Location: Outside Tucson, AZ
We have been volunteering at Kartchner Caverns for just short of 2 months now. We thought it was time to visit the "other" cave in the area, Colossal Cave. So off we go, full of hope and expectation. We knew it was not a "living cave" like Kartchner, where water still dripped in and formations still grew. And we knew that damage had occurred over the years -- but we never expected anything like what we got.
The cave has been visited by people just about as long as people have been in this area. It was first opened to tourists in 1923, but hoards also went through it when it was privately owned. No one then seemed to care much about preservation, so visitors routinely snapped off formations for souvenirs. Still, we naively thought some interesting things would remain. How bad could it be? People pay money every day to go through it, don't they?
The steps on the trail were the first horror. They were uneven, worn and frankly frightening. Often the width of the trail was so narrow that only those on the anorexic side of the BMI would feel comfortable. There was a handrail - sometimes -- but when there wasn't, you had to either risk broken bones from a fall or steady yourself on the formations -- a strict "no-no" at Kartchner Caverns (they have very nice trails with sturdy rails), but a lenient "try not to" at Colossal. We decided our intact bones were an asset, and the rocks (I hesitate to call them formations) along the trail couldn't possibly be hurt any more after decades of abuse. So we touched where we had to and didn't feel at all bad about it.
More horrors met us at each turn. There were almost no intact formations, and everything was a dull, dusty, dry grayish brown color. The photo to the left is typical of some of the better areas, along with some flowstone formations that were too big to end their "life" as a knickknack in a curio cabinet. There were no good areas. The lighting was poorly done, and consisted primarily of dim lights on the trail and a few off-trail lights illuminating nondescript rocks.
John and I will often do 3 tours a day through Kartchner Caverns, and we never get tired of it. The colors are vibrant, the formations gleam with water, and the only visible formation damage is Mother Nature's own -- and she has done very little. We explain to our visitors why touching is not allowed -- how oil from our hands can prevent water from ever again leaving its calcite and making formations in that spot. We explain how the things we leave behind, such as hair and lint, damage the cave by becoming a medium for mold and fungal growth. We tell them how to keep from harming the cave. They listen, they understand, and they help us by following the rules. They too become stewards of the cave.