Did you know that Arizona has an underground cave with over 2.5 miles of tunnels? They are located in Kartchner Caverns and there is over one mile of underground exploration available to the public.
It’s located just off of the I-90, south of Benson, Arizona, which is about 45 miles southeast of Tucson.
As a visitor moves through the underground paths into cavernous spaces of alien terrain, the first inclination is to reach out and touch, just to make sure this isn’t a figment of the imagination. These surreal looking stalactites and stalagmites are real, and since they are still growing, it’s a “hands-off exploration” so that future generations can delight in the experience as well.
However, if you’re the touchy-feely type, head off to the park’s Discovery Center before going underground. They offer a museum level exhibit of formations that you can examine and are free to touch. There is also a not-to-be-missed short film explaining the discovery of the caves.
The discovery is an amazing story of two men (Tenen and Tufts) who were exploring the limestone hills at the eastern base of the Whetstone Mountains in 1974. The men were looking for a hole in the earth that was the entrance to a hidden cave that local folklore indicated was in the area – and they found it.
The explorers were able to keep it a secret from the public for 3 1/2 years and from the landowners (the Kartchner’s–hence the name) for over 2 years. They had the foresight to protect this fragile and valuable natural resource by requiring everyone to sign an oath of secrecy before being taken there.
After the two men had researched and determined the caves were beyond private scope to develop, the Arizona State Park agency was approached and a slow and grueling 10 year process of unforeseen challenges in research, planning, construction, legislative threats, mining concerns, and legal issues ensued. It ended in the successful opening of the upper caverns to the public in 1999 with subsequent opening of the lower caverns four years later in 2003.
Make sure to check out the park’s calendar before planning a visit and be prepared to make advance reservations. There are special events throughout the year which include nature, astronomy evenings, photography tours and other seasonal events.