Park & Facility Hours
Summer Hours (June 1 – Sept. 30): Gate Hours 7 am – 10 pm, Park Hours 8 am – 5 pm, Discovery Center Hours 9 am – 5 pm.
Winter Hours (October 1 – May 31): Gate Hours 7 am – 10 pm, Park Hours 7 am – 6 pm, Discovery Center Hours 8 am – 6 pm. The Discovery Center is closed half-day on Thanksgiving & December 24, and all day on December 25. The campgrounds are open year-round.
The main parking lot for the Discovery Center is located at the third turn off to the right after leaving the Contact Station. General parking is available throughout the lot, thirteen handicapped accessible parking spaces and two Van Accessible sites are available on the northeast section of the lot, and sixteen oversized RV parking spaces are located in the southeastern section of the lot. A section designated for eight school or tour buses is located at the second turn off to the right after leaving the Contact Station. A lot with twenty three spaces is located at the trail head located on the far southwest end of the park at the end of the main road.
Discovery Center (Visitor Center)
The Discovery Center is located on the northeast end of the main parking lot. Visitors should arrive one hour prior to tour time in order to obtain tickets and experience Discovery Center activities. The facility consists of the front desk, a theater presentation, museum, gift shop, an amphitheater and food concession. At the Front Desk, customers may get park information, pick up reservation tickets or purchase walk up tickets. At the front desk, customers may get park information, pick up reserved tickets or purchase walk up tickets. (Walk up tickets may or may not be available on any given day, reservations are highly recommended.)
In the Tenen–Tufts Theater, a video presentation (15 minutes long) plays twice an hour. The program highlights the discovery aspect of the cave. The Museum contains exhibits on cave formations, cave life, hydrology and history. The Gift Shop offers a wide array of cave related and southwestern themed souvenirs, gifts and practical items to meet the needs of travelers. The amphitheater may host a variety of interpretive programs, weddings or other special events. There is also a Discovery Center Scavenger Hunt for Kids.
The park has modern restrooms located at the Discovery Center, Campground and Trail Head. Handicap accessible and Family facilities, with baby changing stations, are located at the Discovery Center and Campground facilities. Basic, non-handicap accessible facilities are located at the Trail Head. Please do not dispose of stored wastewater in the restroom, please use the Dump Station for this purpose.
Open 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (summer hours) and 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (winter hours). Store phone number is (520) 586-4166.
In our gift shop you will find tasteful unique gifts with southwestern flavor. Our selection changes often to keep it fresh and new. We offer a variety of Kartchner Caverns State Park logo souvenirs for Adults and Kids. Shirts, jackets and ball caps provide a fashionable way to commemorate your visit. For the collector or souvenir seeker we have: cups, spoons, postcards, key chains, hiking stick pins, hat pins, magnets, glasses, tiles, golf balls, ornaments and more.
For those that have just had their curiosity and imagination stirred by their cave visit, we have items that will let them explore some more with the “Jewel of the Desert” DVD, books on Kartchner Caverns and many other subjects relating to the desert southwest.
Our gift shop cooperates with the preservation wishes of Arizona State Parks and strives to carry “green” products. Such products as Free Trade coffee, recycled tees, environmental safe cards and recycled bags. Be sure to check out our “locally made in Arizona” products. We have an extensive offering of Native American handmade jewelry, weavings and Mata Ortiz pots. You can learn about the artist who made your piece and what tribe they are from. A selection of delicious snacks, regional sauces, Arizona jellies and locally made fudge will tempt and excite your tastes.
If you love books, we have an eclectic collection of books for your review covering subjects from the Cavern, nature, desert animals, birds, southwestern history, Native Americans and Arizona, to cookbooks, crafts and paperbacks. View our Children’s section for stimulating and educational toys, puzzles, plush animals and puppets to accent the children’s storybooks. Dig your fingers though our variety of worldly and colorful rocks, minerals, crystals and fossils. A fascinating display of music will appeal to many tastes and spur interest in something new and intriguing as you peruse through Native American Flute entries, traditional Cowboy tunes or the haunting chants of “Adiemus”, which plays on the Rotunda Throne Tour.
We pride ourselves in customer care so feel free to give us a call for your requests. Better yet come by and visit our gift shop. We will gladly ship to any destination in the continental U.S. for your convenience.
