If you’re looking to do something a little different in Arizona, why not go underground? Yes, you read that right. At Kartchner Caverns State Park, visitors are invited to explore and marvel at the underground world dating back tens of thousands of years. And if you prefer to stay above ground, this park still offers plenty to do there too. There’s something for everyone!
Keep scrolling to find out more about what Kartchner Caverns State Park is known for, the must-see spots, above-ground hiking trails, relevant park facility information, and nearby camping and accommodations.
1. What Kartchner Caverns State Park is Known For
Back in November of 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts were recreationally exploring the limestone hills found at the base of Arizona’s Whetstone Mountains. They were trying to find a cave that no one had been able to find before them, and they were successful. Today that incredible limestone cave is located inside of Kartchner Caverns State Park. Large numbers of visitors come to the state park every year to take in the glory of the underground cave formations as well as the aboveground wildlife.
Unique Cave Formations
Not only are Kartchner Caverns State Park’s cave formations fascinating and beautiful, but they are also very unique. Kartchner Caverns contains:
- One of the world’s longest soda straw stalactites: 21 feet 3 inches (can be found inside of the cave’s Throne Room)
- Arizona’s tallest and most massive column, known as “Kubla Khan”: 58 feet tall (can be found inside of the cave’s Throne Room)
- The most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk in the world (can be found in the cave’s Big Room)
- The world’s first reported occurrence of “turnip” shields (can be found in the cave’s Big Room)
- The world’s first known cave occurrence of “birds nest” needle quartz formations
- Dozens of other unusual formations such as shields, totems, helictites, and rimstone dams that guides will happily tell you all about on cave tours
Please note that the formations inside of Kartchner Caverns have been slowly growing for tens of thousands of years and are extremely fragile to the touch. To avoid damage to the cave and injury to yourself, do not touch any of the formations. We want these formations to be around for many future generations to marvel at, too!
Several Arizona wildlife species can be spotted roaming around the Kartchner Caverns State Park:
- Birds – Due to the park’s location near several different ecosystems, several different varieties of birds can be found within park limits. Check out the Hummingbird Garden to see a community of hummingbirds year round!
- Reptiles – Gila monsters, tortoises, coach whips, and several species of rattlesnakes are found in the park at all times of the year.
- Insects – Large groups of colorful butterflies and a number of beautifully patterned moths can be observed during certain points of the year inside of the Hummingbird Garden.
- Mammals – Visitors sometimes report spotting mountain lions, coyotes, gray foxes, skunks, raccoons, coatimundi, ringtail cats, jackrabbits, cottontails, squirrels, javelina, and whitetail deer roaming through the park or while using the trails. Of course, bats are also prevalent inside of the cave and around the park after dark. Ask a park ranger about all of the different bat species found at Kartchner Caverns and their unique hunting techniques!
2. Top Spots to See in Kartchner Caverns State Park
It can feel overwhelming to try to see everything in Kartchner Caverns State Park in a day. If you’re wondering what the must-see spots are, we recommend taking a guided cavern tour, visiting the Discovery Center’s exhibits, and sticking around to take in their incredible night sky.
Rotunda/Throne Cave Tour
This guided cavern tour is a half of a mile in length and takes roughly an hour and a half to complete. On this tour, you will learn about the role that water plays in creating the caverns and get an up-close look at the original trail, 45,000-year-old bat guano, delicate formations, and have a photo opportunity at “Kubla Khan”, which is the largest column formation in all of Arizona.
Big Room Tour
The park’s Big Room tour is only available to visitors between the middle of October through the middle of April. This tour is half a mile long and takes approximately an hour and 45 minutes to complete. Attendees will find themselves awestruck at the many strange and colorful formations found underground at the park. Please note that this tour is not available to children under the age of seven.
Visitors should plan to arrive at the park Discovery Center one hour prior to their tour times in order to obtain tickets.
Kartchner Cavern State Park Discovery Center
The park’s Discovery Center is where you’ll find the Park Ranger desk, a theater presentation, museum, souvenir gift shop, and food concession stands.
Numerous interactive exhibits in the center’s museum give visitors a chance to discover the history and mysteries of the park’s underground caves for themselves. Here are some examples:
- Introductory exhibits explain how caves form, why the formations look as they do, and why caves develop where they do.
- Mineralogy exhibits allow you to touch local rock types and experience a virtual tour of some of the cave’s most prominent formations at the Underground Journey exhibit. (Fun fact – Kartchner Caverns ranks in the top ten caves worldwide for its unique mineralogy!)
- Regional exhibits educate visitors on the area’s plants and animals, and describe the area’s distant past. Here, you can see original 86,000-year-old sloth bones and a 36,000-year-old Horse skull as well as small bones from bear, extinct antelope, bobcat, ringtail cat, and rabbit.
Be sure to visit the Discovery Center’s Tenen-Tufts Theater too! A 15 minute video presentation plays twice an hour here.
Dark Night Skies
If you’re looking to marvel at a clear night sky, you’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere as well-suited for the endeavor as Kartchner Caverns State Park is. In fact, this park has been nationally declared an International Dark Sky Park. This means Kartchner Caverns possesses an exceptional quality of starry night skies.
Kartchner Caverns is also well known for hosting high-quality night sky viewing events for its visitors to enjoy. In 2011, the Huachuca Astronomy Club of Southeast Arizona granted the “One Star at a Time” award to Kartchner Caverns in an effort to acknowledge just how great the public stargazing events held at the park are. For more information about the park’s night sky events, visit their event page.
