Journey inside Colossal Cave – Arizona’s dormant cave

Before entering Colossal Cave it was essential to educate ourselves and obtain some “cave basics”.  The facts and information we learned about limestone caves made our trip profoundly interesting!

Colossal Cave is an archaic KARST CAVE (meaning erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, caverns and underground streams).

Colossal Cave is a Karst cave
Karst region

Karst caves have 3 categories:  limestone, gypsum and quartzite.

Colossal Cave is limestone and considered dormant, “dry”.  A dry cave is without drips of water, streams or pools.  How was the cave formed?  Here is a short, simple answer:

  • Precipitation mixes with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and decaying organic material in the soil.
  • When Carbon dioxide is dissolved in water it forms carbonic acid. The carbonic acid begins to form holes in rocks, seeps into crevices and dissolves the rocks, especially limestone; but very slowly.  (Thousands of years)
    rock crevices and joints.
  • Cavities form and further sculpting can occur from water and chemical weathering.
  • After passing through limestone, the acid water contains a dis-solvable calcium carbonate.  As this solution de-gases through exposure to air by way of splashing, dripping or flowing, it loses carbon dioxide and deposits a solid mineral called calcite.
  • Calcite is the main mineral component in CAVE FORMATIONS, (speleothems).
Calcite, which gets its name from “chalix” the Greek word for lime, is a most amazing and yet, most common mineral. – See more at: http://www.galleries.com/Calcite#sthash.7JQ91AJ6.dpuf

The SPELEOTHEMS in Colossal Cave no longer grow. This cave formed by water depositing limestone that has NOW disappeared.  Close by, in the same mountain park, are Arkenstone and La Tetera Caves with active growing formations.

dormant speleothems in Colossal Cave
crystallized calcium carbonate formations

The most abundant mineral in limestone is calcite (calcium carbonate).  The majority of limestone formed on ANCIENT ocean floors.

Calcite is a main component used by echinoderms, like sea urchins, starfish, and sand dollars to make their spines and skeletons.  Calcium carbonate (calcite),  is found in the shells of marine organisms and truly is one of the MOST abundant minerals on earth!

In the marine environment, if the conditions are right, calcite is stable enough that it can cement together sediments and overtime make limestone.

calcite in the ocean water
limestone towers in the Atlantic ocean

On occasion another element may be present while calcite is being formed (ex: magnesium) and take the place of a calcium atom.

A less stable aragonite is a polymorph of calcite. They are both calcium carbonate but have different crystal shapes and symmetries.  The calcium, oxygen and carbon atoms in aragonite bond together differently creating a unique crystal structure.

Ok this is plenty of background information so now journey with us to Colossal Cave Mountain Park!

what to do in Tucson
The retaining wall and Visitor’s Center at Colossal Cave

The elevation of Colossal Cave Mountain Park is about 3,500 feet.  The temperature of the cave averages 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  No extra clothing is needed but feel free to carry water or a camera.

Colossal Cave in Vail, Arizona
walkway outside of Colossal Cave entrance

Frank Schmidt was monumental in the improvements and preservation of Colossal Cave by handing over his leases to the State of Arizona.  You can find information and historical photographs at La Posta Quemada Ranch Museum.

preserved Colossal Cave
Frank Schmidt statue at the cave

 

good picnics and kids activities at this Tucson park
bring the family and spend the day at this Arizona park

In 1879, Solomon Lick, the owner of the nearby hotel, was searching for stray cattle and discovered the entrance to this cave.

Arizona historical sites to see
professional guides take you through this historical landmark

Thousands of years ago Colossal Cave was used by Hohokam, Sobaipure and Apache Indians.  Travel down the road to the ranch museum for a fascinating display.

must see historical sites in Tucson, AZ
Colossal Cave has 363 steps

Most crystals are found in areas, like caves, because they take thousands of years to grow.  The growth continues until the saturation is stopped or the cave dries out.  Most crystals in a cave are calcite or aragonite.

visotors must see in Tucson, Arizona
calcite in the cave

Your tour guide will tell the story of the bandits who hid out in Colossal Cave.  These outlaws even played cards in the Colossal Cave Living Room. Legend has it that the gold from the train robbers is still inside the cave!

Stay with the tour group.  Our guide really wasn’t kidding when she said the group might go left and you’ll go right and be lost for hours in Colossal Cave.

