Kartchner Caverns State Park is a natural cave-turned-state-landmark in Benson, Arizona. The caverns consist of 2.5 miles of passages full of Paleozoic speleothems, ancient stalactites and stalagmites, and wild animal life, all hidden beyond what was once a small sinkhole in the Whetstone Mountains.
The caves were discovered in 1974 by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, who were combing the area for caverns in need of care. When they followed a sinkhole and found signs of bat guano and the hot air indicating large caves, they found miles of passages full of ancient rock formations. Tufts, a geologist and NASA scientist, was passionate about preserving caves that had suffered damage from humans, such as graffiti, trash, and the theft of rock formations.
From Undiscovered Caverns to a State Park
The Kartchner family, who owned the land, agreed to work with Tufts and Tenen, who suggested speaking with the state park system. The family sold the land to the Arizona state park system in 1988. The state government spent 11 years and $28 million designing a complex system of pressurized protection systems and other machinery that would protect the sensitive ecosystem of the caverns before the state park opened in 1999.
Today, the park draws thousands of tourists each year to learn about the animal life, history, fossil formations, and science of the system of caverns.
Tours, Hiking, and a Couple Thousand Bats
Tours are regularly offered at Kartchner Caverns, allowing tourists a glimpse into the 50,000-year-old limestone walls and delicate stalactites and stalagmites. Several of the cave rooms include some of the largest known soda straw stalactites and brushite moon milk, ancient rock formations that are carefully preserved by state scientists.
If you’re looking for other things to do in Arizona, the surrounding area also has many hiking trails. These trails offer scenic views of the beautiful Arizona wilderness, including at least four mountain ranges, limestone rock formations, and the San Pedro River Valley. The local vegetation includes hallmarks of the Southwest, such as the hummingbird-filled ocotillo blossoms, prickly pear, yucca, and more. The area also offers access to the Hummingbird Garden Walk, which features the sights and smells of beautiful desert flowers, such as bird of paradise, honeysuckle, and agave.
In addition to the 2,000 vesper bats that roost in the caverns, there’s plenty of wildlife to be seen on hiking trails. The area is home to many species of butterflies, as well as hummingbirds, lizards, tortoises, javelinas, and even Gila monsters, which can be found wandering the region seasonally. In addition to all of these, there are other desert animals to be seen, like rattlesnakes and coyotes.
Keeping the Skies Clear and the Air Clean
Kartchner Caverns State Park is also designated as an International Dark Sky Park, which aims to keep the region free of excessive manufactured structures and artificial light in order to make for a pristine ecosystem that’s conducive to stargazing. The park even offers stargazing parties in addition to its many other events, giving tourists the chance for a special view of the sun (with provided eye protection) before they get to see the unspoiled Arizona desert night sky. Other events include seasonal parties to benefit local charities and guided hiking through the mountains with a view of the beautiful desert sunset.
The state park is a perfect retreat from the noise and light of the modern world, a place of crystal-clear night skies, ancient mountains, and animals in their natural, undisturbed habitat. The caverns are a five-hour drive from Zuni RV Park and offer camping areas, so they’re perfect for a two-day trip. All of these aspects make Kartchner Caverns State Park a great place to visit near the best RV campgrounds in Arizona.