Ultimate Guide to Kartchner Caverns (Arizona) (Tours, Pricing, History)
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“Hidden in the Arizona desert, Kartchner Caverns is a geological wonder. Formed over millions of years by water dissolving limestone and other minerals from cave walls, it’s now an important part of Arizona’s natural heritage.”
The caverns are located at the base of Pinal Mountain in southern Arizona and were discovered by chance in 1974 while drilling for oil. The 710 acres that house Kartchner Caverns were donated to the state of Arizona by Walter Kartchner, who had purchased it from his father-in-law decades earlier.
The Kartchner family has been in the oil business for generations and had no idea what they were sitting on.
Ultimate Guide to Kartchner Caverns (Arizona) (Tours, Pricing, History)
The only problem with Kartchner Caverns is that it’s not terribly easy to get there from major population centers. It can take some time (and a little bit of gas) to travel here from Phoenix or Tucson… we recommend going during your vacation!
What’s the difference between a cavern and a cave?
What is the difference between a cave and a cavern? Many times, the names are used synonymously, but this isn’t technically right.
A cave is defined as any cavity in the ground that has a section that does not receive direct sunlight.
A cavern is just one type of cave that is formed naturally in soluble rock and grows speleothems, the general term for cave formations like stalagmites and stalactites also cave draperies and cave popcorn. So, a cavern can rightfully be called a cave, but not all caves are caverns.
History of Kartchner Caverns
Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered the caverns in November of 1974. They kept the cave a secret until they told the property owners James and Lois Kartchner.
After the discovery, James and Lois strived for years to add it to the list of national parks. They were given
the timeline of 2-5 years of work to make their wish happen, however, it wasn’t until 1988, over 10 years after the discovery that they were able to make this gorgeous park nationally recognized.
When originally sharing the caverns, and allowing the others to view this beauty, they tried their best to
keep the caverns a secret, constantly asking those they asked for help to swear an oath of secrecy. The couple had hoped to keep these beautiful caverns to themselves not only to enjoy them, but to keep them preserved, and keep those venturing safe from harm.
The caverns have tight spaces and hard-to-reach areas, it only made sense to keep the public away from the area
until they could add extra safety measures to keep people from getting trapped or hurt inside.
The caverns took a while to be ‘adopted’ due to the very little budget the state was getting to preserve their
national parks that were already recognized, however after meeting the entire board, they swore to the secrecy of the caverns locations and did everything in their power to delay the process to make it a national park so they wouldn’t
have to worry about fitting the Kartchner Caverns into their budget.
Kartchner Caverns Fun Facts
- Kartchner Caverns features one of the longest soda straw stalactites globally at 21 feet 3 inches. It is found in the Throne Room.
- The cavern is estimated to be more than 330 million years old.
- The cavern has hundreds of bats clinging to the ceiling, so if you are scared of them…don’t look up!
- The cavern features some of the most intriguing speleothems found in caves and caverns worldwide.
- Wearing shorts or breathable clothing in the cavern is good as the year-round temperature stands 72 degrees.
- Kartchner Caverns features many minerals and possesses decorations that you might not find in many other caves.
- The tallest and largest cave column in Arizona is found in Kartchner Caverns and stands at 58 feet tall.
Kartchner Caverns Wildlife
Besides bats, Kartchner Caverns is also home to other kinds of wildlife.
You may catch a glimpse of the black bear (which are not native to Kartchner Caverns, they were introduced in the 1930s and have been thriving ever since) or one of the thousands of cave crickets that can be found within Kartchner Caverns.
Every April, Kartchner Caverns turns into a nursery for expecting Myotis Bats. Where the bats give birth typically around the end of June, raise their pup until they are ready, and migrate away for the winter.
About 1000 bats consider Kartchner Caverns as their home and feed off the insects that have been attracted from the bats’ guano.
