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Ultimate Guide to Colossal Cave, Arizona (Tours, Pricing, History, Map)

Ultimate Guide to Colossal Cave, Arizona (Tours, Pricing, History, Map)

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We went on a Colossal Cave tour in Vail, Arizona, and took some awesome cave photos we wanted to share with you this week! 🙂 If you’re wondering about tours, pricing, history of the cave, and the cave wildlife you’ll see on your trip, we’ve got you covered!

colossal cave arizona

Ultimate Guide to Colossal Cave

colossal cave history
History of Colossal Caves; photo credit: colossalcave.com

History of Colossal Caves

The Colossal Caves were discovered in 1879 and were believed to be a Ho’hokam shrine due to the black soot on the ceiling. 

After being abandoned, there is a legend that the cave was home to a bandit gang, the Pantanos, who robbed a Wells Fargo payroll train. The bandits left a trail of blood out of the cave when taking their escape route, but still couldn’t be found. How’d they get caught? By bragging, of course.

No one actually knows the full story, who did it, how much money there really was, or what happened after they came for the money… but it’s an interesting story nonetheless. The legend of the Pantano bandits is really a mosaic; it’s made up of fragments of several occurrences, pieced together over time. Read more about the bandits here.

Fun Facts About Colossal Cave

  • Robber’s Cave is a nickname for Colossal Cave because of the bandit legends.
  • Colossal Cave is the largest dry cave in the U.S. Unlike with most other caves, it doesn’t get much cooler when you go underground. It’s very humid, and the air gets a little thin in spots.
  • In 1905, a 75-foot tunnel was created in order to mine bat guano. More than seven train cars were filled!
  • Colossal Cave is home to three species of bats.
  • Several movies have been filmed at Colossal Cave, including Frankenstein Island, Dream Catcher, and Sesame Street Goes Western.

Colossal Cave Mountain Park Wildlife

Colossal Cave Mountain Park is home (or pass-through) to almost half the bat species found in entire the state of Arizona, including rare and threatened ones.

The bats in Colossal Cave eat mosquitoes, scorpions, and moths. Contrary to popular belief, the bats that live in this cave are not blind. In fact, bats aren’t blind at all and most have eyesight that rivals that of humans.

Learn more about the Colossal Cave bats, and about bats in general (bat facts) on our site.

boxwork cave formation
colossal cave boxwork

Colossal Cave Geological Formations

You will see many geological formations when visiting Colossal Cave. My favorite was the boxwork! The “cave bacon” is also pretty fun.

Stalactites: Formations that grow from the ceiling of the cave. They look much like icicles that hang from the side of a building or house.

Stalagmites: Formations that grow from the ground of the cave.

Columns: Also called stalactons, columns form when stalactites and stalagmites meet in the middle to form pillars.

Boxwork: Created when calcite seeps into cracks and crevices in the limestone. After the limestone deteriorates, only the delicate calcite “boxes” remain.

Draperies: Also called cave bacon, these formations are distinguished by their light and dark colors, which are created by minerals.

Depending on the season there are plenty of different events to get you and your family engaged in nature and wildlife. Colossal Cave Mountain Park provides a home or refuge for hundreds of species of animals including bats. We saw several bats while on our cave tour.

Colossal Cave Tours

colossal cave tour tight squeeze
Tight squeeze on the tour in some spots. photo credit: Colossal Cave Mountain Park

We took the Classic Cave tour, and two of us (6ft and 6ft2in) had to duck in several places. All of us had to squeeze through some tight spots, including the 13 year old. The walk is fairly steady on this tour and is recommended for all ability levels.

Bird Walks at Colossal Caves

Throughout the year, Colossal Caves does early morning bird walks for bird lovers. These events last for about 1 ½ hours and all ages are welcome. Colossal Caves has year-round birds making this a fun event to attend in the early mornings any time of the year.

Geo-History Walk

In this 1 ½ hour walk, you get to explore ancient archeological sites, and is perfect for families with younger children.

The Geo-History walk takes you through some of the Ho’hokam history, and what it was like to live in their tribe. Along the way, The leader stops and shows off different rocks that express how old this site really is.

Classic Cave Tour of Colossal Cave

This tour is only half a mile long, and takes about an hour.

