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Roger Weller, geology instructor

Arizona Caves
by Sarah Moore
Physical Geology
Fall 2007

A Look Into Some Caves Throughout Arizona


            There are over 2,000 caves hidden throughout Arizona. “From the large Lave Tubes of Northern Arizona, to the profusely decorated limestone caves of Southern Arizona, our state contains some of the most beautiful and scientifically important caves in the nation. And since Arizona has such a variety of localized climates, from arid deserts to lush mountain forests; we also have a high diversity of cave types” (Arizona Cave Survey). I have lived in Arizona my life and always found caves very interesting. I have been to a few such as Coronado Cave and Kartchner Caverns. Many of our caves our very delicate because they receive little water, making the formations grow extra slowly. There is a law that protects Arizona caves stated in the Arizona Criminal Code Title 13, statutes 13-3702 and 13-3702.01. There are even fines up to $150,000 to people who are convicted under these statutes (Arizona Cave Survey). Looking deeper into these statutes shows fines from $750 to $150,000.

              13-3702. Defacing or damaging petroglyphs, pictographs, caves, or caverns; classification

Section A: A person commits defacing or damaging pictographs, caves, or caverns if such person knowingly, without the prior written permission of the owner:

Breaks, breaks off, cracks, carves upon, writes, or otherwise marks upon or in any manner destroys, mutilates, injuries, defaces, removes, displaces, mars, or harms petrogylphs, pictographs or any natural material found in any cave or cavern; Kills, harms, or disturbs plant or animal life found in any cave or cavern, except for safety reasons; etc.

(Arizona Cave Survey)

          It goes on talking of breaking, removing, or really in any way tampering with any gate, door, or obstruction blocking the cave’s entrance. Then in Section B it explains what a “natural material” is such as; “stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, anthodites, gypsum flowers or needles, draperies, columns, tuna dams, clay or mud formations or concretions or other similar crystalline mineral formations found in any cave or cavern” (Arizona Cave Survey). Section C states these acts are classified as a class 2 misdemeanor with a fine up to $750. In statute 13-3702.01 is about excavating sites and collecting specimens this is punishable with a fine up to $150,000. I think it is great that the cavers were able to pass these statutes, it is very important to keep the beauty around us for as long as we possibly can.



Grand Canyon Caverns

copyright Legends of America


The Grand Canyon Caverns were formed in the prehistoric times by an inland sea. It was first discovered by Walter Peck. “He was on his way to play poker with a couple of friends at the nearby Yampai railroad siding house, he stumbled and nearly fell into a large, funnel-shaped hole” (Legends of America). Returning the next day with ropes and lanterns, Walter and his buddies were ready to check out this hole in the ground. It was a steep fall and the smart idea of tying a rope around on guy’s waist was thought up. He took a coal oil lantern and I’m sure held his breath and said a prayer.  It took 150 feet of rope before he reached the bottom. “The man in the hole below began to explore, casting light around the cavern with his oil lantern. Seeing sparkles among the rocks of the cave, he was sure that they had discovered gold and gathered up a sack full of samples” (Legends of America). He tugged the rope and up he went. He gave Walter the “ore” and even told the men that he was two skeletons and the loose ends of a saddle deep below. This got the men excited and their stories soon turned to the speculation of the skeletons being prehistoric cavemen; make as money as you can right?

Walter could have cared less about the so called prehistoric bones he thought he found who knows how much gold down in that hole and was rich so, he purchased the property. “However after having taken several rocks from the cave to an assayer, he was disappointed to find that there was no gold in that thar hole” (Legends of America). Well, Walter wasn’t down for long, he decided to use the other guy’s genius idea of the prehistoric bones and began to charge 25 cents to see where the cavemen were discovered. He even gave his customers the luxury of having a rope tied around their waists and lowered to explore the cavern. They became known as Yampai Caverns.

            Through the years new entrances were constructed such as a wooden staircase instead of the exciting rope trick, then a swinging bridge was added to let more people in at one time. These comforts caused the entrance fee to become 50 cents. During all this there was some bad news: “The remains discovered in the cave had been found to conclusively not be those of prehistoric men, Instead, they were the remains of two members of the Hualapai Indian tribe who had died in the winter of 1917” (Legends of America).  In later years there was a permanent elevator installed and the natural entrance was sealed off “out of respect of the fallen Indians and their scared burial ground” (Legends of America). The name of the cavern was also changed several times from Coconino Caverns to Dinosaur Caverns and then finally to Grand Canyon Caverns.



