Exploring Colossal Cave in Vail, Arizona

On our excursion to Southern Arizona wine country earlier this year, we did a little sight seeing outside of the wineries. In other words, we wanted to give our livers a break and get a little exercise. We had talked about visiting one of the caves in the area, and since we had been to Kartchner Caverns before, we decided to check out Colossal Cave Mountain Park.

Collosal Cave Mountain Park is on the National Register of Historic Places
Collosal Cave Mountain Park is on the National Register of Historic Places

The park offers several different options for cave tours. They have a regular tour which takes you on a 45 – 50 minute tour of the cave with information about the rock formations and cave history. There is a ladder tour which is about 1.5 hours that takes you a little deeper into the cave. And they have wild cave tours for intermediate and advanced spelunkers that take you even farther into the depths of the cavern on 3-4 hour tours that traverse narrow passages and let you get a feel for the total darkness of a cave.

Waiting at the entrance to Collosal Cave for our ladder tour
Waiting at the entrance to Collosal Cave for our ladder tour

In case you haven’t noticed, we just aren’t the regular tour kind of people. We wanted to do the wild cave tour, but the video on their website shows some extremely skinny people squeezing through some tiny little passages. And I just wasn’t feeling like getting stuck in a cave. Also, we had the pups with us, and we didn’t want to leave them alone in the trailer for that long. Plus, you need to book those tours well in advance because of the advanced nature of the tour and the amount of time they need to plan for the guide staff. We didn’t think that far ahead. So, we decided to do the ladder tour.

Narrow ladders amongst stallagmites and stallagtites in Collosal Cave
Narrow ladders amongst stallagmites and stallagtites in Collosal Cave. This one was only about 6 inches wide.

According to their website, the ladder tour requires reservations and needs to be booked a couple days in advance. Luckily, after calling the facility, they were able to get us in for a tour that same day. It was just $30 per person, and they provided helmets and headlamps for us. You need to wear gloves for the tour, and we happened to have our own that we were able to bring with us. If you don’t have your own gloves, they do have some available for purchase at their gift shop.

Helmets & headlamps are a must when you are spelunking
Helmets & headlamps are a must when you are spelunking

We showed up about 15 minutes early for our tour and were eager to get started. I guess we totally lucked out because it was just the two of us on the tour with our tour guide Savannah. Savannah said she had only working there for about a month, but they must have given her some great training. She seemed very knowledgeable about the rock formations, the crystals, and the history of the cave. The best part, she didn’t get us lost in there.

Our tour guide Savannah leading us up a series of narrow ladders in the cave
Our tour guide Savannah leading us up a series of narrow ladders in the cave

Colossal Cave is a dry cave, which means that there is not water flowing in the cave and the formations are not actively growing. The cave was originally discovered in 1879 by local owner of the Mountain Springs Hotel, Solomon Lick. Apparently he was out searching for stray cattle when he came across the entrance. Providing shelter for several species of bats, the cave served as a major source of guano prior to becoming a tourist attraction.

Waterfall formation shows signs of damage and vandalism as pieces have been broken off
Waterfall formation shows signs of damage and vandalism as pieces have been broken off
Bacon anyone? This formation hangs from the ceiling of the cave and is called bacon because its wavy shape and color striations
Bacon anyone? This formation hangs from the ceiling of the cave and is called bacon because its wavy shape and color striations

Over the years the cave has been part of many legends including bandits, train robbers and hidden treasure. As as result, it has suffered from vandalism and destruction. Today the park management works to mitigate any further damage and educate the public about the cave system and its history.

Old spelunking equipment on display in the cave to show what the caves original explorers used
Old spelunking equipment on display in the cave to show what the caves original explorers used

The park encompasses 2,400 acres and is not only home to this beautiful cave, but also two others that are closed to the public and being used for research. Visitors can also enjoy camping, picnicing and trail rides.

This is cave ice, thin layers of rock that form. You have to be careful because it is very fragile and can have a huge drop below if it breaks
This is cave ice, thin layers of rock that form. You have to be careful because it is very fragile and can have a huge drop below if it breaks.

They offer special events as well including birding walks, an annual 5K run, and haunted Halloween cave tours.

Getting there:

From Interstate 10 exit 279 (the Vail/Wentworth exit), turn North and follow the signs for about 7 miles to the Park entrance.

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