Specific tours that may interfere with the bats’ habitat are closed in the spring and summer. The scientists who observe the bats have tagged about 75 of them to determine where they hibernate for the winter.
The most the scientists can assume, is they leave the Kartchner Caverns in the winter to stay in a different cave about 40 miles away in the Huachuca Mountains.
The same bats have been seen coming back to the caverns for years. The next step is to place scanners at other caves to track where they actually go and to decipher the conditions of the actual cave.
This can give the scientists the opportunity to better understand desired living conditions.
Kartchner Caverns Geological Formations
Like many other caves around the world, Kartchner Caverns features many speleothems that are relatively unique and impressive as they are. Thousands of stalactites and stalagmites are found in the cavern, and loads of these can be seen as you go through the Rotunda-Throne Room tour.
The formations come as a result of water dripping off a bump on the cavern’s walls. As the water flows, it is mixed with minerals found in the cavern, and like many of these formations, the process is done relatively slow. Interestingly, the different speleothems found in the cave are formed in multiple ways…dripping of water, flowing, seeping, and settling on the ground of the cave.
The formations started years ago, and they do form slowly, so it is important to be careful as you move around them. They are fragile and can be damaged easily. Some of the formations found in the cavern include…
* Stalactites – There are many stalactites found in the cave to include one of the world’s longest soda straws, measuring over 21 feet long. These form as water and the cave minerals are combined and flow from the roof and walls of the cave. Some of the minerals remain in place as the water escapes to other areas of the cave.
* Stalagmites – A tour of the cave will highlight some of the amazing stalagmite formations one can find in caves. Kartchner Caverns have some of the largest stalagmites formed from water dripping or flowing from the roof and walls of the cave and any water that settles.
* Turnip Shields – Just as a turnip looks, there are formations in the cave that take on these shapes. Interestingly, they are not definitely known to be in other caves but Kartchner Caverns.
* Birdnests Needle Quartz – We are sure you know how bird nests look and possibly imagining how it would look in the form of a speleothem. Well, the first existence of these types of speleothems was found in the Kartchner Caverns.
* In addition to the usual formations found in caves, some intriguing and strange ones include totems, rimstone dams, brushite moonmilk, and columns (Kartchner has the tallest and largest one in Arizona), and shields.
Kartchner Caverns Tours
There is a variety of different tours accessible to the public based on the time of year, and the time of the month. If you are planning to head down to the Kartchner Caverns, be sure to reserve online as soon as possible, because tours do fill up fast!
Sign Language Tour
The Sign Language Tour is a tour hosted every second Saturday of the month. This is a great event for the ASL community!
The Sign Language Tour is an hour and a half, and a mile and a half long, creating the perfect tour for all ages. However, make sure you reserve the tour, as it is a very popular tour, and is a tour where the interpreter is
provided by the park.
This tour is hosted every 2nd Saturday of the month, and reservations do not last long, so make sure to reserve your spots as soon as you know that you’re going!
The Throne Tour
The Throne Tour is a more family-friendly tour and is perfect to bring your little ones on. The tour is only half a mile long and takes an hour and a half to get through, making the Throne Tour perfect for kids of all ages.
The Throne Tour is one of the largest natural column formations in Arizona.
This underground tour expresses the history water had on the natural caverns and is also home to fossilized bat guano.
Big Room Tour
Big Room Tour is a great tour if you are planning on going in the fall late fall or early winter. This 3/4 mile tour takes an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five minutes to finish.
This tour is restricted to children over the age of 7, and goes in-depth on the history of the Kartchner Caverns, and how the formations were created, as well as the current discoveries and progress they are making.
Saturday Helmet and Head-lamp Tour
Saturday Helmet and Head-lamp Tour is an age-restricted tour due to the lack of visibility to monitor younger children. This is a half-mile tour and takes about an hour and a half. Just be aware that the majority of this tour takes place underground.
