The beauty of Arizona’s landscapes has long been documented and photographed. Yet, underneath the vast deserts and majestic mountains of Arizona is a whole world of caves, many of which are just waiting for you to get out and discover.
Arizona is truly a treasure of speleological wonders. Speleologists, scientists who study caves, estimate that over 4000 caves lie beneath the ground of Arizona with some 1,600 Arizona caves already having been discovered, verified and documented.
These scientists define a cave as any opening within the ground that allows for human entrance and that extends at least 50 feet in any direction. If the opening is less than 50 feet, it is classified as a shelter. These same scientists also speculate that over 95% of all of Arizona’s underground caverns have no opening to the surface.
Luckily we don’t have to be skilled in spelunking to enjoy the underground beauty of a few of Arizona’s most spectacular caves. Here are a few that are open and easily accessible to the public.
In Southern Arizona
Kartchner Caverns State Park is truly the crown jewel of Arizona caves. These underground, “living” caverns have been protected as an Arizona State Park since 1988 and were first opened for public tours in 1999. Located near Benson, Arizona, well-trained park docents offer a variety of tours that vary during the year because of a colony of bats that still use the Big Room as a nursery. Reservations are highly recommended/Park & Tour fees apply - http://www.explorethecaverns.com/
Colossal Cave Mountain Park features a dry, limestone cave located just to the east of Tucson. This privately owned cave was first opened for tours in 1917. It extends into the mountain some 600 feet from the cave entrance and descends some 40 feet below the ground. There are 363 steps in this vast cave so it is not an ideal experience for anyone who has difficulty climbing stairs. Entry fee - http://www.colossalcave.com/welcome.html
Coronado Cave is located in the Coronado National Monument south of Sierra Vista. Park Rangers lead daily tours to this large, limestone cave found at the base of Montezuma Peak. Tour requires a 1-mile roundtrip hike and ability to scale down and up a 30-foot rocky slope. This is a more rugged cave adventure than either Kartchner Caverns or Colossal Cave. National Park entry fee - http://www.nps.gov/coro/planyourvisit/coronado-cave.htm
In Northern Arizona
Grand Canyon Caverns is the largest dry cave in the United States. Located on Historic Route 66 west of Seligman, this Arizona cave is friendly to all visitors as an elevator slowly lowers visitors some 200 feet below the surface. Long, paved walkways with handrails allow for visitors to spend as much time as they wish exploring the cave geological features. Entry fee applies - http://gccaverns.com/
Lava River Cave is the most remote and undeveloped of these highlighted caves. This 700,000-year-old lava tube is found in the Coconino National Forest northwest of Flagstaff. There have been no “man-made” improvements to this ¾ mile long cave so be sure to wear sturdy shoes and have more than one source of light. The cave was first discovered by lumberjacks in 1915 and provides visitors with a rugged caving experience. No Entry fee - http://www.city-data.com/articles/Lava-River-Cave-Flagstaff-Arizona.html
The Arizona Cave Protection Act safeguards all of Arizona’s caves. Any damaging or defacing of the cave can result in a severe fine. Spelunking in undeveloped natural caves can be dangerous so be sure to wear proper protective clothing and follow all caving safety and etiquette guidelines.
Anyone wishing to learn the proper ways of spelunking in Arizona wilderness can learn the rules and the techniques from the Central Arizona Grotto Club - http://centralarizonagrotto.webstarts.com/
Caving Tips & Etiquette from the National Speleological Society - http://caves.org/safety/
1. Never go alone into a cave. Always stay with your group.
2. Plan ahead for an emergency. Be sure to have multiple sources of light.
3. Bring the right gear; wear the right clothing.
4. Tell someone where your caving group have gone and when you plan to return home.
5. Stick to the pre-established routes in the cave. Caves are slippery; wear good caving shoes.
6. Wear protective head gear.
7. Leave the cave as you found it. Don’t litter, disturb the cave formations or any wildlife. Don’t cause any damage to the cave.
|Visitor Center -Colossal Cave|
|Some of the steps of Colossal Cave|
|Visitor Center Grand Canyon Caverns|
|Ceiling of Lava River Cave near Flagstaff|
|Another ceiling picture|
|Dick in the very dark Lave River Cave|