Day 11: Day trip to Kartchner Caverns - Southeast Arizona 2016 - CycleBlaze

April 6, 2016

Day 11: Day trip to Kartchner Caverns

Today is kind of a rest day. I will merely make a day trip to Kartchner Caverns State Park. The cavern is only 11 miles from Benson but 900 feet higher elevation. So it was mostly uphill to the cavern and mostly downhill to get back to Benson.

No hurry today, so I left the motel at 10:30.

Looking back at Benson while climbing a big hill south of town.
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I took back roads southwest from Benson to AZ 90. Ocotillo and Janella roads, then Cooperative Way. Some of it was 12% grade. I was glad to be unloaded. Most of my stuff was still at the motel.

Rare ocotillo with leaves.
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Flowering thistle.
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The climbing continued on AZ 90 but it was more gentle. I arrived at the park at noon.

The caverns is at the foot of the Whetstone mountains.
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The park was one of the most crowded places I visited during this tour. It's relatively new, opening in 1999. The facilities are large and fancy. Huge parking lot, huge shade structures, huge visitor center.

I had a reservation for a 1:30 PM "Big Room" tour, so I had plenty of time to have lunch at the snack bar before the tour. That tour is only offered 6 months per year because the area is closed when bats are in residence.

The 1.5 hour guided tour cost $23. Visitors ride a tram half a mile from the visitor center to the cave entrance. Visitors are not allowed to wander anywhere near the cave entrance.

The cave is incredibly clean and undamaged, so they have strict rules for visitors. No cameras, phones, backpacks, purses, or water bottles allowed. Visitors stay on paved walkways with curbs and railings, similar to at Carlsbad caverns.

Kartchner Caverns has one very unusual attribute. It's HOT. Usually it gets much colder deep underground. But for some reason Kartchner caverns is 86F (30C) inside. With 100% humidity. It's an "active" cave with many formations still dripping and growing. The area is in a drought now, so the cave isn't dripping as much as it sometimes does.

Kartchner caverns. Scan of a postcard.
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To maintain the moisture in the cave, visitors pass through multiple airlock doors to get in and out of the cave. On the way in I went through 4 doors. The first airlock was incredibly hot, surely above 90F (32C). I was tempted to quit the tour. Fortunately the temperature dropped noticeably when entering the main cave.

The cave tour involved about a mile of walking. Normally I prefer a cave tour to have a lot of walking to keep me warm. I hate standing still for 10 minutes to listen to a lecture in a cold cave. That wasn't a concern in an 86F cave.

Kartchner caverns. Scan of a postcard.
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Kartchner caverns was discovered in 1974. The explorers were very careful to not damage the cave and not tell many people about the cave. They realized that the cave has spectacular formations and is more pristine than pretty much any other cave. By the 1980's it was apparent that a spectacular cave can't be kept secret forever, so together with the land owner the cave explorers petitioned the state of Arizona to make the cave a state park.

Making a secret cave into a state park was a political conundrum. How do you get legislators to appropriate millions of dollars to develop a secret cave that nobody has seen? They couldn't reveal any details about the cave because then the unsecured cave would be damaged by explorers and robbers.

Kartchner caverns. Scan of a postcard.
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The initial solution was to have the Nature Conservancy purchase the property and secure the cave. That bought time for the Arizona legislature to act. They eventually did appropriate $37 million for the park, but it took more than 10 years before the park opened to the public. They had to survey the cave, develop a plan to get people in and out, and build visitor facilities underground and on the surface.

World's longest soda straw. 20 feet long.
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The original entrance required people to climb through a very small passage. Access to the cave is now via a 200 yard long tunnel in the rock, built by a mining company. I'm not sure how they bored through the rock without damaging fragile formations in the cave.

The original entrance, discovered in 1974.
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The formations were indeed very impressive. About 90% of the floor of the cave has never been walked on, so unlike other caves even the floor has impressive formations nearly everywhere.

I'm not thrilled that they forbid photography in the cave. Especially because the postcards sold in the visitor center aren't very impressive. I could take better photos myself. I asked the tour guide why photography is prohibited. He said it was mainly to keep visitors safe. Several visitors were injured by paying attention to their camera instead of watching where they are going.

It was a relief to get out of the cave and be back on the desert surface which was the same temperature but with air flow and far less humidity. The downhill ride back to Benson should have been very fast, but I had a flat front tire and had to repair two thorn punctures in the front tube.

Looking east at the Dragoon mountains while leaving Kartchner caverns.
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AZ 90 heading north to Benson. Downhill most of the way. AZ 90 is 4 lanes with a wide shoulder from I-10 all the way to Sierra Vista.
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Back in Benson I wandered around downtown a bit. The town is not thriving. Many empty storefronts, very little traffic. Benson was once a major railroad town. It tries to use the railroad history to attract tourists, but with little success.

Sleepy downtown Benson.
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Visitor center in the old train station.
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Railroad themes on the barrier between the busy railroad track and the visitor center parking lot.
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Today had a high of 86F (30C), back to normal. Surprisingly warm considering that there was a high cloud layer. It was good to have an easy day because tomorrow will be the longest day (in distance) of the tour.

The motels are all a mile north of downtown on the opposite side of I-10. I had dinner at the Denny's restaurant next to the motel just because it was nearby.

Distance: 27.3 mi. (43.7 km)
Climbing: 1230 ft. (373 m)
Average Speed: 9.9 mph (16 km/h)
Hiking: 1 mi. (1.6 km) in a cave

Today's ride: 27 miles (43 km)
Total: 396 miles (637 km)

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