Bat Cave Café
The Bat Cave Cafe is open daily from 10:45 am to 3 pm (summer hours) & 10:30 am – 4 pm (winter hours). Please check the sign posted on the door for current times.
The Cafe offers a choice of Quesadillas & fresh baked pizzas, including the favorite, Southern Arizona style with locally roasted green chiles, fresh tomatoes, onion and cheese. Need a quick bite, try our Hebrew National Kosher “bat”dogs and Johnsonville Batwursts. Rounding out the fare is a variety of filling, freshly made sandwiches such as turkey, roast beef, ham and vegetarian. For the salad lovers there is mesquite chicken, pecan and cranberry salad on a mix of fresh local organic greens and homemade croutons. Be sure to check out our “Daily specials” (seasonal homemade soups sell out quickly)! But save room for Shirlene’s homemade pie, a must have. Cold drinks, teas, coffee, cookies and Blue Bunny ice cream complete the menu.
A quick, healthy alternative, to the standard fast food options that will satisfy any appetite in a relaxing patio atmosphere surrounded by the Hummingbird Garden. Complete your visit to the cave with a glass of prickly pear lemonade, quick snack or full meal at the Bat Cave Café.
Visitors to Kartchner Caverns find that the Discovery Center is well-named. Caves are mysterious and unfamiliar to humans. These dark places raise many questions. Numerous interactive displays in the museum give visitors the opportunity to discover the answers for themselves.
Introductory panels in the geology exhibits show how caves form, why the formations look as they do and locations of other caves. Other displays are specific to Kartchner Caverns, one of the most-studied public caves. It ranks in the top ten caves worldwide for its unique mineralogy. Here you can touch local rock types. A cut-away view of the cave hill highlights some major features and tour routes at the touch of a button. Take a virtual tour of some of the cave’s most prominent formations at the Underground Journey exhibit. The hands-on hydrology display allows visitors to follow water underground, usually hidden from our view, and shows why water is essential to the cavern remaining a “living” cave.
Though geology is the focus of many of the museum displays, exhibits also showcase cave and surface ecology, paleontology, archaeology and history. The cave ecosystem is dependent upon a summer colony of cave myotis bats. Their guano nurtures a miniature world of amazing creatures. Explore the regional displays to educate yourself on the area’s plants, animals and other attractions found aboveground. Paleontological studies inspired displays describing the area’s distant past. Bones, many from extinct animals, were discovered during the caverns’ development. Evidence of human habitation on the park property is also displayed.
New Exhibit! Original 86,000-year-old Sloth bones and a 36,000-year-old Horse skull are now on display in the Discovery Center. There are also small bones from Bear, extinct Antelope, Bob Cat, Ringtail Cat, and rabbit.
Kartchner Caverns has an intriguing story of discovery and development. A 15-minute video featuring the discoverers tells the story of finding and protecting the cave. View their meager caving equipment, and put yourself in their boots by crawling through simulated cave openings.
Arizona State Parks’ consultation with cave experts prior to development resulted in a display showing problems facing public caves and the importance of preserving them. Hopefully, the museum exhibits will also inspire you to appreciate and help preserve all caves.
Group Day Use Areas
The Group Day Use Area is located at the northwest corner of the Main Parking Lot. The area features three covered ramadas, eighteen picnic tables with one handicapped accessible table, water faucets and drinking fountains, 110 electrical outlets and lighting, waste receptacles and an area for a band and dancing. Optional use of a large covered gas grill and built in counter is available for an additional fee. All fees must be paid in advance when making a reservation. Fees are on a per day basis. Please make payment with cash, Visa or Mastercard at the Front Desk of the Discovery Center. Personal checks are not accepted for payment. Reservation fees apply to the rental of the Group Day Use Area only, all other per vehicle Day Use, Camping and Tour fees are additional.
Covered Group Ramada capacity is 200-250 persons (can accommodate 50-100 more if utilizing the uncovered gravel area on the north side).
Camping & RV Sites
Important Note: At this park, the entrance gate is closed nightly at 10 pm. A two loop Campground is located off of the main road past the Discovery Center on the southwest end of the park. Camping fees are $25.00 per night, payable with cash, Visa or Mastercard at the Contact Station the day of arrival or at the Discovery Center the following day. Fees must be paid daily or in advance and there is a 14 day stay limit.
