From left-to-right, rock formations at Kartchner Caverns State Park known, respectively, as "fried eggs," "cave bacon," "soda straws" and "carrots."

Hungry for Adventure

In Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns,
the sights include fried eggs,
soda straws and carrots

Spelunkers are a hungry lot, or so it seems from the names of the otherworldly rock formations in southeastern Arizona's Kartchner Caverns.

"Cave bacon," "soda straws," "turnips," "carrots," "popcorn," "moonmilk" and "fried eggs" hang from the ceiling or grow from the floor in this latest jewel in the Arizona state parks system, first explored by two amateur cavers in 1974 but closed to the public until 1999.

During the intervening years, state officials, cave experts and the former landowner that the cavern is named for worked under extreme secrecy figuring out a way to develop it as a commercial operation without destroying this living geological wonder. They wanted to avoid the pitfalls of better-known caves such as New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns, damaged by overuse.

The effort in Arizona was worth it, as visitors are treated to a wondrous walk through a "wet" or "living" cave, knowing that the colorful mineral formations are continuing to grow, as they have for about 200,000 years.

The cave system is 2.5 miles long, with two large rooms, each roughly the size of a football field; 26 smaller rooms extend from the main ones. The park's two tours concentrate on the larger rooms. The Throne Room/Rotunda tour is offered year-round, and Big Room tours are available Oct. 15 to April 15, so as not to interfere with the gestating bats that live there in the summer.

A flowstone formation and a stalagmite tower in the Big Room of the "wet" or "living" cave in southeastern Arizona. Soda straws are seen hanging from the ceiling.

THE WEATHER inside the cave is a balmy 68 degrees at year's end, with about 98 percent humidity. Protecting the cave requires limiting exposure to light and dry air, both enemies to the chemical reactions that create the magnificent stalactites, stalagmites and helictites that awe visitors. If the formations lose their moisture, they stop growing.

Therefore, visitors are ever-so-lightly misted by sprinklers as they pass through two airlocks to enter the cave. Tourists are not allowed to bring anything inside (no purses, backpacks, video or still cameras) to avoid jostling that might damage fragile formations. Once inside, they are cautioned not to touch a thing.

Most tours have two guides, which allows people to leave the tour early if necessary (as my husband did with our antsy 15-month-old son; I stayed with our 6-year-old daughter). Some may find the underground environment stifling, although I found it less claustrophobic than anticipated because the ceilings are high in most areas. The ceiling in the Throne Room peaks at about 70 feet.

Although the lights are dim along the walkway, the guides shine flashlights on some of the most interesting formations, including delicate, translucent rock tubes called "soda straws" and larger stalactites -- known as "carrots" -- that formed near them when minerals dripping through the soda straws clogged.

Preserving a living cave at Kartchner Caverns State Park despite growing tourist traffic is a constant challenge.

The half-mile walk on the Rotunda/Throne Room tour culminates in a subdued music-and-light show that spotlights some of the most spectacular formations (including the 58-foot column Khan) while allowing the tourists to take a short sit-down break.

Our Throne Room tour lasted from 8:40 to 10:10 a.m., of which about one hour was spent below ground. The rest included a presentation by the tour guide outside and a short tram ride from the visitor center to the mouth of the cave.

That was plenty of time to take in the "cave bacon," which drapes in wavy lines from the ceiling, colored reddish-brown by deposits of iron oxide, and to get a good look at the yellow, deceptively gooey-looking calcite -- aptly named "fried eggs" -- clustered on the cave floor.

By the time we re-emerged into the brilliant Arizona sunshine, it was no surprise we had a hankering for breakfast.

If you go

Kartchner Caverns State Park is about 45 miles southeast of Tucson. The park is nine miles south of Interstate 10, off state Highway 90, Exit 302.

Admission: For the Rotunda/Throne Room tour, tickets cost $18.95 for adults, $9.95 for children 7 to 13, and free for kids 6 and under. For the Big Room tour, tickets are $22.95 for adults and $12.95 for children 7 to 13. Younger children are not allowed on this longer, more challenging tour. Both tours are wheelchair-accessible.

Call: 520-586-2283 to purchase tickets. Reservations are recommended.

Online: for information (but not tickets)


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