This tour is a great way to view all the rock formations Colossal Caves have to offer. These formations include stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, boxwok, and helictites. This tour is not good for those who cannot take the stairs, as there are 363 of them on the tour.

Ladder Tour

This is an intense 1 ½ hour tour through windy pathways. Because of the intensity of this tour, you must be 12 or older to join. You must be physically fit, okay with tight spaces, agile, and be able to climb through difficult areas. 

This tour has been available since the 1950’s and is only partially developed, leaving the majority of the cave in its natural state. While exploring, you may even be lucky enough to see some bats.

The Ladder Tour has both daytime and nighttime options, although you can only make reservations for the night tour on Groupon. The night tour is a bit more expensive, but does include a steak dinner with the tour. Sounds well worth the extra price to us!

This tour requires hard hats, headlights, and full finger gloves. If you are planning to take the Ladder Tour, PLEASE make sure to wear the proper shoes, as this trail is difficult with many slippery shoes.

Wild Cave Tour

This is the most rigorous tour offered at Colossal Caves. 3 ½ hours long, the Wild Cave Tour contains unmarked and unlit passageways. You must be very fit to take this tour as this is a fairly difficult trek, but not impossible for the average person. 

Because of the intensity of this tour, you must be 16 or older, and must be accompanied by an adult. Again, they will provide the hard hats and head lamps, but you MUST bring proper footwear, and full finger gloves. It is also recommended to bring knee pads, and elbow pads. 

This tour has a limit of 6 people per tour, and a minimum of 2 people. There are size restrictions as well. Our guide said you need to be able to fit through a 10″ wide space.

Colossal Cave Prices and Discounts

Monthly Events such as bird walks, and the Geo-History Walk are only $5 a person proving to be a very affordable activity for the family.

Classic Cave Tours are $18 for adults and $9 for children between the ages of 5-12 with children under being free.

Military pricing is $14 with the ID present at the time of paying, and a military child being $8 with ID proof. First responders also get the $14 discount price.

Ladder Tours are $35 for those over the age of 12, and the night tour is $50 over the age of 12, with no discounted ticket prices.

Wild Cave Tours are $85 for the intermediate course or $125 for the advanced course with a minimum age requirement of 16 years old for both difficulties, and unfortunately no discounts are available for this tour as well.

Before making any reservations, be sure to search on Groupon for excellent rates! Throughout the year Groupon will put discounts for 2-4 people on certain hikes, and you can get up to 45% off the full price!

rv camping colossal cave az
photo credit: Mobile RVing

Where to Stay Near Colossal Caves

The perfect place to stay is very dependent on your family and what you enjoy, but if you are one for saving money, skip the hotel and camp out under the stars. 

If you are tent camping, sites are only $7.50 per vehicle, per night. 

RV and horse trailer camping is $12 per vehicle, per night.

However, there are a few rules to camping at the Colossal Cave Campsites: 

  • Quiet hours are between 10pm-6am, and are enforced with fines.
  • After midnight, the gates are locked to keep those staying at campsites safe. If you need an emergency vehicle, they will have to pull up to the gate and meet you there.
  • Do not light fires outside of the grills and fire rings on the ground. This is important because Arizona is a dry state the majority of the year, brush fires are a very real possibility.

Download our FREE Colossal Cave Guide (Unofficial)

The downside to choosing to camp is that there are no outlets for an RV to have power, and restrooms and water are very limited. Restrooms are located at two different campsites. This is an amazing attribute to the campgrounds, as digging a hole to use the restroom is not as fun as it may seem. 😉

Campsites are on a first come first serve basis, and need to be purchased in the gift shop to get your spot. While camping is a great adventure, you should always anticipate a hotel stay just in case!

Hotels start at $60 a night during peak season with most ranging around $150-$200. Camping is much more affordable!

cave formations
photo credit: National Parks Service

Colossal Cave Details

  • Length: varies
  • Time recommended: 1+ hour depending on tour
  • Trail Type: loop
  • Difficulty: varies
  • Kid-Friendly: yes
  • Dog-Friendly: no
  • Accessibility: Parking lot 
  • Fee/Permit: varies
  • Hours: 8AM-5PM daily

How to Get to Colossal Caves

GPS will get you there! 16721 E. Old Spanish Trail, Vail, Arizona

PIN IT FOR LATER! 🙂

colossal cave arizona cave tour
colossal cave arizona
colossal cave arizona

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