Access card keys for camper after-hours entering the park are now administered by the four Campground Hosts.
All sites are developed as electric hook up sites. NO sites have been developed or designated for basic “dry camping”. Non-electrical and tent campers are welcome use these sites but the full fee will be required. A paid camping permit entitles the holder to use of the shower/restroom, water, electrical and dump station facilities. All sites have a table, hose bib and power post. Each back-in site power post is 110 volt AC with a 30 amp RV connection and a 20 amp receptacle. Each pull-through site power post has a 220 volt 50 amp AC & a 110 volt 30 amp AC RV connection and a 20 AMP GFI receptacle. Sites vary in length from 35’ in the shortest, ”back in” sites to 60’ in the pull through sites, all sites are single width. Sites have ample room on the side areas for pull out units.
There are four host sites, three handicapped designated sites (one is a pull through site), twelve pull through sites and forty three other sites of varying sizes. Handicapped designated sites have paved access to the site and adjacent restroom, a paved pad and wheelchair accessible table. Waste bins and shower/restroom facilities are located on the upper west end of each Campground. Restroom buildings have bottled water vending machines and dishwashing sinks located on the rear east side.
The Dump Station is located along the main road on the south end of the park adjacent to the Campground entrance. The station consists of two 110’ lanes, two sumps, waste receptacle and a non-potable water source. Lanes may be accessed from either end, in either direction. A paid Camping Permit is required to use the dump station. Please leave the area clean for the next user.
Showers are located in the Campground restroom buildings at the upper west end of each Campground loop. Use of showers is included in the Camping Permit fee, there are no separate charges for their use. All showers are handicapped accessible. Flush toilets and sinks with handicapped accessibility are also located in the restroom building. Two showers are located in each of the Men’s and Woman’s restrooms, a single shower is located in the Family restroom.
Covered picnic tables are located around the perimeter of the Main Parking Lot and adjacent to the food concession area outside of the Discovery Center. Seven single table sites are located on pads under a shaded ramada with a water source on the west and south end of the main parking lot. Two handicapped accessible sites are located in the center of the sites on the west side of the lot, they have a wheelchair accessible table and adjacent parking. All perimeter tables are accessible by a developed sidewalk and pad.
Three uncovered tables on pads are located in the southeast section of the Main Parking Lot, only one table is accessible with a paved sidewalk.
Seven single tables and one wheelchair accessible table are located under the covered dining area outside of the food concession area at the Discovery Center. The dining area looks out onto the Hummingbird Garden and the vista of the Whetstone mountains. Announcement of tour times are audible in this area. A counter area with wheelchair accessibility is located inside the Bat Cave Café.
Hikers should ensure that they wear comfortable clothing, durable shoes and have plenty of water when hiking, especially in summer months. Hats, sunscreen and regular consumption of water will help prevent exhaustion and heat related injuries. Hikers should stay on developed trails to prevent erosion, damage to vegetation and personal injury. Please report any problems along the trail or trail damage to the staff at the Front Desk.
The Guindani Trail (#398), located on the east flank of the Whetstone Mountains in the Coronado National Forest, is 4.2 miles in length (first mile is an easy walk, next 2/3 of trail is moderate difficulty, and the last leg is strenuous). This is a shared-use, non-motorized trail that is well-marked with directional signs.
Trail elevations range from 4750’ at the park trailhead to over 5620’ at the highest point along the Guindani Trail. The summits along the crest of the Whetstone Mountains are over 7000’ in elevation. Vegetation is mesquite-invaded Chihuahaun semi-desert grassland at the lower elevations and open oak-juniper woodland on the higher slopes.
Access to the Guindani Trail is located on the west side of Kartchner Caverns State Park campgrounds; a kiosk marks entrance to trail. For more information, contact: Sierra Vista Ranger District, 5990 W. Hwy 92, Hereford, AZ 85615 or call (520) 378-0311.
The Foothills Loop Trail (loop) is approximately 2.5 miles, rated moderate to difficult. There are four access points; one at the northwest end of the Discovery Center parking lot near the the Group Use Ramada, one at the north end of the lower campground, one at the north end of the upper campground and one at the trailhead gate leading into the National Forest.
