Ms. Karen and I went on a unique adventure in mid-February 2022. We joined the Photo Tour at Karchner Caverns near Benson, AZ. We had to be there at 4 PM to start the two-hour tour that began at 4:30. I thought two hours in a cave without a bathroom break would be a trial, but the time went surprisingly fast. Once inside the caverns, the 15 or so people on this tour were all busy photographing the unusual formations.
The Photo Tour is exceptional. Normally, the State Park Service doesn’t allow photography on its tours. But once a month, they do. On the third Saturday of each month. We reserved our date 3 months in advance.
Our Photo Tour was conducted in the Big Room, which is open from October to April due to the arrival of the roosting bats. On the other months, they utilize the Rotunda/Throne Room for tours. Photo Tours start at 4:30 p.m. and end at 7:30 p.m. Note: This tour is not available for anyone under 18 years of age.
To register, call 877-MY-PARKS and select opt. 2. Registration for this tour is $125 per person. Normal tours are only $23 per person.
Our guides, State Park Ranger Joe and Valerie, were most helpful, assisting me on the tram with my electric scooter. Joe was also an excellent guide, able to speak knowledgeably about the cave and its inhabitants … the bats. Although he admitted that in his 8 years at Karchner Caverns, he had only seen 3 bats the whole time. Of course, the Big Room is closed during bat season.
Toward the end of our Photo Tour, Ranger Joe told our group the story of Ken, the lead project manager who developed the caverns for public tours. Ken admitted that originally he did not think it possible to make the walkways wheelchair accessible. His engineers said, “Oh, we can do that.” Ken said no, but was persuaded by the engineers to let them try. They succeeded wonderfully, which allowed me and my scooter to access this tour with no problem.
At one point, I asked Joe “How old are the caverns? He told me that they are about 500,000 years old. And then went on to explain that this whole area was once covered by a shallow inland sea. When its sea creatures died and fell to the seafloor, their skeletons and shells dissolved into limestone, from which the caverns were formed by dripping and flowing water.
Joe also warned our group not to touch any of the formations inside the caverns. Doing so would destroy them.
Most of these photographs were taken with a process called High Dynamic Range (HDR). That’s when I made three bracketed exposures of the same image: underexposed, normal exposure, overexposed. Then I used a special software app called Photomatix to combine the three into the final image. The result is a blend of lights and darks so there are no extremes.
The remaining two photographs were taken by Ms. Karen’s iPhone. I think they came out pretty well. Many of the folks on this tour were amateurs, like Ms. Karen who were mostly there to get a mostly private tour and be able to take photos while on tour. This is a lucrative tour for the State Park.
Before our tour began, Joe warned us about our auto-focus not working in the dim light of the caverns. So I manually focused the first many shots, then switched back to auto-focus. It worked fine, to my surprise and delight.