Kartchner Caverns State Park: The Complete Guide

Kartchner Caverns

Arizona State Parks and Trails 

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Kartchner Caverns State Park

Address
2980 AZ-90, Benson, AZ 85602, USA
Phone +1 520-586-4100

Discovered in 1974, Kartchner Caverns is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful caves in the world. It features one of the longest soda straw stalactites in existence, the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk, the tallest column in Arizona, and other incredible formations. While cave tours are the most popular activity in this state park, you can also hike and camp here. If you're planning a trip, here's what to know.

Things to Do

The caverns are the main attraction at Kartchner Caverns, but there’s more to do than immediately head underground. Start at the Discovery Center, where you can watch a 15-minute film about how the caverns were discovered and view exhibits on geology and hydrology. There are also 86,000-year-old sloth bones, 36,000-year-old hose skull, and bones from other animals on display.

After touring the caverns, you can hike the park’s trails or enjoy a picnic lunch. Plan to overnight in the campground, if you have the chance, and bring a telescope or binoculars. Kartchner Caverns State Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park.

Cave Tours

Kartchner Caverns offers two standard tours: the Rotunda/Throne Tour and the Big Room Tour, available from October 15 to April 15. Both costs $23 for adults and $13 for children ages 13 through 7. Children under 7 are not permitted on the Big Room Tour. The Helmet & Headlamp Tour is only offered on Saturdays and is $30 for anyone age 10 and over. No one younger than 10 is permitted on the Helmet & Headlamp Tour.

Tours begin at the Discovery Center, where you board an accessible tram to the cavern’s entrance. There, you walk through two air-locked doors and into the caverns. Do not touch anything on the tour. State park staff takes protecting the environment inside the caverns very seriously, and if you or anyone in your party touches any natural element, the tour will stop so staff can sanitize it.

All three tours cover only .5 miles and take from an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and 45 minutes, only a portion of which is underground. While the Rotunda/Throne Tour features Kubla Khan, the largest column formation in Arizona, the Big Room Tour focuses more on the science behind the caverns. The Helmet & Headlamp Tour explores the cave using only the illumination of participants’ headlamps.

The park encourages you to purchase your tickets in advance either online or by calling (877) 697-2757 and selecting option #2. 

Best Hikes & Trails

Kartchner Caverns State Park has four trails, ranging from the easy Hummingbird Garden Walk near the Discovery Center to a 4-mile trek into the Whetstone Mountains. Before heading out on the trails, be sure to bring plenty of water and wear closed-toe shoes.

  • Foothills Loop Trail: This 2.5-mile loop climbs the limestone hill north of the caverns and into a wash that leads to Mountain Viewpoint. You can expand the loop by adding the 1.7-mile Ocotillo Trail, which offers views of the San Pedro River Valley and Dragoon Mountains. Whether you hike just the Foothills Loop or add the Ocotillo Trail, watch for ocotillo, prickly pear, and barrel cacti on the way.
  • Guindani Trail: Rated moderate, this trail begins with an easy walk, continues across a moderately difficult stretch for at least two miles, and then becomes strenuous as you reach 5,620-feet in elevation. Although you’ll feel the burn as you make the climb, it’s worth the effort for views of the Dragoon Mountains and Middle Canyon. Wildlife is abundant in the area, especially birds like the endangered Mexican spotted owl.
  • Hummingbird Garden: More of a walk than an actual hike, this path is lined with local flora including catclaw acacia, autumn sage, and desert bird of paradise.

Where to Camp

The campground at Kartchner Caverns State Park is the most convenient option for campers. It features 12 pull-through sites, three handicap-designated sites, and 43 other sites, all with electric hookups and water. In addition, the campground has restrooms, showers, and dump station facilities. The restroom buildings even have bottled water vending machines and dishwashing sinks. Most campsites are $30 to $35 per night and require a two-night minimum stay. As with most campgrounds, this one fills up in advance. The park strongly encourages you to make reservations before you leave home.

Like several other state parks, Kartchner Caverns also has four cabins available to rent for $59 pr night. Each cabin comes with a queen bed and two twin bunk beds, electricity, air-conditioning/heating, microwave, and mini fridge. Restrooms and showers are a short walk away, and you will need to provide your own linens and pillows for the bed.

Where to Stay

Tucson is the closest major city to Kartchner Caverns State Park. Unless you stay at one of the resorts on the perimeter of the city, you should be able to drive to the caverns within an hour. If you want to stay a little closer, your options are more limited.

  • Comfort Inn Benson Near Kartchner Caverns: One of the closest hotels to the caverns, this reasonably priced chain hotel is clean, comfortable, and convenient. Pets are allowed, but keep in mind, they are not permitted in the park. (See Tips below.)
  • Quality Inn Benson: Another Choice Hotels property, the Quality Inn Benson is significantly cheaper than its sister property, Comfort Inn Benson. While a basic hotel, the Quality Inn is also clean and comfortable and has a free hot breakfast.
  • Sierra Suites: Located about a half hour south of Kartchner Caverns in Sierra Vista, this boutique hotel features terracotta tiles and wood-beam ceilings and makes a good base for exploring Southern Arizona, including nearby Tombstone and Bisbee.

How to Get There

From Tucson, take I-10 east approximately 40 miles to Exit 302. Head south on AZ-90 toward Ft. Huachuca/Sierra Vista, and drive 8.7 miles to Park Service Road. Turn right and continue less than a half mile into the park. With ordinary traffic, the drive from Tucson should take less than an hour. From Phoenix, the drive will take approximately two and a half hours.

If you are driving west on I-10 from Willcox, continue past Benson to Exit 302 and follow the directions above.

Accessibility

The state park system designed Kartchner Caverns with accessibility in mind. Not only are the parking lots, campgrounds, picnic areas, and buildings all accessible, but the trails inside the cave are, too. Park staff recommends that those who use a manual wheelchair bring a companion to help with sharp turns and steep grades. While motorized wheelchairs and scooters are permitted, some may not fit on the trail. If that’s the cases, you’ll be required to take a loaner wheelchair instead.

Before you go, read the park’s information page about accessibility. In addition to wheelchair restrictions, the website also addresses claustrophobia, anxiety, autism,
and other disabilities.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Kartchner Caverns State Park is open daily except on Christmas Day (with limited hours on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve).
  • The park entrance fee is $7 per vehicle; however, the entrance fee is waived with cavern tour and campsite reservations.
  • To protect the fragile environment, no food, drink, gum, or tobacco products are allowed on the tour. Additionally, you’ll have to leave behind all loose items, including purses and umbrellas.
  • Videography and photography are not allowed inside the cavern except the third Saturday of the month, when the park offers a photo tour.
  • Most people do not have a problem with claustrophobia while in the caverns. Keep in mind that you are never more than one or two minutes from an exit.
  • Strollers and backpack carriers are not permitted in the cavern, but young children can be carried in front-facing pouches and slings.
  • Service animals trained to perform specific tasks can accompany their owners on tours. Emotional support and comfort animals cannot.  
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Kartchner Caverns State Park: The Complete Guide