This is a hiking trail, with no bicycles or motorized vehicles permitted. The trail climbs the limestone hill north of the cave and descends into the wash that follows the fault between the Whetstone Block and the San Pedro Block. A short spur trail at the upper portion of the Foothills Loop Trail leads visitors to the scenic Mountain Viewpoint.
Informational signs along the Foothills Loop Trail will discuss such trail highlights as the foothills, scenic view, riparian area, bedrock mortar and the Native Americans that inhabited the area.
Some of the vegetation seen on the Foothills Loop Trail hike include: Ocotillo, Creosote Bush, Mesquite, Desert Broom, Acacia, Wait-a-Minute Bush, Scrub Oak, Barrel Cactus, Prickly Pear, Buckhorn Cholla, and Hackberry.
The Hummingbird Garden Walk is located on the southwest side of the Discovery Center. The walk is lined with a variety of local vegetation. Some of the varieties include: Catclaw Acacia, Velvet Honeysuckle, Beargrass, Yellow Bells, Black Spine Prickle Pear, Autumn Sage, Agave, Desert Bird of Paradise, Desert Spoon, Fairy Duster, Chaparosa and Hesperaloe.
Pets are allowed in all outside areas but they should be leashed. Pets are not allowed inside any of the buildings or on cave tours except for certified service animals. Pets should not be left unattended in vehicles in the parking lot or left unattended outdoors. Ensure that pets have access to a water source. Pets should be restricted to trails and developed areas due to potentially harmful desert plants and cactus. Wildlife and other pets may pose a danger to unrestrained pets due to potential conflicts or predatory behavior that could be harmful.
A variety of species common to the Arizonan deserts may be found around the park. Please remember that wildlife should be given a practical amount of respect and distance for their and our own health and safety. It is important that we don’t interfere in their lives as we enter their habitat and do not give them the opportunity to interfere in ours when we introduce exotic food sources or shelter that may attract them.
A 63-entry birding list is available upon request at the Front desk of the Discovery Center. The close proximity of the canyons and arroyos of the Whetstone Mountains, Sonoran and Chihuahuan Desert terrain and the riparian areas of the San Pedro River creates an unique opportunity to see species found in each of these habitats. One of the most common birds seen on the park is the large, dark Raven that may present a nuisance when food is left unattended in the picnic or camping areas. Hummingbirds from around the country converge on Southeastern Arizona during their migratory travels and many may be seen year round in the Hummingbird Garden.
Lizards are commonly seen scurrying among the rocks or up a tree trunk. Slow moving Gila Monsters, plodding tortoises and racing Coach Whips may be observed in season. Caution should be taken in warm months not to disturb the several species of rattlesnakes here. To ensure your safety: keep a respectful distance, remain on trails, avoid overgrown areas, use a light to check the warm roadways after dark and keep pets restrained. This should prevent any contact with these important but potentially dangerous desert dwellers.
Many colorful butterflies and a number of intricately patterned moths may be observed during blooms in the Hummingbird Garden. Unusual Assassin Bugs climbing a Century Plant, large Horselubber Grasshoppers lumbering across the ground, and Walking Sticks blending in with the shrubbery will provide a fascinating entomological experience. Caution should be taken for scorpions. See the display in the Discovery Center about the cave dwelling insects that live in the dark environs of the cavern.
Mountain Lions range throughout the Whetstone Mountains and precautions should be taken when in camp or on the trail. Coyotes or Gray Foxes represent the canine species of the park. These animals are seldom seen but since these animal are predators, pets should not be left unattended outdoors, especially at night. Skunks, raccoons, coatimundi, and ringtail cats may present a night time nuisance if food is left unsecured in the camp areas. Jackrabbits, cottontails, squirrels, javelinas and deer may be seen wandering through the park. Of course, bats are also an important element of the cave and park habitat. Common Cave bats (Myotis velifer) exit the cave each night during summer months to feed while the maternity colony occupies the Big Room from mid April to mid October. Pallid bats often occupy overhangs on buildings and bridges, Mexican Free Tail bats chase flying insects and Long Nosed bats come to feed from the local Agave species at night.
