Life In the Big Green Jolly

Embrace local. Explore often.

Kartchner Caverns – a living cave in Arizona

View from Kartchner Caverns State Park

Visiting Tucson, Arizona?  Then add a stop at Kartchner Caverns State Park to your day-trip itinerary.

Located about an hour’s drive southeast of Tucson, the Arizona state park is an easy add-on to a southeastern Arizona trip.  Family-friendly cave tours are offered daily.  

If you have the time, extend your visit to Kartchner Caverns State Park to an overnight trip so you can spend time hiking and camping in the park.

History of Kartchner Caverns State Park

Discovery of the Cavern

In 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered this limestone cave on private property. This wasn’t by accident – these men were cave explorers who were actively looking for an undiscovered cave.

According to our tour guide, they kept their discovery a secret for 14 years from the general public.  Only a handful of people, including the Kartchner family who owned the property, knew about the existence of the cave.  Think about that. Do you have a group of friends you think would keep a secret for 14 years?

The explorers then spent more than a decade mapping out the cavern.  Additionally, they took on the tedious process of working with the state government to convert the cavern to a protected state park.

Creation of the state park

Sign for Kartchner Caverns State Park

In 1988, the state of Arizona acquired the property as a state park.  Then, the decade long process of designing and building the state park began.

The park staff carefully researched methods for preserving this active cave while allowing public access.  They reached out to other caverns and caves worldwide to ask questions like: “If you were to re-design your public access knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?”  

Taking those answers into consideration, they then applied modern techniques to the design of Kartchner Caverns’ public access.

For example, they knew that the growth of an active cave can be severely impacted by skin cells, hair, and lint of the visiting public.  

Some caverns have “lint parties” regularly.  This is when trained volunteers scour the cavern using tweezers to retrieve lint left in the cave.  Some caverns retrieve pounds of lint every year. Yep, pounds.

So, the design team for Kartchner Caverns built the public walkways with curbs.  This allows the walkways to be hosed out once a week and all the water and debris (e.g lint) runs into a collection pool via the walkway curbs. This system works so well that the “lint party” held at Kartchner Caverns results in only a small ball of lint each year.

A second example of designing the park based on feedback from other caverns is the accessible nature of the cavern.  There are no steps on the tour and the park is proud to be one of the first (maybe the only?) accessible cave tours.

What type of cavern tours are available at Kartchner Caverns?

Three types of tours are offered.  These are:

  • Guided group tour.  A park ranger takes you on a walking tour through the cavern.  Lights are turned on/off as you proceed through each section.
  • Helmet/Headlamp tour.  This is still a walking tour (you aren’t crawling on your belly as you could at Mammoth Caves) but the rooms are not lit. You use a headlamp to view the cavern.
  • Photography tour.  If you want to take photographs of the cavern, take this tour.  This is the only tour that allows for camera use.

Depending on the time of year, the tours are offered in one of two places in the cavern.  The Rotunda tours are offered year-round, while the Big Room tours are only offered mid-October to Mid-April.  During the other months, the Big Room is used by bat colonies. Think of the Big Room as a giant bat daycare center for six months of every year.

How long is a cavern tour?

Each tour is ½ mile in length.  The total tour time is between 1.5 and two hours, depending on which tour you are on.  This time includes the introduction and safety briefing, the tram ride to and from the cavern entrance, and the 50-minute guided tour.  

Be sure to arrive at least 30-minutes before your tour start to claim your ticket.

What is the Rotunda/Throne tour like?

The underground portion is spell-bounding.  

That said, there are logistical steps before and after the underground tour.

Before you go underground

First, the tour starts behind the visitor center.  For about ten minutes, the park ranger details the rules of the tour. Since Kartchner Cavern is an active cave (still growing), the regulations are strict and non-negotiable.

Then your tour group takes a 10-minute tram to ride to the cavern entrance.

Next, before you enter the cavern, the park ranger explains the design of the cavern and what to expect on the tour.  The spiel is designed to subtly and quickly identify anyone who might need assistance due to claustrophobia.

The next step has you walk through a mister.  You won’t get soaking wet. The mister is designed to dampen you enough that your hair and clothing lint are less likely to float off into the cavern.

Finally, you enter the “lock chamber”.  Your entire group enters a small room where doors are locked on both sides. 

