of this trail follows the original paths laid down by the Apaches in the 1860s, when they used these rugged mountains as a hideout and retreat to wage war and terror on white settlers throughout southeastern Arizona. After many failed pursuits, the U.S. Army finally negotiated a peace treaty with Cochise and the Apaches in 1872. Cochise is buried in an unmarked location deep within this Stronghold, his final resting place unknown to the world.

Starting at an elevation of 4,920 feet, the trail begins a steady ascent south into upper Stronghold Canyon, boarded on both sides by pine, juniper, oak, manzanita, yucca, and sumac.

View of the rugged Dragoon Mountains

Eventually the trail crosses a bone-dry streambed, as we continue climbing toward our destination of Stronghold Divide, some three miles ahead in this rugged and harsh landscape. It didn’t take us long to realize how this rough, rocky terrain afforded such great protection and refuge for the Apache raiding parties trying to evade pursuit by the U.S. Calvary those many years ago in the days of the wild, untamed West.

Soon we pass large cottonwoods and sycamores trying to pull the last remaining remnants of moisture from this now extremely dry terrain.
Dragoon Mountains – home of the Cochise Stronghold

It is an irony of nature that this riparian area is now so dry that even the drought-resistant prickly pear cactus are showing signs of great stress, their normally green, fleshy pads now a pale yellow-green and shriveled down to no more than a quarter-inch thick – just hanging on and patiently waiting for the next life-giving and long overdue winter rains to end their distress at long last.

The trail now begins to thread its way alongside massive granite boulders, as it continues a steady climb into higher and rougher terrain. We begin to see spectacular and fascinating towering granite rock formations and great cliffs thrusting upward high into the cobalt blue Arizona sky on our trail to the divide.

After climbing through several more switchbacks, we eventually arrive at a small catchment basin known as Halfmoon Tank. This was the only sign of water that we would ever see on this trail, and it was so fetid and polluted by now, that we wondered how several nearby cows could even drink it and survive the experience. They didn’t seem to show the slightest interest in it, or us for that matter.

Pillars of rock reach for the sky.

Finally, after about two hours of hiking and picture taking, we reach our destination of Cochise Stronghold Divide, three miles from the trailhead and at 5,960 feet the highest point on Cochise Trail. We take a short lunch break while admiring the scenery of this rugged, beautiful, and sometimes stark landscape; and as we return along the same route back to the trailhead.

Rugged views from Cochise Stronghold
We reflect on what a remarkable weekend this has been in this remarkably unique and amazing place that we call Arizona.
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Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club, Phoenix, Arizona
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updated April 1, 2020