April 21, 2013

Camping at Kartchner Caverns

It has been a delightfully strange spring this year in Arizona.  To this northern transplant, it actually felt like spring.  You see, what most Arizonans call "spring", everyone else north of the Mason Dixon line calls "summer."  That is because Arizona summers involve what I have called "pizza-oven" hot temperatures.  If anyone wants to get a good idea of what "hotter than hell" feels like, come to Arizona in July or August.  Usually, by this time, we are considering turning on the air conditioner because temperatures have already crept into the mid-90's (which is not considered hot by the natives).  However, the nights have been delightfully cool in the 50's and we have only just hit 90 in the past two days.  I have loved it.

While the temperatures were still what natives would call cold, we started planning a few long-weekend camping trips around the state over the next few months.  We have several locations already chosen and last weekend, embarked on our first one:  Kartchner Caverns, which was a clear winner among all the destinations for the kids.   It is located about thirty minutes south of Tucson, about 2 1/2 hours from the Phoenix metro area.  This is still part of the "low country", so visiting it in the summer is not recommended.  We chose last weekend because it was the only weekend at the time of planning that didn't involve a baseball game until sometime in May.

Kartchner Caverns was discovered in 1974 and is a nesting place for bats.  It became an operating state park in 1999 after two years of construction to preserve as much of the cave as possible.  Kartchner Caverns is unique in two regards.  Most people think of caves as being below ground.  This one is part of a hill, which means that it is about ground level to the campsite.  I am not sure, but I think that is the reason that this cave, unlike the most preconceived notions people have of caves, is rather warm.  It is also a very wet cave, with high humidity in spite of its desert surroundings.  So basically, touring the cave is like going outside in St. Louis in May.

The whole area is covered with mountain ranges and Kartchner Caverns is in a series of hills in the valley between the Santa Rita, Huachuca (pronounced wa-CHOO-kah), Whetstone, Mule, Dragoon and Rincon Mountain ranges.

We arrived Friday late afternoon on a cloudy day that in any other area, would have produced actual rain and not virga.  The kids started playing games while hubby and I set up the tent.  The campsite was surrounded by mesquite trees and we accidentally set up the entrance quite close to a tree, requiring us to duck as we walked toward the table.  Several of us forgot once or twice during the weekend and either had branches grab our hair or whack us in the head.  The campsite itself was very nice with electricity and water at every EVERY campsite.  The water spigot alone was worth the slightly higher campsite cost.  It also had free showers (not as common in Arizona) and the bathroom was pretty nice.  The only downside is that we couldn't light a wood fire, which has been the case wherever we have camped in Arizona.  That night, I tried a variation on s'mores that I found on Pinterest that we called the "smorito" because it involved flour tortillas, nutella and marshmallows.  We were located between the Foothills trail and the trail to the Discovery Center, where you start your cave tour.

We spent Saturday morning hiking the Foothills trail and the afternoon touring the cave.  Kartchner Caverns also has a state junior ranger program for the kids, which everyone except for John participated.   The cave was breathtaking, with all sorts of stalagmites, stalactites, "bacon" and other interesting limestone formations.   We took the Rotunda/Throne room tour.  The tour guide was pretty well informed and obviously loved the cavern.  Almost as impressive was a huge mud pit that had some ancient bat guano in one area of it.  The mud "lake" is more than 20 feet deep, though most people only sink knee deep.  The tracks of the original explorers are preserved like a set of really deep cross country ski tracks.  Rangers and scientists who are studying the cave use those original tracks both to preserve the eco-system and because no one wants to slog through knee deep mud to make a new one.  Even though it is very pricey, the cave tour is totally worth it.

The wind REALLY picked up that night, bending the tent in every direction and causing the rain fly to flap loudly most of the night.  The sunshade, which in Arizona can actually be used as a  sunshade and not a table-sized umbrella, was twisting alarmingly in the wind.  Sometime around ten p.m., Eric took out the poles, collapsed the six folding chairs and put them on top of it to keep it and them from blowing away.  Later that night, he found the wind had blown some of the chairs off and was turning the sunshade into a sail.  He pulled up the stakes and brought it into the safety of our vestibule where it stayed put until morning.  Sunday morning, we had an easy, no-cook breakfast, broke camp and headed for Tombstone before returning home.  Tombstone is another story.

All the pictures were taken by my wonderful hubby, who is much more talented in photography than I am.  We have no pictures of the cave because Kartchner Caverns does not allow ANYTHING to be brought into the cave.  If you want to see what it looks like inside, check out this video, which does have some lovely video footage of "bacon" formation--linear, marbled formations that actually look like bacon before it is cooked.  It also does a good job of giving the back story and features one of the discoverers.
Playing games before our hike.  This was a guessing game where one person had to guess a literary figure in  a book they had both read.

One of the hills near our campsite.  The Foothill trail did not lead to this peak.  It was part of the Coconino National Forest (they use the term "forest" loosely around here).

I love the craftsmanship of the sign,

We are resting in the middle of an ocotillo "forest"

Adding a rock to a pile at the highest point of the trail.  The valley is spread out below us.  We are all wearing camelback water systems.

You might see a hill in the lower left.  I believe that it is the hill  where Kartchner Caverns is located.

No gallery of photographs would be complete without the kids making silly faces.

A lovely lizard.  The tail looks like it has scales, but that is just the way it is colored.  It was one of three different kinds that we saw.  This one is the prettiest.

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