This allows the park to control the humidity and temperature of the cave by minimizing the amount of outside air that enters the cavern.  You are only in this chamber long enough for them to close the outside door before they open the inner door into the cavern.

Underground Tour

Now the fun begins.

You are in the cavern. 

Lights are turned on and off as your group enters and exits each section of the cavern. 

The guide walks you through and explains the formations in each part of the cave and how they might be unique to Kartchner Cavern. 

Using a laser pointer, the guide points out:

  • Stalactites, Stalagmites, and Columns
  • Soda Pop straws.  Think super thin structure hanging from the ceiling, literally about the width of a drinking straw.
  • Bacon (yep – a cave formation that really looks like bacon)

What you won’t hear is officially named formations.  Unlike tours at other caves, the tours at this cavern encourage you to see what you see in each formation rather than directing you to see “an eagle” or “a president’s face” in the formations.

At the end of the Rotunda tour, you enter the Throne room.  Benches are available to sit.  

In the throne room, the guide points out the 58-foot high column called the Kubla Khan.  In a cavern, depth-perception and distance estimates are difficult as there are no points of reference.  This means it takes a moment to appreciate the height of Kubla Khan.   

Then lights are dimmed.  The 5-minute music and light show starts.  The light show highlights the formations in different ways to create focus and shadows that weren’t there before.  I don’t know who designed the show but it is incredible.   

Return to the visitor center

Once the underground portion of the tour is complete, you will exit through the lock chamber and reboard the tram for a return trip to the visitor center.

Rules for visiting Kartchner Caverns

There are some non-negotiable rules for taking a tour of Kartchner Caverns including no photographs.  

These regulations are designed to protect the active cave and limit the impact that public access has on the cavern.

Rules:

  • No electronics are allowed.  This includes phones.
  • No photography is permitted.  The only exception is on the Photo Tour.
  • Food and beverages (including gum chewing) are prohibited inside the cavern.
  • Jackets are highly discouraged.  The cave temperature is 71 degrees and the humidity makes it feel warmer.

What is there to do at the Kartchner Caverns Visitor Center?

The visitor center offers exhibits, hands-on displays, and a short movie.  

Plan to spend at least an hour exploring the visitor center.

The exhibits detail the discovery of the cave, the geology of the cavern, and the animals of the cavern including the discovery of giant sloth remains.

Be sure to crawl through the tunnels.  Imagine wiggling through tunnels that size for hours in the dark to map out the cavern.  Could you do it?

The 15-minute movie details how the cavern was discovered, mapped, and converted to a park. It’s a movie worth watching.

Is there hiking at Kartchner Caverns State Park?

Yes.  There approximately ten miles of hiking trails in the park.

Hiking trail at Kartchner Caverns State Park  with a mountain and black clouds in the background
Foothills Loop Trail

See the website for descriptions of the trails. For a short stroll, check out the gardens directly outside the visitor center.

Man standing next to yucca plant with stalk towering over man’s head
Tallest yucca stalk ever

We hiked a portion of the Foothills Trail.  It was well-maintained and well-signed for the portions we hiked.

Is there camping at Kartchner Caverns State Park?

Yes.  The park offers onsite cabins and a campground.  

Note, the campground sites are designed for RVs and vans as there are no tent pads.  Their website indicates you have to call the reservation line to secure tent camping.

We did not camp during our stay due to torrential downpours.

Where should we eat near Kartchner Caverns State Park?

The Bat Cafe offers onsite eating.

However, we recommend the Farm House Restaurant in the nearby town of Benson.  “Best corned beef ever” was the majority opinion after our lunch.  The owner makes his own beef brisket and uses that to make corned beef.

Get the corned beef at Farm House Restaurant

And if you travel into Benson to eat, be sure to check out the murals scattered throughout the town. A small town with a lot of public art.

What other caverns should we visit?

If you enjoyed Kartchner Caverns, then check out one of our other favorite caverns.

Let us know in the comments what you think of your visit to Kartchner Caverns.  And if you have recommendations on other caverns you have enjoyed, we are always looking for our next adventure!

Fast Facts

  • Trip Date: September 2019
  • Name: Kartchner Caverns State Park
  • Location: Benson, Arizona
  • Fee: $- $$$