I’d known about Colossal Cave for many years. I read the signs along Interstate 10 but never stopped. After visiting the land of Cochise last month, we have some time to kill on our way home to Phoenix. So about 25 miles southeast of downtown Tucson, I veer off at Exit 279, and head north toward the Rincon Mountains. And Colossal Cave.
It is still beautiful desert land out here once you survive the 7-mile drive to Colossal Mountain Park’s entrance. That means whizzing by the town of Vail and the mammoth development, Rancho de Lago, where tract houses of browns and greys blanket once-verdant hills. Getting through that drab mess makes Colossal seem a wonderland.
After following a weathered asphalt road to a hilltop, Nebra and I park and walk down to the gift shop and pay for a 45-minute tour with Group 12. Tickets cost $13 for adults. In 2005, I read, the price was $8.50. Now, coupled with the $5 car fee for just entering the park, we cough up a hefty $31 for the two of us.
It is late afternoon. The park closes at 5, and I count about 20 in the group. We are among the last tours of the day. I forget the name of the guide but he is tall and rail-thin and I measure his age at somewhere between 15 and 25. He guides us down steps of rock and cement, stopping perhaps a dozen times to provide cave information and humor as dry as the cave. Not a lick of water.
Colossal is said to be one of the largest dry-caves in the U.S. and is in stark contrast to its more heralded cousin, wet Kartchner Caverns, 40 miles or so to the southeast. Of all the caves in the world, I read, only about 3% are dry.
I get it. Dry means dormant. No growth for the abundant stalagmites and stalactites, those eerie formations that hang from a cave’s ceilings and sprout from its floor. Mostly they are yellows and browns, or so it seems in the artificial torchlight. Dry but not dead. Just waiting for the climate change that may be millions of years away. We are told not to touch the rock or else we will help kill it. No bats down here either. Trudging along, a picture soon emerges. See one dry cave and you’ve seen them all.
To make Colossal seem more alluring, someone has attached exotic names to some of the cave’s most prominent features. Grotto of the Lost Treasure, Kingdom of the Elves and Crystal Forest to name a few.
As caves go, Colossal is nowhere near colossal. In length, it ranks 396th of 1,043 U.S. caves (www.caverbob.com) and third in Arizona behind Falls Cave and Kartchner. About 85% of all this nation’s caves are under 5 miles, and Colossal at 2.5 miles is in the middle of that lower percentile. Nothing compared of course to the largest, the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky, at 390 miles. Not to say Colossal is without a certain historical appeal.
Although the ancient Hohokam civilization is said to have used the cave, it was nothing of course until the white man came along. In the 1870s, the cave was “discovered” by a nearby rancher named Lick. He supposedly ran across the cave while chasing strays from his herd of cattle. Another story says that in 1888, four train robbers roosted here with their loot. A display case about halfway along the tour reveals items the robbers might have carried and worn in the cave.
At last the tour is over. We ascend the numerous steps, glad to see daylight again. For me, the experience was a lot like my few years in the military. Glad that I did it, wouldn’t want to do it again.