Please advise Park Staff of any unusual sightings or unusual behavior by wild animals. Please do not feed wild animals or birds on the park. Avoid leaving food unsecured or unattended outside and place all trash in the appropriate receptacles. This will prevent attracting unwanted animals and insects to your area and leave the animals in their natural state.
It all began with a drop of water. A shallow inland sea covered this area 330 million years ago, depositing layers of sediment that eventually hardened into limestone. Millions of years later this Escabrosa limestone along with other rock layers uplifted to form the Whetstone Mountains. The Escabrosa limestone, due to a type of tremor or fault, down-dropped thousands of feet relative to the mountains above.
Rainwater, made slightly acidic by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and soil, penetrated cracks in the down-dropped limestone block and slowly dissolved passages in it. Later, lowering groundwater levels left behind vast, air-filled rooms.
Kartchner Caverns' wide variety of decorations, called “speleothems,” began forming drop by drop over the next 200,000 years.
Water seeping from the surface dissolves minerals on its trip through the limestone. Once it reaches the cave, the trapped carbon dioxide escapes from the water. No longer able to hold the dissolved calcite, the drop deposits its tiny mineral load. Over time, these minerals have created the beautiful speleothems and variety of colors found in the cave. Kartchner Caverns is a “living” cave; the formations are still growing!
Bats and other Cave Creatures
During the summer months, the cave's Big Room serves as a nursery roost for over 1,000 female cave myotis bats. The pregnant females return to Kartchner Caverns around the end of April, where they give birth to a single pup in late June. The babies remain in the roost each evening while their mothers forage for insects in the surrounding countryside. During the summer the colony consumes about half a ton of insects, consisting of moths, flying ants, beetles, mosquitoes and termites. Mothers and their offspring will leave mid-September, to begin their migration for their winter hibernation roost. These bats provide the only link between the ecosystem of the cave and the surface.
After returning to the bat roost from their nightly forays, the bats excrete waste, forming large guano piles. Most of the other life forms found in the cave depend on these guano piles for their food. Fungi and bacteria consume the guano first. These are in turn eaten by nematodes, mites, isopods, amphipods, and book lice. These are then eaten by spiders, scorpions, mites, millipedes, and centipedes. Scavengers, like crickets and beetle larvae, clean up the leftovers. The bats' guano provides the energy needed to run this complex food chain.
Mycology Science & Research Brief
Some of you may know that mycology is the study of fungi. However, did you also know that even though all molds are fungi, not all fungi are molds! So, we invite you to stay tuned on this project and others taking place at Kartchner Caverns State Park that support the park’s mission for continuing discovery, promoting science-informed and adaptive cave management, building advocacy for conservation and education, and showcasing only a portion of a more extensive and beautiful cavern system that is so worth protecting.
This recent mycology program is in partnership with graduate student, Joseph Vaughan, who is working under the direction of Dr. Barry Pryor from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Arizona. Although micro-fungi make up an essential portion of the microbial population in many ecosystems, yet not enough is known about the different types, distributions, life cycles, and intricate linkages that fungi play in caves and their supporting surface environments. Kartchner Caverns, having been developed and maintained in order to protect a range of biological communities, provides an excellent laboratory venue to examine microscopic caveinhabiting microbes and fungi in a nearly pristine environment. This project proposes to investigate fungal communities living in association with bat guano, an essential nutrient source for many cave ecosystems. In addition to exploring the species richness of fungi living on or near the guano, this project will examine fungal community diversity and life cycle changes across a gradient from the Sink Hole entrance of the Big Room complex, where our bats raise their young during the summer months. The project will address questions about the source of various fungi in Kartchner Caverns and how these fungi are distributed through the cave. The idea is to learn if types and locations of different fungi in the cave are constrained to only bats as vectors, to learn if and why fungal types vary in their distribution on the piles and throughout the cave, and if locations and growth vary in time and space.
Paleontology of the cave
While exploring the cave, paleontologists, those who study prehistoric life, uncovered an 86,000 year record of the local faunal community. The finds included the following: skeletons of an 86,000 year old Shasta ground sloth, a 34,000 year old horse, and an 11,000 year old bear, as well as terrestrial snails, a clam, a toad, lizards, rabbits, snakes, a coyote, a ringtail, and many species of rodents. These discoveries have lead paleontologists to declare Kartchner Caverns a treasure house of information on the local fossil history of the uplands around the San Pedro River Valley.
