Staying Warm (or Cool) at Colossal Cave Mountain Park

Colossal Cave Mountain Park features an extensive cave system. | Noah Austin

On the way back from a recent Arizona Highways assignment in Southeastern Arizona, my wife and I were looking for something to do in the Tucson area. Having visited Kartchner Caverns State Park last year, we decided to check out another well-known cavern in the area: Colossal Cave Mountain Park, located east of Tucson.

On an hourlong tour past the cave's stalactites, stalagmites and other unique formations, we learned while Colossal Cave is similar to Kartchner Caverns in many ways, there also are important differences between the two caverns. For one, water continues to flow into Kartchner Caverns, meaning that cave's rock formations continue to grow. Colossal Cave no longer has water flowing, although it's not technically a "dead" cave — a bit of monsoon runoff trickled into the cave this summer, the first time that's happened in 12 years, our guide said.

The other big difference is the caves' human histories. No one had ventured into Kartchner Caverns before its discovery in the 1970s, and its designation as a state park has kept it in pristine condition. In contrast, Colossal Cave was used for storage by the Hohokam people about a century ago, and after white men discovered it in the late 1800s, it became a hideout for bandits and a target for treasure hunters. Many of its rock formations were broken off to be sold as curiosities.

But Colossal Cave is still a spectacular place to visit, starting with the above-ground facilities constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. CCC crews also built the walkways inside the cavern, where the temperature stays in the low 70s year-round. The basic tour, on which we were joined by three others on a rainy Sunday morning, follows a half-mile loop and includes information about the cave's history, geology and legends. More extensive tours that utilize CCC ladders and rock-climbing techniques also are available.

Our tour guide addressed one popular legend: that bandits hid a stash of gold somewhere in Colossal Cave. If they did, he said, it's never been found, and park personnel have extensively explored the cave. Even without a stash of gold, though, Colossal Cave is a treasure worth seeing.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park is located at 16721 E. Old Spanish Trail in Vail. For more information, call 520-647-7275 or visit www.colossalcave.com.

— Noah Austin, Associate Editor

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