By JESSICA KONG
Arizona Sonora News
As fall weather rolls around, snowbirds start returning to Kartchner Caverns in Cochise County. At the same time, another type of critter, bats that inhabit the caverns during the spring and summer, migrate down south to cooler caves for winter season until they return next spring.
Scientists at the Arizona State Parks haven’t been able to determine specifically where the bats migrate to breed and hibernate in the southern parts of Tucson. However, bats from Kartchner have been found in the Huachucha Mountains, about 40 miles south of the caves.
Snowbirds, on the other hand, tend to arrive on their own annual migrations from the Midwest and other places in the U.S. where winters are daunting and the sunny desert climes appeal.
With over millions of years in natural mineral formations, Kartchner Caverns is one of the top ten caves in Arizona and is known for its tourism sites – the Rotunda/Throne Room Tour and the Big Room Tour.
Kartchner Caverns State Park is located west off of Highway 90 near the San Pedro River and south of Benson Highway.
The Big Room Tour opened up again on Saturday, Oct. 15, and will be available for visitors until mid-April. At that point, the bats will migrate back and reside in the caverns for about six months. The bats are essential to the ecosystem because of the guano that they leave behind, attracting new species inside. Many creatures that live in the caves consume the guano.
Zoe Taylor, one of the park rangers, said that about 400 to 1,000 female bats live in the caves and double in numbers when they give birth. This season, the rangers didn’t anticipate there being about 2,100 bats.
Kartchner Caverns was discovered by Tucson natives Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, in 1974 when they were poking around the southeastern sections along Benson Highway. For fourteen years, the discoverers kept the caves a secret from the public for fear of outsiders exploiting and mistreating the remarkable, vast interiors.
After much excavation inside, Tufts and Tenen knew that the caves had to be preserved for environmental, scientific, and educational purposes. The Kartchner family that owned the land eventually sold the landmark to Arizona State Parks. The Parks continues to maintain the integrity of the original ecosystem in the caves, which are now a model for environmental preservation.
The caverns maintain revenue primarily from tourists. The Arizona State Parks is self-sustaining and doesn’t receive general funds from the state government.
Glenn Schlottman, the public information officer and chief of marketing at Kartchner Caverns, said that Arizona State Parks has done a variety of marketing strategies to help the caverns stay afloat and thriving every year for not only locals, but also out of state travelers.
“Essentially, throughout Arizona, the spring is one of our highest, if not the highest visitation months for us — March being the pinnacle of that,” Schlottman said. “And the reason being is that the weather is amazing here. We get a lot of snowbirds or visitors from the North and they spend the winter here.”
In 2013-2014, an Arizona State Parks visitor study found 60 percent of in-state visitors at Kartchner Caverns and 40 percent out-of-state, including international travelers.
Julie Bonner, a Tucson local, said that her parents are from upstate New York and take part in the annual human migration.
“So my folks come out every year as snowbirds to Tucson, but I always like finding cool new things that they could check out even a few hours away, or little day trips and stuff,” Bonner said. “I think that they would probably like to check this out because it’d be unique.”
Valerie Kramer, a snowbird from Long Island, New York, said that she flew to Tucson to see the caves for the first time before visiting her sister in New Mexico.
“I’ve always been fascinated by caverns,” Kramer said. “I’ve seen some caves in the East Coast, but they have magnificent stuff out here.”
Both the Rotunda/Throne Tour and Big Room Tour are half a mile long, trips lasting less than two hours for tourists to marvel at pristine beauty from down under. Year round, the depth and the darkness keep the caves at 70 degrees and its dampness gives them 99 percent humidity.
“We work closely with Arizona’s office of tourism to promote the cave,” Schlottman said. “We work closely with Visit Tucson and the caves in Sierra Vista, Benson and Cochise County as a whole.”
The cities in Cochise County have partnered together in promotions for visitors.
“Not only are we promoting the caves to folks who are visiting from out of state in Canada and these other places, but we also promote heavily to our constituents in state and to the residents and trying to get Phoenicians and folks in Tucson and so forth to drive down and experience it,” Schlottman said.
Kevin Lightner, a resident of Bisbee, said he drove to Benson for a weekend trip with a friend who loves exploring caves. The first cave he’s ever explored was Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Kartchner Caverns is his second. Although he said he is not too knowledgeable about caves, he noticed how different his experiences were in Mammoth, compared with Kartchner.
“Mammoth cave was a lot larger. And here at Kartchner Caverns cave tour, I noticed that the upkeep and the care for the caves is a lot more modern and up to date with how they want to preserve caves,” Lightner said. “It’s a lot more interesting.”
Download high resolution images here.
Jessica Kong is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Arizona and she plans to pursue graduate school in business after college. Born and raised in Phoenix, she enjoys traveling, hiking, working out, binge watching movies and constantly wishing she had a dog (maybe one day).