US Parks are a fantastic way to spend a vacation. Colossal Cave Mountain Park in Vail, Arizona is one of those special experiences that’s off the beaten track, but well worth the trip. You wouldn’t know about it unless you lived near Tucson or happened to run across a blog written by someone enchanted with it.
Colossal Cave is one of the largest dry caves in North America. Dry means that it’s dormant. The dripping water that created the amazing stalactites and stalagmites has dried up, so it’s a what you see is what you get experience, as no more formations will develop. The formations aren’t in pristine condition because the cave was used for hundreds of years by Indian tribes and then it was “rediscovered” in 1879. Folks came and went with little regard for the historical value of the cave. The most popular legend tells of train robbers who hid out in the cave with the loot from their heists… on two separate occasions. Only two miles of the nearly forty miles of natural tunnels have been explored. Visitors are surprised by how warm the cave is. It's a consistent 71 degrees where most caves have the temperatures in the 50s.
The classic tour covers half a mile of easily accessible trails and takes out 45 minutes to walk about six stories (365 steps) down into the cave and back up. I took the Ladder Tour, a behind-the-scenes excursion to more distant parts of the cave. We wore helmets, headlamps, and gloves so that we would not leave the oil from our hands behind on the rock. Most of our journey involved climbing steel ladders embedded into the rock, crawling through narrow passages and crossing natural bridges. One of the ladders was a mere eight inches wide! We traverse a ledge that was only a foot wide with a rock face to our right and a drop-off of several stories to our left. I have to admit I traversed that one on my hands and knees. At the entrance to one tunnel just large enough to slither through, the guide instructed the six of us to turn off our headlamps and the darkness was complete - not a speck of light came from anywhere. We agreed to navigate the tunnel one by one by feel, inch by inch, and heartbeat by heartbeat. It was an exhilarating experience.
The formations throughout the cave are stunning and the placement of lighting accentuates the details of the formations.
The flowstone formations look like a wedding cake.
What an experience! Our vacation bucket list includes all the country’s national parks, and we’ve hardly made a dent!