The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, SAHRA, and Arizona State Parks jointly created an interactive website about the key role of water in the history and evolution of Kartchner Caverns and the San Pedro River Basin. The online program introduces the hydrology of the caverns: how water created the cave spaces and formations; how it continues to shape the caverns today; and the water cycle of the Upper San Pedro Basin.
Kartchner Caverns is a 3.9 km long wet living carbonate cave in southwestern USA near Benson, Arizona. The cave represents an oligotrophic environment with high humidity (average 99.4%) and elevated CO2. Because of its unique geology Kartchner Caverns contains minerals from six different chemical classes: carbonates, sulfates, oxides, nitrates, silicates and phosphates, and is considered as one of the top ten caves in the world in terms of mineral diversity. Furthermore Kartchner is also characterized by its variety of speleothems (secondary mineral deposits). In 2006, the cave was added to the National Science Foundation’s Microbial Observatory Program. One goal of our studies in Kartchner is to characterize the heterogeneity of bacterial communities on speleothems. The objective of this study was to explore both, intra- and inter-speleothem variability in the bacterial community structure. Ten different formations located in a single cave room within an area of approx. 10 m (length) x 2 m (width) were examined. A chemical element profile of a surface sample scraped from each formation was performed using ICP-MS analysis. The analysis revealed differences in the elemental content of the ten formations. Bacterial DNA community fingerprints were generated from each speleothem using DGGE analysis of PCR amplified 16S rRNA gene fragments. The intra-speleothem analysis revealed that the community profiles from the same formation are more similar to each other than to profiles from different speleothems. For the inter-speleothem analysis, bacterial community clusters were observed which appear to be influenced by the spatial location of the formation in the room.
Bacterial and Archaeal Community Structure of Two Adjacent Calcite Speleothems in Kartchner Caverns, Arizona, USA
Approximately 20% of the earth’s dry ice-free surface is composed of karst terrain (Ford and Williams 2007) with sinkholes and caves being typical features of these regions. Kartchner Caverns, one of the world’s 10 most interesting caves from a mineralogical standpoint (Hill and Forti 1997), is a 3.9 km long cave developed into a block of Escabrosa Limestone (Lower Carboniferous) in the Basin and Range of southeastern Arizona (Jagnow 1999). The relative humidity inside the cave averages 99.4%. The atmospheric CO2 is elevated (varying seasonally from approx. 1,000 to over 5,000 ppm) and the mean average temperature throughout the cave is 19.8◦C (Buecher 1999).
Culturable Microbial Diversity and the Impact of Tourism in Kartchner Caverns, Arizona
Kartchner Caverns in Benson, AZ, was opened for tourism in 1999 after a careful development protocol that was designed to maintain predevelopment conditions. As a part of an ongoing effort to determine the impact of humans on this limestone cave, samples were collected from cave rock surfaces along the cave trail traveled daily by tour groups (200,000 visitors year–1) and compared to samples taken from areas designated as having medium (30–40 visitors year–1) and low (2–3 visitors year–1) levels of human exposure. Samples were also taken from fiberglass moldings installed during cave development.
Kartchner Caverns Microbial Observatory
In 2006, Kartchner Caverns was added to the National Science Foundation's worldwide network of Microbial Observatories. The goal of the Microbial Observatories program is to study and describe the phylogenetic (who is there) and functional (what do they do) diversity of microbial communities on the beautiful formations found in the cave. Kartchner Caverns is the only cave in the network.
In November 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts were exploring the limestone hills at the eastern base of the Whetstone Mountains. They were looking “for a cave no one had ever found” and found it. The two kept the cave a secret until February 1978 when they told the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner, about their awesome discovery. Since unprotected caves can be seriously damaged by unregulated use, they knew the cave had to be protected. Tenen and Tufts spent several years looking into the possibility of developing the cave themselves. Some members of the Kartchner family lived in Tucson and were very impressed with the development and operation of Catalina State Park by Arizona State Parks. They decided to approach State Parks to see if the agency was interested in acquiring this outstanding resource.