3. Hiking and Trails Information
We know you’re wondering, and the answer is yes, Kartchner Caverns State Park does have more than just caves! Visitors are welcome to take in the aboveground areas within the park by hiking any of the marked trails. Whether you’re looking for a slow walk or a long day hike, there’s a trail for you at this state park.
This is the newest trail at Kartchner Caverns and we can’t recommend it enough. The Ocotillo Trail is a 1.7-mile addition to the Foothills Loop trail. The full loop is now about 3.2 miles long in total and takes hikers right along the foothills of the Whetstone Mountain.
Several times throughout the hike, Ocotillo Trail will treat you to panoramic views of the San Pedro River Valley, the area’s famous “sky island” mountain ranges, and a different mountain range in every direction. Please note that there is not a lot of shade on this hike, so come prepared.
A 4.2-mile trail that begins as an easy walk, but gradually becomes more strenuous over time. Hikers will pass a plethora of pine trees and juniper trees, as well as walk along a running creek.
We recommend doing this loop counter-clockwise to fully appreciate the sweeping views of the valley and surrounding mountain ranges while walking down the steep switchbacks on the way back down, rather than on the way up!
The Foothills Loop Trail Loop
This is a 2.5-mile loop that is rated moderate to difficult. The trail climbs up a gorgeous limestone hill and descends into the wash that follows the fault between the Whetstone Block and the San Pedro Block. If you’re looking for a view, take the short spur trail at the upper portion of the Foothills Loop Trail to appreciate a scenic mountain viewpoint.
The Hummingbird Garden Walk
This leisurely walking path is located near the park’s Discovery Center. This is a great choice for young children or elderly visitors who want to appreciate the natural vegetation of the area.
4. Park Information
Kartchner Caverns State Park’s gates are closed from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am every day. The park’s Discovery Center is open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm between May and December, and 8:30 am to 5:30 pm from December to May. Please visit the park website for more information on the specific date of the seasonal shift in hours.
The park is open on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm and closed on Christmas.
Park Entrance Fees
- Per vehicle (up to 4 adults): $7.00
- Individuals/bicycles: $3.00
Please note that cave tour tickets are an additional cost. However, the entrance fee waived for cave tour and campsite reservations.
Parking at Kartchner Caverns State Park can be a bit of a hassle. It is helpful to note that the main parking lot for the park’s Discovery Center is located at the third turn to the right after leaving the contact station. There is also an additional lot with 23 spaces available at the park’s Guindani trailhead. This is on the far southwest end of the park at the end of the main road.
Kartchner Caverns has a gift shop that is open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm during the summer and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm during the winter. At this gift shop, visitors will be delighted to find a number of locally made unique gifts including apparel, collectibles, Native American jewelry, postcards, magnets, and rocks.
There is also a bookstore containing reading material on caverns, nature, desert animals and birds, Native American history, and southwest cookbooks. The children’s section has educational toys, puzzles, plush animals, and puppets.
Bat Cave Cafe
The park’s restaurant, the Bat Cave Cafe, is open daily from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. The Cafe offers a menu that is full of delicious salads, sandwiches, wraps, quesadillas, pizzas, drinks, and ice cream desserts.
5. Picnic and Camping Information
Picnic Grounds and Group Areas
The park offers a group day-use area featuring three covered ramadas, eighteen picnic tables with one handicapped accessible table, water faucets and drinking fountains, 110 electrical outlets, trashcans, and an area for live entertainment as well as dancing. For an additional fee, your group can also rent a large covered gas grill.
The covered ramadas have a capacity of 200-250 persons but can accommodate 50-100 more for no additional charge if the group utilizes the uncovered gravel area.
Kartchner Caverns State Park offers a large number of campsites. Each of these campsites come with electric hookups, accessible water, and a picnic table. Campers also have access to nearby showers, restrooms, and dump station facilities. Each of the restroom facilities contains bottled water vending machines and dishwashing sinks.
Park campsites may be reserved ahead of time from June through October on theArizona State Parks website. Otherwise, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
If you prefer to rest indoors, Kartchner Caverns State Park has a number of two-room camping cabins. These cabins are located right among the beautiful desert landscape at the base of the Whetstone Mountains. They are also in close proximity to the park’s hiking trails, Discovery Center, and other park amenities.
Kartchner Caverns Cabins come with:
- A queen bed and two twin bunk beds (sleep a maximum of six people)
- Electricity and air-conditioning/heating
- A microwave and mini-fridge
- Restrooms and showers within walking distance
Please note, cabin guests need to bring their own linens or sleeping bags and pillows.
You can reserve your Kartchner Caverns State Park cabin online at the Arizona State Parks website or by calling their reservations desk at (877) MY-PARKS during normal office hours.
6. Where to Stay Near Kartchner Caverns State Park
If you are looking for somewhere to stay nearby, there are plenty of great places to choose from. The city of Benson is only ten miles from Kartchner Caverns State Park. Here, there are plenty of restaurants, hotels, gas stations, banks, and grocery stores as well as a library with wifi, a laundromat, and a golf course. Another option is Sierra Vista; this town is roughly 20 miles from the park and offers the same amenities that can be found in Benson. There are plenty of unique Airbnb listings in this area as well!
No matter where you choose to lay your head at night, you’ll find that the possibilities for an adventure inside of Kartchner Caverns State Park are nearly endless. By spending a day or weekend at this beautiful Arizona state park, you’re pretty much guaranteeing a boatload of fantastic memories to look back on for several years to come.