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By Sue Bray
No visit to Benson, Arizona would be complete without making a stop at
Kartchner Caverns State Park
. Kept secret until 1984, the Kartchner Caverns are a massive limestone cave, with 13,000 feet of passages and two rooms the size of football fields. In order to preserve this magnificent and pristine wonder below the earth, the Caverns became an Arizona State Park in 1999.
The Kartchner Caverns were discovered by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, two young cave explorers, in 1974. When they realized what they had found below the surface, they actually kept the discovery a secret because they were so concerned about other unprotected caves which had been seriously damaged by human misuse, and four years later shared the news with the property owners, the Karchner family. In 1988, they approached the Arizona State Parks department about acquiring and protecting their "secret cave", but were so concerned about its preservation, they even insisted on blindfolding the Parks representative when they first took him to the cave.
Not only are the Caverns huge, they also accommodate many unusual formations, which are determined by whether the water drips, pools, flows, condenses or seeps. Kartchner Caverns is home to one of the world's largest soda stalactites, (21 feet, 3 inches), the 58 foot tall column, Kubla Khan, the world's most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk, and many other unusual formations. These are "live" caves, with stalagtites emerging from the ceilings, and stalagmites growing from below. As such, it still takes tens of thousands of years for their delicate forms to take shape.
Located just 9 miles south of Benson, the Caverns come complete with a 23,000 square foot Discovery Center which contains loads of exhibits, educational information, and a replica of some of the caverns down below. There are no self guided tours of the caverns; visitors must take guided tours. Two itineraries are offered, and each cover about ½ mile. Most of the passages are fully handicapped accessible, with 40" paved pathways, although there are some steep areas which may require some help traversing in a wheelchair. Even although it may be hot outside, the Caverns themselves average 68 very humid degrees.
Outside, there's a lot to do in the 550 acres of the park itself. Camping, hiking trails, and covered picnic areas are located throughout the park, with many scenic views of the nearby Whetstone mountains.
Touring the Caverns and learning about the incredible world below is an incredible opportunity. If you do plan to visit Kartchner Caverns, it's wise to make tour reservations online, as it seems they are often booked. The Caverns also close during certain times of the year for maintenance, so it's wise to check ahead.
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