Late in 1984, Randy Tufts came to the Arizona State Parks office in Phoenix for a meeting with Charles R. Eatherly, Special Projects Coordinator for the Arizona State Parks Board. Eatherly was working with citizen committees around the State to identify sites to be considered for future acquisition as State Parks. Tufts told Eatherly “as you are working on potential Park sites, I understand you are the one who can tell me how a site becomes a State Park.” Tufts asked if he could close the door. After the door was closed, Eatherly asked, “What kind of a resource are we talking about?” Tufts responded, “I cannot tell you.” Eatherly then questioned where the resource was located. Tufts again responded, “I cannot tell you.” At this point Eatherly said, “I am not sure if I’ll be able to tell you whether or not State Parks is interested or able to acquire this resource as a Park but I can tell you the necessary steps.”
The discussion continued on the various processes the State is required to follow in the acquisition of property for a Park from gathering the information to the legislative process and everything in between. Tufts was advised that acquiring a site and creating a State Park was a lengthy process and could take from two to five years with no guarantee of success, and each step of the process would be open to the public.
Tufts insisted that Eatherly had to see the site. A meeting date was set for January 1985. Eatherly met with Tufts and Tenen at the San Pedro Motel in Benson. Eatherly was asked to sign an oath to guarantee secrecy. He advised the discoverers that as a State employee he could not sign such a document.
Shortly after dark, they met outside the motel room. It was a clear, cold evening with a dark sky filled with stars. Before they got into the car Eatherly was blindfolded. With the blindfold in place, the car was driven around town in various directions, and then out to the highway. After a period of time the car was driven off the paved roadway, through a gate that had to be unlocked, and then over a stretch of very rough road. Soon the car stopped and the blindfold was removed. Introductions were made to members of the Kartchner family. The first clue of what was in store came when Tufts said, “What we are going to see is a living cave with rooms filled with beautiful formations.”
With flashlights in hand, the group walked across a flat area, down through a dry wash, and up a rather steep hillside to the edge of a large sinkhole. (Sinkholes are a natural depression occurring in limestone regions and usually formed by a collapse of a cavern roof.) The group dropped over the sinkhole side about ten feet to the bottom and waited for Tufts and Tenen to pull back some rubble from the entrance. Everyone crawled through the small hole and slowly descended down through small chambers and several tight holes towards the Blowhole. (A Blowhole is a vent that permits the escape of air or other gas.) Before entering the Blowhole, the group sat and talked about what was ahead.
After the group had crawled some distance in the Blowhole, Eatherly found he could not move. The space was too small for him to squeeze through. After a short while he managed to get free and back out of this small area into a space where he could sit up. The group decided it would be better to return to the motel.
Everyone returned to the motel and spent the rest of the evening talking about the cave and looking at pictures and slides of the caves beautiful, colored formations. Tufts and Tenen again requested that Eatherly sign a pledge of secrecy. Eatherly said he could not sign the document but he would only talk to State Parks staff.
Tufts said Dr. Ed McCullough from the University of Arizona was going to be given a tour of the cave the next day. At this point, Eatherly requested that Tufts and Tenen give a slide presentation to State Parks staff in Phoenix. They agreed to give the presentation and discuss with staff the pressing need for secrecy to protect this outstanding resource.
Upon Eatherly’s return to the State Parks office, he informed Director Mike Ramnes and Deputy Director Roland Sharer of this outstanding potential State Park. He scheduled a meeting with ASP staff for February 6, 1985, to see the slide presentation of the cave Tufts and Tenen called “Xanadu”. ASP staff attending the slide presentation included Mike Ramnes, Roland Sharer, Mike Pastika, Tim Brand, Jim Neidigh, Tanna Thornburg, Paul Malmberg, John Schreiber and Charles Eatherly. Everyone was very excited about the possibility of acquiring this cave for a new State Park. The major concern of staff was getting the necessary appropriation to make the purchase and being able to complete the necessary developments. State Parks staff decided to refer to the cave as Secret Cave. Tufts and Tenen agreed to send the agency a copy of the slide presentation and other cave information to pursue acquisition by the State.
Director Ramnes brought this outstanding resource to the attention of Governor Bruce Babbitt. Shortly after learning about Secret Cave, the Governor, who has a degree in geology, was taken on a tour through the cave by Tufts and Tenen. At the time State finances were very limited. Staff worked with Governor Babbitt on the potential of a State land exchange as one possibility. Governor Babbitt also brought in The Nature Conservancy to assist with acquiring this wonderful resource for the State. Staff continued to pursue various options for acquisition of the cave but it did not prove feasible at the time.
