Arizona Vacation

How Kartchner Cave Was Formed

By AZ Leisure Staff Writers

330 million years ago, the land over Kartchner Caverns was sub aquatic, the sandy bottom of a shallow inland sea. Layers of sediment hardened to limestone and when the earth pressed skyward, the Whetstone Mountains took shape. Later, acidic precipitation seeping through tiny cracks and fissures dissolved holes and gaps in the subterranean limestone. When the groundwater receded, air-filled spaces remained, and one of these caverns, Kartchner Caverns, was large enough to foster the development of extensive calcite formations called speleothems.

For the last 200,000 years, rainwater has penetrated the ground, picking up carbon dioxide from dead organic material like decaying vegetation and becoming carbonic acid. Traveling through the bedrock, the carbonic acid dissolves the limestone and gathers tiny mineral payloads. Once gravity pulls the carbonic acid into the open cavern, the carbon dioxide is off-gassed, returning the liquid to water. This important physical shift forces the water to drop its mineral burden, delivering calcite deposits -- the travertine building blocks for nature's profound architecture.

There are three types of speleothems: a stalactite slowly stretches down where water drips off the ceiling; a buildup of calcite where the water hits the floor is a stalagmite and flowstone results from water running down walls and often takes on the crystalline appearance of an exquisitely petrified waterfall. Because water has the ability to move in such a wide variety of ways, creeping, trickling, pouring and pooling, there is tremendous diversity in how these structures look. A broad spectrum of colors can also appear depending on which mineral impurities are in the calcite. Pure calcite is white, iron creates red, sulphur produces yellow, copper makes green, and blacks or grays are caused by aluminum salts.

Each formation in Kartchner Caverns demonstrates its evolution with distinct features. The site hosts the tallest column in Arizona (58' tall), named Kubla Khan, as well as one of the longest soda straw formations in the world. At 21.16 feet, this thin, hollow stalactite beats the previous record of 20.47 feet, which was earned in an Australian cave. The Big Room presents the largest formation of brushite moonmilk and the first reported occurrence of " turnip " shields. Bacon draperies, shaped and striped like their edible counterparts and " bird's nest " needle quartz formations, reminiscent of intricate coral, are so aesthetically opposed that it remains difficult to fathom that they derive from the same matter. Other kinds of formations: shields, totems, helictites and rimstone dams add additional interest to this underground living museum. Blending art, science and history, a visit to Kartchner Caverns is guaranteed to be one of the most unique Arizona adventures.

Kartchner Caverns

Kartchner Overview
Animal Life in the Caverns
How Caverns Were Formed
Map Directions To Kartchner Caverns State Park

*Kartchner Caverns State Park is a Registered Trademark of AZ State Parks

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