The tour actually varies by season. During the winter the Head-lamp Tour takes place in the big room, and in the summer, this takes place in the Throne room. The only day the Head-lamp tour is available is on Saturdays, so make sure to reserve your tickets!
This tour utilizes head-lamps to not only preserve the beauty of the caverns but also protect the bats that habit in the cave to mate.
Kartchner Caverns Prices and Discounts
Tour and Camping Prices
In order to get into the Kartchner Caverns, it will cost $7 a vehicle and $3 for bicycles and walk-ups. Admission at the gate is covered with the price of a tour if your group chooses to partake in one.
Throne Tour is $5 for children under the age of 7, $13 from the ages 7-13, and for all adults 14+ the tour is $23.
Big Room Tour is the same price as the Throne tour minus the children under 7 due to the age restriction.
Sign Language Tour is $5 for children 7 and under, $13 for children between the ages of 7 and 13, and is $23 for adults and children 14+.
Head-Lamp Tour is restricted to individuals over 10, and the admission is $30 for all individuals who meet the requirements.
Kartchner Caverns offers sites for large events such as weddings. The price depends on the number of people starting at 50 people or less for $150 and a $150 refundable cleaning deposit at the time of booking.
- For 50-100 people the price increases to $200
- 100-200 people the price will increase to $450
- If you have a party above the 200 limit, the price will increase to $600
- Each party site reservation will charge $25 for each grill utilized by the party.
Download our FREE Kartchner Caverns Guide (Unofficial)
Where to Stay Near Kartchner Caverns
Visiting Kartchner Caverns has a lot of benefits as you get to experience the best of nature. However, you may want somewhere to stick around so you can get the most of the region. Here are a few interesting places you can stay in the area…
Landmark Lookout Lodge
This amazing place is located close to many interesting places you may want to visit, including Kartchner Caverns State Park, Boothill Cemetery, Bisbee Queen Mine Tours, and Fort Huachuca. There are many amazing features to complement your stay such as an outdoor pool, high-speed internet, free parking, and free breakfast.
There is also a business center and you are allowed to travel with your small pets. The services and staff are wonderful, and you will have no regrets checking in. This amazing lodge is located at 781 North Highway 80, Tombstone, AZ.
Tombstone Grand Hotel
Tombstone Grand Hotel is located in the most western town of the country’s western region and sits atop a hill that overlooks the region’s rich history. Interestingly, you can get the opportunity to experience panoramic views no matter what suite you are given. You can expect the privileges of some amazing amenities and features such as high-speed internet, business lounges, great food, amazing staff, and a relaxing atmosphere.
There are family relaxing rooms and also non-smoking rooms for those who desire to have a quiet moment. It is near some of the town’s most cultural spots, such as Kartchner Caverns, Tombstone Cemetery, and Birdcage Theater. Give them a call today or head on over to 580 W Randolph Way, Tombstone, AZ, to book your reservation.
Trail Rider’s Inn
If you are looking for a quiet location with a mix of nature indoors and outdoors, then the Trail Rider’s Inn is the perfect spot. It is in close range to some of the most historical sites of the region, and you are bound to learn so much of life outside of what you are used to.
Their rooms are relaxing, quaint, and provide a memorable experience like no other. Perfect for the entire family and the staff is nothing short of amazing. Head down to the west at 13N and 7th Street, Tombstone, AZ, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Kartchner Caverns Details
- Length: 0.5 Miles
- Time recommended: 1hr 45mins
- Trail Type: Loop
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Kid-Friendly: Yes
- Dog-Friendly: Mostly, service dogs are allowed.
- Accessibility: The parking lot
- Fee/Permit: Varies
- Hours: 9:30 am to 5:00 pm
How to Get to Kartchner Caverns
Getting to Kartchner Caverns is a breeze as it is located just 9 miles south of the town of Benson and strolling along the northern end of the San Pedro River will get you there in no time. It is located at 2980 AZ-90, Benson, AZ.
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