Louise Speaks: Once again, trying to get out of the city of Tucson, just 22 miles SE on Interstate 10, are the Colosal Caves. Now we have been to many caves in Arizona and Missouri and this one wasn’t much different. The cave contains about 3.5 miles of mapped passageways, and was discovered by Soloman Lick in 1879. Temperatures inside average about 70 °F year-round. Most caves are cooler, but since the Colosal Caves are drying up and there is no moisture it felt hotter than most other caves we’ve visited.
In the late 1800s, known as the Cowboy Days, stories were told of train robbers and escaped convicts who used the caves as a hiding place. Perhaps the most famous were John Maier and Josiah “Kid” Smith who were eventually shot by the Wells Fargo Messenger, J. Ernest Smith. A third bandit of the group that had robbed a train near El Paso named George Green was captured and sentenced to five years at the Yuma Territorial Prison, (see separate post).
Our guide described the caves as “Dry”, and what this means is that the formations are completely dry, or “dead”, and do not grow. This is because the cave was formed by water depositing limestone, but this source has disappeared. It instead feeds the “active” nearby Arkenstone Cave that continues to grow formations. The Arkenstone Cave is only open to researchers. Solomon Lick, was the owner of the nearby Mountain Springs Hotel. He was searching for stray cattle when he discovered the entrance to the cave. That same entrance has been enlarged within a modern setting that overlooks the panoramic views of La Posta Quemada Ranch into over 2,000 acres of Colossal Cave Mountain Park. Once discovered, the cave was used as a guano source, and a tunnel, 82 feet long, was built in 1905. A total of seven train cars of guano were filled during construction. The deposit was soon exhausted, and the tunnel was abandoned.
In the parking lot of the Colosal Caves is the opening on how supplies were lowered into the cave to make the paths, stairs, railings and electrical sources. Trucks would back up to this opening and lower or carry down all the necessary supplies and equipment that was needed. From the inside of the cave you can see the original ladder that was used to bring the supplies into the cave. Since the ladder was made of wood it is no longer safe to use and has been sectioned off. The opening to the parking lot has also been sealed off, but the the roof top still remains.
Today the cave is a popular tourist destination as part of Colossal Cave Mountain Park. The park also features two other caves, named Arkenstone and La Tetera, which are protected and are being studied by researchers. Out of the 9 in our group today, only 3 of us decided to take the cave tour. You can’t really say you’ve been here unless, you take the tour right? The tour route is a half mile long and takes about 45 to 50 minutes to complete. Our guide gave us the Cave’s history, legends, and geology. During the tour we had to walk down and back up about
six and a half stories, a total of 363 stair steps. But what we saw were beautiful cave formations like stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, boxwork, and helictites. Tours are given daily, on the hour, year-round, and are very reasonably priced. No special clothing is needed in the Cave, which like I said earlier, is always about 70 degrees and dry. This cave also allows you to take pictures inside.
Colossal Cave has never been fully explored. Although there is an estimated 39 miles of cave tunnels, it took over two years to map just two miles of passageway where tours penetrate six stories deep into the cave. When you decide on taking a tour, you can choose from ongoing daily generic tours or you can arrange more adventurous tours through darkened more narrow passages requiring hardhats and good physical fitness. There are even candlelight tours where each visitor is given a lighted candle to experience the cave as the Hohokam did over a thousand years ago without electric-powered lights. We of course took the generic tour.
This was a good way to spend the day. While we took the tour the other members of our group wandered the grounds and hiked the trails through the Sonoran Deseret. There were descriptions of desert plant life, trees, cacti, and they were even able to pan for gemstones. There was plenty to do here besides the cave tour. There is also an outdoor cafe that serves snacks and beer and wine…how bad can this place be. This was an interesting cave and I would recommend going, but once you’ve seen it, you probably don’t need to go back, unless you want to go at at different time of year when the bats are present…now that could be interesting. That being said, the Colosal Caves gets a C rating and it is worth going to see.