September can be one long, smoldering, continuation of summer. Just when your mind turns to thoughts of fall, the temperature gauge says it’s nowhere near. Why not take a trek to somewhere that’s always cool — underground!
Kartchner Caverns is less than an hour’s drive from Tucson and maintains a pleasant 70 degree average year-round. This “living,” growing cave complex is home to around 1,000-plus myotis velifer (common cave bat), and is both a fascinating destination for anyone interested in the lifestyle of bats, as well as aficionados of earth sciences.
Visitors have multiple options, depending upon whether they want to enjoy the great outdoors, as well as the amazing indoors. There are campsites available by reservation in the park, or if you want a more luxe experience, cabins for rental with queen beds, a/c and heating, microwave, mini-fridge and other amenities.
There are a variety of tours of the caverns that you can take, depending upon what you want to experience and how much time you have allotted. The “Rotunda/Throne” tour takes you along the original trail into the cave, and provides a view of the largest cave column formation in the state, dubbed “Kubla Khan.” The “Big Room” tour is available mid-October through mid-April and includes a little more time underground off a different branch of the cave passages. Note: You cannot take photos/video on those two tours, but if you’re a dedicated shutterbug, you can sign up for a “Photo” tour, taking place the third Saturday of each month.
Whichever tour you choose, sign up online, and arrive at the park early so you have plenty of time to look around. The Discovery Center has a museum, gift shop, amphitheater, food concession and a theater where you can watch a 15-minute video about the discovery of the caverns. Because the cave stayed secret for many years, it was a major surprise to Arizonans to find out that there was such a location — untouched by vandals or thieves — just a few miles from Benson. Its discovery — and path to preservation — is thanks to Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen. Tufts, a geologist and scientist for NASA, had been investigating caves since he was a kid. He believed that there was an untouched limestone cave in the Whetstone Mountain range, and thanks to a tip from a miner, and some diligent exploration with fellow caver Tenen, they struck paydirt. A team including the Kartchner family (which owned the land), the Arizona State Parks Board and The Nature Conservancy helped to ensure that the caverns would be protected while also being open to the public.
Many visitors to Kartchner Caverns make a day or two of it by heading off to go birding in nearby Sierra Vista, or driving to Fort Huachuca to see the military museum. If the rough romance of the Old West is more your thing, Tombstone is only about 30 miles away, and Bisbee is about 50 miles.
More information is available at: Azstateparks.com/kartchner.