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The long and storied history of Colossal Cave makes it Absolutely Arizona

3.5 miles of history inside Colossal Cave
Posted at 2:44 PM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 18:14:33-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — "It's about 3.5 miles of cave system here. We take the tours about a half mile of that," said Antonio Moreno.

He knows Colossal Cave well. Moreno leads visitors through the cave system as a Cave Lead.

Located in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains, at the end of Old Spanish Trail, as many as 50,000 people visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park each year.

Colossal Cave enterance.jpg

Formed a couple hundred million years ago, the cave system was used by native tribes about a thousand years ago. There's still evidence of a fire pit and smoke residue near the cave entrance.

Fast forward to the 1870s. According to Tucson historian David Leighton, the area became known as Mountain Springs Ranch which had a stagecoach stop and a hotel.

"Around 1879, a guy name Solomon Lick took over the Mountain Springs Ranch," Leighton said. "On one of his tours around his property he discovered an opening that he thought was a mine, which turned out to be what we now call Colossal Cave."

At the time, Solomon Lick's discovery was known as "The Mountain Spring Cave." Eight years later, in 1887, the cave played a major role in what became know as the "Legend of the Lost Loot."

According to Leighton's research, three men robbed the same Southern Pacific train twice in a four month period. They escaped with thousand of dollars in currency, gold and silver. The sheriff and his posse tracked the bandits to the cave. After a shootout, just one of the train robbers survived. As the legend goes, he served almost two decades in prison in Yuma and never confessed to where the treasure was.

What happened to the stolen loot is unclear. People are still on the look out for it to this day.

In 1905, the cave was actually mined for its bat guano, used as fertilizer. By 1917, it earned it's larger than life name. A Boy Scout named Lynn Hodgson was asked by a potential developer to explore the cave.

"After exploring the cave for quite awhile he came out and when asked about it he said 'the cave was colossal,'" Leighton explained. "From that statement it's believed the name Colossal Cave came from."

Another theory, Leighton told KGUN 9, is that one-time UArizona President Byron Cummings gave it its name. Regardless of the origin, once inside, you'll quickly understand why it's called Colossal Cave and why it's a welcome relief from the heat.

"The temperature stays about 71 degrees in our cave," Cave Lead Antonio Moreno said. "With the humidity usually about 60%. Because of all the monsoon we were getting this year it's pushing about 83% right now."

While nearby Kartchner Caverns is known as a wet, living cave— Colossal Cave is a dry or dead cave. Moreno said the near-record monsoon has awakened the cave just a little bit.

You'll find many of the same types of formations in Colossal Cave and Kartchner Caverns like the drapery room.

Colossal Cave curtain room.jpg

"Call it that because of the beautiful formation behind me over here. It looks like drapes or curtains," Moreno said.

A big part of the Colossal Cave tour is education. Moreno hopes with knowledge will come conservation of the cave.

"Like to keep this part of Tucson, a big part of Tucson, for as long as we can keep it and try to make sure no damage happens here," he said. "Of course, there's always going to be a very tiny bit, but to make sure it lasts forever."

The great depression of the early 1930s actually helped create Colossal Cave. The Civilian Conservation Corps. was created to provide jobs to the unemployed. The CCC built the park roads along with walkways in the cave.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.