RV Destination: Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns
We noticed RVillagers were talking about the beautiful Kartchner Caverns. So we asked Sue to do some research and tell our members how to get there, what to do, and why it’s such a special place.
No visit to southeastern Arizona would be complete without making a stop at Kartchner Caverns State Park. In 2017, the readers of USA Today voted it as the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state, acing out more popular destinations like the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley.
The Secret Caves
Kept secret until 1984, the Kartchner Caverns are a massive limestone cave, with 13,000 feet of passages and two rooms the size of football fields. In order to preserve this magnificent and pristine wonder below the earth, the Caverns became an Arizona State Park in 1999.
The Kartchner Caverns were discovered in 1974 by two young cave explorers, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts. Once they realized what they had found below the surface, they actually kept the discovery a secret because they were so concerned about other unprotected caves which had been seriously damaged by human misuse. Four years later they shared the news with the property owners, the Kartchner family. In 1988, they approached the Arizona State Parks department about acquiring and protecting their “secret cave”, but were so concerned about its preservation, they even insisted on blindfolding the Parks representative when they first took him to the cave.
Not only are the Caverns huge, they also accommodate many unusual formations, which are determined by whether the water drips, pools, flows, condenses or seeps. Kartchner Caverns is home to one of the world’s largest soda stalactites, (21 feet, 3 inches), the 58 foot tall column, Kubla Khan, the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk, and many other unusual formations. These are “live” caves, with stalactites emerging from the ceilings, and stalagmites growing from below. As such, it still takes tens of thousands of years for their delicate forms to take shape.
Location and Facilities
Located just 9 miles south of Benson, Arizona, the Caverns come complete with a 23,000 square foot Discovery Center which contains loads of exhibits, educational information, and a replica of some of the caverns down below. There are no self guided tours of the caverns; visitors must take guided tours. Two itineraries are offered, and each cover about ½ mile and take about an hour and a half, with about an hour spent underground. Most of the passages are fully handicapped accessible, with 40” paved pathways, although there are some steep areas which may require some help traversing in a wheelchair. Even although it may be hot outside, the Caverns themselves average 68 very humid degrees.
Introductory panels in the geology exhibits show how caves form, why the formations look as they do and locations of other caves. Other displays are specific to Kartchner Caverns, one of the most-studied public caves. It ranks in the top ten caves worldwide for its unique mineralogy. Though geology is the focus of many of the museum displays, exhibits also showcase cave and surface ecology, paleontology, archaeology, and history. The cave ecosystem is dependent upon a summer colony of cave myotis bats. Their guano nurtures a miniature world of amazing creatures. Original 86,000-year-old sloth bones and a 36,000-year-old Horse skull are now on display and there are also small bones from bear, extinct antelope, bobcat, ringtail cat, and rabbit. The Discovery Center also offers a 15-minute video featuring the discoverers telling the story of finding and protecting the cave.
Camping & HikingOutside, there’s a lot to do in the 550 acres of the Park itself. Camping, hiking trails, and covered picnic areas are located throughout the park, with many scenic views of the nearby Whetstone mountains. As the Caverns are somewhat isolated, visitors can take advantage of the two campgrounds located in the Park. Their 58 sites range from 35 to 60 feet in length and offer 30 amp electric and water hookups. The Park has also recently built four new two room cabins which can accommodate six people. Reservations are suggested for both camping and the cave tours. The Caverns close during certain times of the year for maintenance, so it’s wise to check ahead.
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