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Roger Weller, geology instructor

Arizona Cave
by Phaydra Sperle
Physical Geology
Fall 2015

                                                                                 A Decade Long Secret: Kartchner Caverns

            Many people have heard of and/or visited the infamous Kartchner Caverns State Park. How could they not? Kartchner Caverns is a vast limestone cave that is believed to be over 200,000 years old and contains more than 13,000 feet of passages and rooms (Bessesen). Discovered by two men, Randy Tufts, and Gary Tenen, in 1974, Kartchner Caverns soon became one of the biggest discoveries world-wide.

            Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen both came from Tucson, Arizona, looking for “a cave no one had ever found” (Eatherly).  They found a sinkhole twelve miles south of Benson, Arizona. The two men spent many hours attempting to get through a narrow tunnel by breaking through layers of bedrock.  They eventually discovered a long corridor that opened up into many large chambers.  The two men kept this glorious discovery a secret, for fear that exposing it would take away from the preservation of the cave.


However, in February 1978, Tufts and Tenen told the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner, of their discovery.  The Kartchner couple kept the secret along with the two men, who looked into many possibilities of developing the cave themselves.  After much consideration and research into Catalina State Park, which was created by Arizona State Parks, James and Lois decided to approach State Parks to see if the agency was interested in this amazing discovery (Eatherly).

            In late 1984, Randy Tufts met with Charles R. Eartherly, the Special Projects Coordinator for the Arizona State Park Board in Phoenix, Arizona.  Tufts did not quite expose what he had found, but simply asked how a site could become a State Park.  After a lengthy conversation about the necessary steps to attempt to create a State Park, Tufts encouraged Eatherly to come and see for himself the treasure that had been unearthed.

            In January 1985, Eatherly met with Tufts and Tenen at the San Pedro Motel in Benson.  Eartherly was asked to sign an oath to guarantee secrecy, but proceeded to state that he could not sign the document because of his position as a State employee (Eatherly).  Later that evening, when the sun had dropped and night had taken over, Eatherly was blindfolded and placed into a car.  After several navigations, Eatherly was introduced to the Kartchner family.  Immediately after, Tufts gave a clue as to what to expect: “What we are going to see is a living cave with rooms filled with beautiful formations” (Eatherly).

            Eatherly could not crawl through very much, given the small space of the sinkhole that created the entrance to the cave. The whole group went back to the motel and looked at pictures and slides of the cave. Eatherly encouraged Tufts and Tenen to give a presentation to State Parks staff, which the men agreed to. Once Eatherly returned to his office, he informed Director Mike Ramnes and Deputy Director Roland Sharer of this extraordinary discovery and the awesome potential it had. A meeting was scheduled for February 6, 1985 to see the presentation of Tufts and Tenen. The presentation was called “Xanadu.” The staff attending consisted of 9 people: Mike Ramnes, Roland Sharer, Mike Pastika, Tim Brand, Jim Neidigh, Tanna Thornburg, Paul Malmberg, John Schreiber, and of course, Charles Eatherly.
(Courtesy of Amy Gleich, Cronkite News)



            Every one of the staff members were excited about the possibility of “Secret Cave,” but expressed concerned about the purchase itself as well as necessary developments. Director Ramnes later got the attention of Governor Bruce Babbitt.  The governor, who has a degree in geology, was taken on a tour through the cave. Of course, State finances were limited at the time, but Governor Babbitt brought in the Nature Conservancy to assist with obtaining the Secret Cave. State Park Staff continued to explore possibilities to acquire the land, but failed.  (courtesy of Arizona State Parks)

            In 1987, Ken Travous became the Arizona State Park Executive Director and his interest leaned heavily towards Secret Cave.  Governor Babbitt also left office in 1987, which was a loss as far as support goes. Travous had the idea to use the revenue from park fees to purchase the cave.  Special legislation was required to authorize the purchase and the use of a Certificate of Participation.  By going this way, State Park could get the property and make monthly payments.

            After a length of time of paperwork and oversight, the Kartchner family, Randy Tufts, and Gary Tenen were introduced in the Senate and House on April 27, 1988.  They joined the Arizona State Parks Board members and staff to witness the signing of the bill by Governor Rose Mofford.  State Park leased the property two days later and acquired the Option to Purchase from the Nature Conservancy in July that same year.  Obtaining the property was finalized on September 16, 1988. Jeff Dexter was the first Park Manager.

            Over the next ten years, many challenges and obstacles were in the way to transform the cave into a proper State Park.  Developments cost over twenty-eight million dollars.  The official opening of Kartchner Caverns State Park was on November 5, 1999. Tourism swelled and flooded the park, as this park had been ten years in the making. That’s when the true beauty of the cave was exposed to the rest of the world.


            Kartchner Caverns State Park has several main points of interest: The Big Room, Throne Room, Echo Passage, Rotunda Room, Mud Flats, Strawberry Room, and Subway Tunnel.  Upon first entering the cave, one is overwhelmed with the large area that surrounds them, as well as the large amount of humidity. The average temperature for the cave is 68 degrees, and remains at a near constant 99% humidity (Bessesen).  After an individual has become accustomed to the humidity, their eyes begin to take in the awe that the cave provides.

            Many stalactites hang from the ceiling, and large stalagmites protrude from the ground.  Many columns are formed by the joining of these two geological structures.  In fact, located in the Throne Room, a stalactite and a stalagmite combined to create a 58 foot tall column (Bessesen). This is the largest column known in the state of Arizona. The magnificent piece of Earth is called Kubla Khan, meaning a “poetic fragment”.  The Throne Room also brags the longest recorded calcite  soda straw in the world, measuring a remarkable 21 feet, 2 inches.


Courtesy of Kyle and Jen Smith



Text Box: Courtesy of Kartchner Caverns

Many speleothems cover the cave, as well as bacon draperies, quartz boxwork, shields, totems, and brushite moonmilk (the world’s most extensive formation located in the Big Room).  A shield is created when calcite-rich water is under hydrostatic pressure and cracks (Bewley). However, these are hardly ever seen by human eyes. Kartchner Caverns is a live cave, meaning it is still growing every day. 

            Kartchner Caverns sports a 2.4 mile show case, but sixty percent of the cave is not regularly explored.  Speleothems are all over the cave, some of them are over fifty-thousand years old.  Speleothems are mineral deposits that are formed from groundwater within the underground cave.

The living limestone cave has many fascinating geological aspects to it, and it is extremely obvious to those around the world.  In fact, Kartchner Caverns was rated one of the top ten caves across the globe.  It is such a beautiful piece of nature, and most of it is still completely preserved.  Thanks to Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, this glorious and magnificent cave can be seen by those all over, but Kartchner Caverns will always remain a protected part of this wonderful earth.



Cave shield 

Works Cited

Bessesen, Brooke. “Kartchner Caverns State Park.” 2014. Web. 2015.

Bewley, Djuna. “Shields.” 18 December 2012. Web. 2015.

Eatherly, Charles R. “History of Kartchner Caverns State Park.” Web. 2015.