When most of my friends decide to hit the Arizona highways, they usually say, “I’m going up north to Flagstaff,” or “I’m heading down south to Tucson.” A lot of us, no matter how long we’ve lived here, rarely venture to the east or the west of Interstate 17 or Interstate 10. 

As a former news reporter, my goal was to get to a destination as quick and as legally as possible. We were always running to some breaking news story in hopes of getting there before our competition. In contrast, Arizona Highways Television is about taking the pedal off the metal and enjoying the journey along the way.

For us, this means exploring a whole new world along the Arizona roads less traveled.

In the small town of Benson, about an hour southeast of Tucson, we found a place full of wonderful discoveries. Kartchner Caverns State Park on Highway 90 is a place where the lines to get in are longer than a Saturday night at the Birds Nest Phoenix Open. Seriously, it’s not that bad, but you do need to make reservations in advance to see this wonder in the desert.

Kartchner is a rare wet cave with more than 90 percent of its beautiful limestone decorations still living and thriving within the cave. It’s a huge underground world of stalactites and stalagmites, growing within a delicate ecosystem, that people can actually see and tour. As amazing as the site is, the story behind the discovery is even more extraordinary.

In 1974, two college roommates at the University of Arizona, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, were doing what they loved to do – explore and look for caves. They stumbled upon a sinkhole and headed on down. There was a breeze coming out of a crack and warm moist air that smelled like bats and these two inquisitive young men were hopeful that there was something spectacular behind the wall. They squeezed through the small crack and discovered what is now known as one of the country’s most precious natural wonders.

In 2004, Arizona Highways Television was honored to be one of a few camera crews to be permitted inside Kartchner Caverns. On that visit, I had the opportunity to interview one the men who made the astonishing discovery.

“After the initial shock and wonderment,” I asked Gary Tenen, “What was the first thing that came to your mind?”

“Protecting it was highest on our list,” he said. “We had seen so many caves in Arizona that had been vandalized with things like trash and spray paint and we saw this beautiful cave and we knew we couldn’t let it happen to this place.”

With that in mind, secrecy became an obsession. Except for a select group of people, the two friends kept the cave a secret for 14 years. During this time, there was an insurmountable amount of research taking place on how to preserve and protect the cave and exhaustive negotiations as to who would be the best steward of this invaluable cavern. Eventually the landowner, Rancher James Kartchner, sold the property to the State of Arizona and it opened to the public in 1999.

Years after my first visit, my daughter’s class took a field trip to Kartchner Caverns. Seeing the cave through a child’s eyes and the expressions of awe and wonder on their faces reminded me of a heartfelt comment Tenen made to me on the day we met.

“With this discovery, comes a responsibility to the human race. We need to protect this cave beyond our lifetime.”

— Robin Sewell is the host and executive producer of the Emmy Award winning Arizona Highways Television.