Tectonic activity is noticeable.  Your guide will point out a fault in the earth’s crust.

Colossal Cave spelunking
Fault lines inside the cave

Cave’s formations, speleothems, are created by the same water that dissolved the calcite in the limestone —- then deposited the calcite in other areas of the cave.

historical caves in Arizona
stalagmites and stalactites in Colossal Cave

Stalactites – “c” for ceiling – hang from the top of caves like icicles

stalagmites and stalactites
cave formations with labels

Stalagmites – “g” for ground – emerge from the ground like a traffic cone

Because Colossal Cave is DRY;  the appearance of these speleothems is different than living caves.

Layers of calcite build up into fluted curtains.
Layers of calcite build up into fluted curtains.
 cave
our wonderful tour guide at Colossal Cave
FDR's Conservation Corp
Civilian Conservation Corps designated by President Roosevelt

In the 1930’s, a Civilian Conservation Corps designated by President Roosevelt worked tirelessly building the retaining wall outside and improving the inside of Colossal Cave.

The CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, constructed the stairs, bridges and handrails.

Colossal Cave repairs and protection
Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, helping Colossal Cave

While visiting this cave do adventure down the road to La Posta Quemada Ranch.

what to do in Tucson, Arizona
visit the historical Ranch at Colossal Cave Park

Colossal Cave and the historic La Posta Quemada Ranch are listed on the National Historic Register.  When you visit be sure to enjoy a Desert Spoon Burger!

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Arkenstone Cave in AZ – Protected living cave at Colossal Park

Arkenstone Cave was discovered near the Rincon Mountains of Southeastern Arizona in the 1960’s.  This living cave is protected by the county and accessible only to a few scientists and researchers.

wet live cave in Arizona
Arkenstone Cave in Arizona

We have spent a great deal of time investigating information regarding Arkenstone and La Tetera Caves.  Our most important finding has been the fact that Pima County regards these living caves as treasure troves of precious, immeasurable scientific information.

Access is extremely limited; but a visit to Colossal Cave Mountain Park Museum can provide the curious with results of the past and latest research conducted inside Arkenstone Cave.

Here are some of the research highlights provided from the Museum Caving Rooms at Colossal Cave east of Tucson, AZ.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Arkenstone Cave is used for research

ARKENSTONE is an active KARST CAVE, which means the breaking down of limestone has produced fissures, sinkholes, caverns and underground streams.

Most caves are formed in limestone.  Simply put, it dissolves from precipitation mixing with carbon dioxide and the decaying organic material in the soil.  This dissolution process is extremely slow.  Thousands upon thousands of years!

Arkenstone karst caves
Karst diagram, Limestone Caves

Karst image courtesy of  www.geocaching.com

Arkenstone, La Tetera and Colossal Caves are located in Colossal Cave Mountain Park, Arizona.  Colossal Cave is dry and considered a dead cave.  La Tetera and Arkenstone are alive and adorned with calcium carbonate formations produced through slow precipitation.

SPELEOTHEMS in Arkenstone Cave
Arkenstone Cave Crystal formations

Mineral deposits in caves are called SPELEOTHEMS.

ARKENSTONE CAVE is called:

  • a WILD cave
  • a WET cave
  • a LIVE, “active” cave

What does this mean… A wild cave has no provisions for the general public and is dangerous without expert equipment and experience.  A wet cave has precipitation.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park Caves
Tower Coral, crystal formations on the floor of Arkenstone Cave

A live cave has life forms, insects, faunal, animal, species and unusual speleothems.

Pima County and Colossal Park employees have an overwhelming desire and responsibility to protect La Tetera and Arkenstone living Caves.

research caves protected in Pima County
species found in Arkenstone Cave, Colossal Mountain Park, AZ

Several new species have been found in Arkenstone that are endemic to Arkenstone, meaning they only exist in Arkenstone Cave.  A few researchers have special grants to work in these living Arizona Caves.

In recent years, 7 new species of fauna have been found.  The Arkenstone Cave exhibit at Colossal Mountain Park Museum gives detailed descriptions.