[graphic] Map of the cave

Copyright USDA Forest Service


Tonto Natural Bridge has been in the making for thousands of years. “It is believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. The bridge stands 183 feet high over a 400-foot long tunnel that measures 150 feet as its widest point” (Lava River Cave). It is a mile long lava tube that was formed around 700,000 years ago. It was formed by molten rock from a volcanic vent in Hart Prairie. “Ample evidence of how the tube was born is written in the rocks of which it is formed, Small wave-like undulations in the floor are the remains of ripples frozen in the last trickle of molten rock that flowed form the cave. Stone icicles hanging from the ceiling show where a final blast of volcanic heat caused the rock to partially re-liquefy and drip” (Lava River Cave). The cave can be as cold as 42 degrees even in the summer! The rocks inside the cave are ice covered and jagged.


Flowstone formation








Copyright National Park Service


Coronado Cave is made of limestone and the limestone was formed around 250-300 million years ago when southern Arizona was covered by a sea. The creatures the die bodies settle on the sea floor and the waves slowly break them into silt and sand. They become compacted and hardened into limestone. The actual cave was formed from water seeping through the cracks in the limestone. “Calcite grains in the limestone are slowly dissolved by the water. Even normal rainwater becomes slightly acidic as it absorbs carbon dioxide gas from the air and percolates through soils rich in carbon dioxide released by insects, bacteria, and plant roots. The rough, pitted surface of many flat limestone slabs exposed to rainwater along the cave trail is evidence of this process” (Coronado National Memorial). Iron sulfide left it minerals as the rocks surrounding Coronado Cave.

            There are many amazing formations inside this cave, including, stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, and helictites. “As water seeps down through the ground and drips from the roof of the cave, calcite is deposited to form stalactites. When the floor of the cave is exposed beneath these drips, mounds of calcite called stalagmites form. Sometimes they meet each other to form a column. Helictites grow in all directions, even horizontally, and rimstonesdams are ridges of calcite deposits that can hold pools of water in areas of underground springs” (Coronado National Memorial). Scalloped and titled limestone bedding planes are found often throughout the cave. “These features illustrate the tectonic and hydrologic history of the region. Geologists examining these scallops estimate that at one time as much as 50,000 gallons of water per minute flowed through the cave from east to west” (Coronado National Memorial). This is one cave I hope the people that graffiti the walls were caught. It made the cave look cheapened and it was sad. Although, the rock formation that looks like a Dinosaur and had minerals that glowed made up for those fools.

            Coronado Cave is the home to many diverse creatures. There are many small animals and insects call this cave their abode. “Within this community are beetles, millipedes, spiders, crickets, coatimundis, ringtails, and bats” (Coronado National Memorial).




Copyright Kartchner Caverns State Park



Kartchner Caverns was discovered by Tufts and Tenen. “It took a full year of exploration before they knew the full extent of what they had discovered” (Kartchner Caverns State Park). The entrance to the cave was two and a half miles long, and it had two large rooms inside. ”If the breakdown of fallen rock were removed, each of the rooms would be roughly the size of a football field. Off the two main rooms were 26 smaller ones, almost all of them dripping with rock formations that looked like something created by a Hollywood special effects artist, only all of it was natural” (Kartchner Caverns State Park). They wanted to keep it a secret so no one would damage it, the problem was is was quite easy to access. They decided the best bet would be to find someone to buy the land. ”We thought if it had economic value, someone would supervise it and protect it” (Kartchner Caverns State Park). They both knew they could never afford the land so they approach James Kartchner. “Kartchner, who died in 1986, had been a science teacher and the superintendent of schools in St. David. He and Lois had 10 children of their own and two that they adopted. Six of their children are medical doctors, and one had a Ph.D.” (Kartchner Cavern State Park).  Tufts and Tenen soon found that Kartchner had concern for geology and knew he was the right man. Tufts and Tenen continued to explore the cavern and went as far as using an eight-pound sledge hammer to chip away the limestone bedrock until a hole they found was barely big enough for a person to fit through. “They crawled toward that space and found themselves in  10-foot-high corridor that took off in two directions. They were able to walk upright for the next 300 feet. Around them in the jerky light of their headlamps, the chamber glistened with stalactites, soda straws, and tiny twisted finders of calcite called helictites” (Kartchner Cavern State Park).

            The three types of formations found in this cave are stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone. All of these materials are made of calcite. “It takes about 100 years to form one cubic inch of calcite. The different colors are caused by mineral impurities in calcite. Reds are form iron; yellow is from sulphur; green is from copper; blacks and grays are from aluminum salts; and pure calcite is white” (Kartchner Cavern State Park).

            Caves are everywhere in the world and so amazing to see. I just talked about a few of the many caves found throughout Arizona and hope everyone goes out and takes advantage of the beautiful caves nature has gives us!


Works Cited


"Arizona Cave Survey." Arizona Caves. 19 Nov 2007

"Arizona Legends." Legends of America. 19 Nov 2007

"Coronado National Memorial ." National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. 19 Nov 2007

"Lava River Cave." Coconino National Forest. USDA Forest Service. 19 Nov 2007

“Kartchner Caverns State Park." Wild Arizona. 19 Nov 2007