Ken Travous became the Arizona State Parks Executive Director in 1987 and was very interested in Secret Cave. He set a high priority on the acquisition. Babbitt left office in 1987 and the cave lost one of its strongest positive supporters. Director Travous asked staff, “What do you think of using our revenue from Park fees to purchase the cave?” After receiving strong support for this idea, Travous initiated discussions with legislators and determined this would be an acceptable approach for funding acquisition of the property. This approach would not require an appropriation from the General Fund. Special legislation was required to authorize the acquisition and the use of a Certificate of Participation (COP) as the means to acquire the property. By utilizing this approach, State Parks could acquire the property and make monthly payments to pay off the acquisition costs. State Parks hired two appraisers, Sanders K. Solot and Associates for the ranch land and H.C. Cannon for the Cave and worked in partnership with The Nature Conservancy to acquire and protect this natural resource.
In January 1988, Eatherly was serving as legislative liaison for Arizona State Parks and assisted Travous in working with legislators to determine the most feasible approach to having the necessary legislation passed. At the time, Joe Lane was Speaker of the House and the cave was located within his district. It was very fortunate that John Hays was serving as Chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee as he had toured the cave with Governor Babbitt back in 1985. Representative Larry Hawk, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, assisted the agency in getting a bill passed through the House before the beginning of the impeachment of Governor Evan Mecham. The bill provided the authority for State Parks to acquire the property and established the State Park Acquisition and Development Fund where all park fees and concession revenues would be deposited. From these deposits, the monthly payments would be made to cover the Certificate of Participation (COP), and the remaining funds would be used to pay for the Park developments.
The agency managed to keep the location and identity of the cave a secret, per the wishes of the Kartchner family and the discoverers, except for those people who had to know. To assist in showing the Legislature what the potential State Park resource was, the staff requested and received assistance from Delbert Lewis, owner, of Channel 3 TV. Lewis had previously been involved with State Parks in the development of McFarland State Historic Park, as Governor McFarland was his father-in-law. Lewis agreed to send his staff to photograph the cave and prepare a video presentation for the agency.
Steve Bodinet, Channel 3 TV special reporter, went into the cave with Parks Director Travous to do the photography. Bodinet narrated, and with other Channel 3 staff, produced an outstanding video of the cave for State Parks. This video presentation was used in closed caucus meetings in both the House and Senate to show the resource proposed for acquisition. Having the caucus meetings closed to the public helped ensure the information about the cave and its location were kept confidential.
Because 1988 was the year of Governor Evan Mecham’s impeachment, the legislators were pleased to have a positive bill to take action on. To ensure passage of the State Parks’ bill that authorized the acquisition of the cave property, the Senate and House met in session at the same time. As soon as one body completed its work on the amended bill, the other body would finalize its actions. This was accomplished in one afternoon and the bill was sent to Governor Rose Mofford’s office for signature. This bill might hold the record for the shortest time taken for any bill to pass through the legislature and be signed into law.
On April 27, 1988, the Kartchner family, Randy Tufts, and Gary Tenen were introduced in both the Senate and House. They all joined Arizona State Parks Board members and staff that afternoon in the Governor’s office to witness the signing of the bill by Governor Rose Mofford.
State Parks leased the property on April 29, 1988, and acquired the Option to Purchase from The Nature Conservancy in July 1988. Acquisition of the Kartchner property was finalized on September 16, 1988. Jeff Dexter was selected as the first Park Manager.
Overcoming more than 10 years of unforeseen challenges in research, planning, construction, legislative threats, mining concerns, and legal issues, the upper caverns were ready to open to the public. The developments to this point had cost over $28 million. The Conservation Celebration of Kartchner Caverns State Park was held on November 5, 1999. The ribbon cutting initiated the Celebration with Governor Jane D. Hull, legislators, past and present Parks Board members, Joe Lane, Assistant to the Governor, Ken Travous, Executive Director and members of the Kartchner family. The lower caverns opened to the public four years later on November 11, 2003. Governor, Janet Napolitano, did the honors at this celebration.
Kartchner Caverns SP, P.O. Box 1849, Benson, AZ 85602More Info