Arizona Wet Caves, Arkenstone
research at Arkenstone Cave

Animals that live in caves are often put in the category called TROGLOBITESTroglobitic species tend to be very unusual organisms.  For example, they may have loss of pigment or no eyes.  These characteristics would be adaptations to their subterranean life.

live caves in Arizona
Pseudoscorpion found in Arkenstone Cave

A previously unknown species of pseudoscorpion was discovered in Arkenstone.  The pseudoscorpion has since been listed as one of Pima County’s priority vulnerable species!

vampire bats in Arkenstone Cave
Bat Bones found in Arkenstone Cave

A small, late Quaternary, (about 2 million yrs ago), deposit of degraded bat guano (poop) in Arkenstone Cave yielded thousands of fossil bat bones.

Colossal Park living caves, La Tetera Arkenstone
Arkenstone Cave Exhibit and research

Rarer bones in the deposit represent a smaller species of bat (Myotis) and the extinct vampire bat Desmodus stocki.

This is the first record of D. stocki in what is now the Sonoran Desert and the second location for the vampire bat species in Arizona.

Rincon Mountains Arkenstone Living Cave
Extinct Vampire Bat found in Arkenstone Cave

Due to leaching in the alkaline cave environment, the bones could not be dated by radiocarbon, but the fossils probably date to the late Pleistocene Age  —  (Late Pleistocene Bats from Arkenstone Cave, Arizona by Nicholas Czaplewski and William Peachey, December 2003)

The Late Pleistocene age was dominated by glaciation  Many larger land animals, MEGAFAUNA, became extinct over this ICE AGE.  Experts estimated that 30% of the Earth’s surface was covered by ice.  Pleistocene vampire bats most likely were capable of surviving in cooler temperatures than the modern bats of today.

The extinction of Desmodus stocki paralleled the extinction of the megafauna.

Pleistoncene Ice Coverage on Earth
Photo of Earth during the Ice Age, The Pleistocene

Research indicates that Arkenstone Cave was the site of a maternity colony of Myotis thysanodes.  Myotis thysandoes is a larger species of bat, mammal.  These bats begin nursing colonies, female nurse bats remain at the roost while other adults are out foraging.

Arkenstone, La Tetera Cave Arizona
extinct vampire bat, Desmodus stocki

Virtually all of the bones collected were of that species.  Remains of Desmodus are consistent with a single individual, and those of a small Myotis (bat) consistent with two individuals (Czaplewski and Peachey 2003).

altruistic example, bats
Arkenstone Cave discovery of extinct vampire bats

Desmodus stocki was 20% larger than the still extant common vampire bat.   Lets put aside the scary name, VAMPIRE, and let me share some benevolent behavior of Vampire Bats that may gain your admiration for the Pleistocene bat, Desmodus Stocki.

Vampire Bats are one of the few animal species that show caring behavior for those beyond their family group.  They even adopt orphaned bats and will share their food.  Look at the photo above for more altruistic vampire ways.  🙂

vampire bats, Arkenstone Cave
common vampire bat skull, teeth

Scientists state that fossil records of Desmodus stocki are uncommon because these bats mainly roosted in hollow trees and any remains would decay along with the wood.

Arkenstone Cave Arizona
new species found in Arkenstone and Kartchner Caves

photo above is courtesy of  Journal of Cave and Karst Studies

A new species of Nicoletiidae (Insecta: Zygentoma) has been discovered in Arkenstone and Kartchner Caves.  This species pictured above lives in deeper areas of Arkenstone Cave than it does in Kartchner.
The 2 caves are approximately 23 miles apart and in isolated Karst areas with no possible connection to each other.
Rincon Mountains Caves Arizona
Caves at Colossal Cave Mountain Park
You would think that these would be different species?  But so far the research shows they are the same.  How amazing is that?
caves at Colossal Mountain Park in Vail AZ
Arkenstone Cave
Cave species are very fragile and some live in a specific cave and no where else in the world.   These TROGLOBITES are accustomed to a near constant temperature and humidity.  Even the slightest disturbance can disrupt the life cycles of these amazing species.
Arizona active wild caves, Arkenstone
Crystal formations in Arkenstone Cave
As updated research becomes available we will add new articles.
fringed myotis is found across the western United States.
The fringed myotis is found across the western United States. It has been found as far east as the Trans-Pecos region of Texas during summer months, as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Mexico.
The fringed myotis is found across the western United States. It has been found as far east as the Trans-Pecos region of Texas during summer months, as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Mexico.