In November 1974 two young cavers, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, were exploring the limestone hills at the base of the Whetstone Mountains. In the bottom of a sinkhole they found a narrow crack leading into the hillside. Warm, moist air flowed out, signaling the existence of a cave. After several hours of crawling, they entered a pristine cavern.
It wasn't until February 1978 that Tenen and Tufts, told the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner, about their amazing discovery.
During the four years of secret exploration, the discoverers realized that the cave's extraordinary variety of colors and formations must be preserved.
The cave's existence became public knowledge in 1988 when its purchase was approved as an Arizona State Park. Extraordinary precautions have been taken during its development to conserve the cave's near-pristine condition.
It all began with a drop of water .. A shallow inland sea covered this area 330 million years ago, depositing layers of sediment that eventually hardened into limestone. Millions of years later this Escabrosa limestone along with other rock layers uplifted to form the Whetstone Mountains. The Escabrosa limestone containing the cave down-dropped thousands of feet relative to the mountains above.
Rainwater, made slightly acidic by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and soil, penetrated cracks in the down-dropped limestone block and slowly dissolved passages in it. Later, lowering groundwater levels left behind vast, air-filled rooms.
Kartchner Caverns' wide variety of decorations, called "speleothems", began forming drop by drop over the next 200,000 years.
Water seeping from the surface dissolves minerals on its trip through the limestone. Once it reaches the cave, the trapped carbon dioxide escapes from the water. No longer able to hold the dissolved calcite, the drop deposits its tiny mineral load. Over time, these minerals have created the beautiful speleothems and variety of colors found in the cave. Kartchner Caverns is a "living" cave; the formations are still growing!
The formations that decorate caves are called "speleothems." Usually formations are composed of layers of calcite called travertine deposited by water. The form a speleothem takes is determined by whether the water drips, flows, seeps, condenses or pools.
Kartchner Caverns is home to the:
- Longest soda straw formation in the U.S.
(second longest in the world) 21 feet 2 inches (Throne Room)
- Tallest and most massive column in Arizona,
Kubla Khan: 58 feet tall (Throne Room)
- World's most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk (Big Room)
- First reported occurrence of "turnip" shields (Big Room)
- First cave occurrence of "birdsnest" needle quartz formations
- Other unusual formations include shields, totems, helictites
and rimstone dams.