BENSON — On Saturday, hundreds of visitors explored a piece of living history at the 20th anniversary of Kartchner Caverns as a state park.

“This is a big day for us,” said Heidi Lauchstedt, a cave unit ranger. “It was in 1974 — 45 years ago — that Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen discovered the entrance to the caverns and kept their discovery a secret for 14 years. Today represents the culmination of exploration, conservation and partnerships between the discoverers, the Kartchner family and State Parks. The park has now been open for 20 years, so this is an exciting day.

“We have so many people returning today (Saturday) who haven’t been here in awhile. We have people who worked on the cave’s development and over 100 members of the Kartchner family are here for a reunion.”

The sons and daughters of James and Lois Kartchner held a Q&A panel for the public, where they shared stories about the cave’s discovery and development. They described what it was like to see the formations for the first time, the cave’s pitch black darkness, squeezing through narrow openings and crawling through tight passages.

“As I got into the caverns and was looking at the formations for the first time, it was an amazing thing to see. That was really awe-inspiring. But in the back of my mind, there was one little niggling thought. The only way out of here is to go back through that hole,” one of the Kartchner brothers said while describing his first visit through a then-undeveloped cave.

At the time Tufts and Tenen discovered the entrance to the caverns beneath the base of the Whetstone Mountains, James and Lois Kartchner were running cattle on the property. After exploring the dark, moist cave and discovering its spectacular formations, the two knew they had found something extraordinary. Wanting to protect the cave from vandalism, they kept their discovery a secret for 14 years, with the exception of the Kartchner family, who learned about the cave in 1978. The family was sworn to secrecy until a plan was in place for the cave’s development.

When Ken Travous became Arizona State Parks Executive Director in 1987, he took a proactive interest in the cave, its acquisition and development.

“I was executive director for 23 years, and was here from the cave’s purchase through its development,” Travous said while visiting Kartchner Caverns during Saturday’s celebration. “The discoverers came to me with information about the cave, and I then met with the Kartchners about purchasing the property. Because the cave was a secret, we had to produce legislation in secret to go through the State Parks acquisition,” Travous said.

“The Kartchners were wonderful to work with. The family is dedicated to education and public service. I met all of Lois and James Kartchner’s children through the development process.”

Describing Kartchner Caverns as “soul satisfying,” Travous said he returns to the park once a year to lift his spirits.

After meticulous exploration and painstaking development, the caverns were opened to the public in 1999 — 25 years after Tufts and Tenen discovered a sinkhole at the base of the Whetstones.

Nathan Rosen attended Saturday’s celebration with his family.

“We live in Tucson, and my parents love geology and caves, so they wanted to come here for this anniversary,” he said. “Kartchner Caverns has an amazing story and is one of the most well-preserved caves in the world. It’s considered one of the best examples of a living cave and a lot of care goes into keeping in pristine.”

Visitors were treated to displays and hands-on activities throughout the day.

Tomas Miscione and Robert Troup of the Huachuca Area Herpetological Association brought an educational exhibit of reptiles and amphibians and talked to the public about the importance of living in harmony with desert creatures.

“The bulk of snake bites happen when people try to catch or kill them,” Miscione said. “Leave them alone and learn to co-habitat with them.”

The Huachuca Astronomy Club set up telescopes for solar viewing, and then stayed on-site for stargazing until 9 p.m.

Youngsters used magnifying glasses at Tom Olson’s Geology for Kids booth and learned about different types of rock.

“I think it’s really great seeing all these people here today, enjoying the park and it’s history in our area,” said Dick Ferdon, a retired park ranger who stood guard over the cave’s entrance to keep intruders out during its early development. He also helped Tufts and Tenen map the cave’s passages.

“I slept in a travel trailer a few hundred feet from the sinkhole for 11 months,” said Ferdon, now 73. “Going into the cave at that stage of its development and working with Randy (Tufts) and Gary (Tenen) was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Ferdon was one of the special guests invited to the 20th anniversary celebration for a panel discussion of the cave’s development.

“I’m glad State Parks is keeping the cave’s history alive through events like this,” he said. “There are a lot of great stories tied to the cave’s discovery and development.”