The stunning limestone caves of Kartchner Caverns, Arizona is a natural wonder. It is one of the top 10 caves in the world in terms of mineralogical diversity. The state park’s location provides outstanding starry nights viewing of the Arizona sky for astronomers and photographers. It is a designated International Dark-Sky Park, offering a protected nocturnal environment for public stargazing and educational/scientific opportunities.
The cave, first discovered in November 1974 by two University of Arizona students, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, was kept secret until 1984 so it would be protected and not vandalized. Arizona State Parks acquired the property fully in September, 1988 and then it took 10 years before the upper caverns opened to the pubic. The lower caverns opened November, 2003. This year, Kartchner Caverns celebrates its 20th anniversary on November 16.
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How Kartchner Caverns formed
This entire area was covered by an inland sea about 330 million years ago. Sediment hardened, and after millions of years it formed Escabrosa limestone. This limestone rock layer eventually formed the Whetstone Mountains. After a tremor, the Escabrosa limestone block dropped down. As groundwater lowered, passages and pockets of caves were left behind.
Kartchner Caverns is a “living cave” with formations continuing to grow and change. Rainwater carries surface minerals as they dissolve when water seeps in through the limestone. It took over 200,000 years for these drips to eventually create speleothems, one drop at a time. Stalactites and stalagmites are two of the most common types of speleothems. A stalactite is a formation growing down from the cave ceiling and is usually more pointed. Stalagmites form upward as a mound, growing as minerals drip onto the cave floor.
Night Skies of Kartchner Caverns. Photo Courtesy of Kartchner Caverns State Park, Arizona©
The caves are open all year and are very humid with temperatures averaging about 70 degrees F. The monsoon season is from July through September. Find out more.
It may be hot in the cave, but if you plan to ride the tram, you may want a jacket. The tram operates October through April, depending on weather conditions.
Inside the caves, do not touch the fragile formations as they break easily. Once a formation is damaged, it stops growing. Caves are dimly lit and passageways can be narrow. This can be frightening for young children or people with claustrophobia.
Certain precautions must be taken to protect the common cave bats that live here during part of the year. More than 5-million bats have died from the white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease. If you have been to any cave after 2005, do not wear the same clothing or shoes during your visit. If you are wearing the same shoes, you must visit the decontamination center.
Photography and video is not permitted in the caves unless you take the photography tour below. No items are allowed in the cavern including cell phones, strollers, cameras, backpacks, purses, bottled water, etc. Lockers are available. Pets are not allowed. Contact the park directly if you have accessibility issues. Call (877) MY-PARKS.
Download a map of Kartchner Caverns State Park.
The Discovery Center
Stop at the Discover Center to pick up cave tour tickets, view museum exhibits, watch a video about the discovery and check on the children’s program. Download a scavenger hunt for kids. There is also a gift shop and cafe. Don’t miss seeing the 36,000-year-old horse skull, 85,000-year-old sloth bones and 11,000 year-old bear remains uncovered by paleontologists exploring the cave. Learn more about the bats and other cave creatures here.
Cave tours book up fast. Make a reservation for the cave tours before you go and be sure you arrive 30 minutes before the start time of the tour. There may be some unsold tickets available on a first-come-first-served basis. Children under 7 are not allowed on some of the tours. Rates start from: Adult – $23 Youth – $13, Children – $5
Big Room Tour
The Big Room tour is 1 3/4 hours. Here you will find the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moon milk. The Big Room is closed from April 15 until October 15 each year, when about 1,500 bats migrate to give birth and raise their pups.
Rotunda/Throne Room Tour
The length of this tour is 1 1/2 hours. The Throne Room has one of the longest soda straw stalactites in the world standing, 21 feet 3 inches.
The Kubla Khan is also in the Throne Room and stands 58 feet tall. It is Arizona’s largest column formation. The bat guano formations are more than 45,000-years-old.
Saturday Helmet and Headlamp
The length of the tour is 1 1/4 hours and is not available for children under 10. The cost is $30
The two hour photography tour is $125 and is only once a month.
There are four trails available at this location. Prepare for your hike. Wear comfortable clothing and have sturdy comfortable footwear. Take plenty of water. In the summer months, wear a hat and put on sunscreen. Before heading off on any trail, be sure to check the weather, especially during the summer monsoon season. Remember to stay on the designated trail. If you want to see some spectacular sunsets consider booking a Sunset Hiking Tour.
Hummingbird Garden Walk
This leisurely walk located near the Discover Center takes you through a variety of native vegetation, including desert bird of paradise, velvet honeysuckle and black spine prickly pear. For the best viewing of desert blooms, visit in the spring. Flowers in the garden attract a large number of hummingbirds all year.
Foothills Loop Trail
Starting at the Discovery Center, this moderate to difficult trail is 2.5 miles in length. It follows the limestone hill down to the Whetstone Block and San Pedro Block fault and then up to a scenic viewpoint of the mountains in the area. Watch for informational signs along the way.
The Ocotillo Trail is a moderate to difficult 1.75 mile hike. It is located 1/2 mile along the Foothills Loop Trail. The full loop including the Foothills is 3.2 miles. The trail is named after the ocotillo desert plants found along the route. Their orange red spring blossoms attract hummingbirds. Prickly pear, yucca and barrel cactus are some of the many types of vegetation in the area. Great views of the Dragoon mountains, San Pedro River Valley and the “sky island” mountain ranges.
Starting near the campground, this trail is 4.2 miles in length. It is a moderate to strenuous hike, climbing up to over 5620 feet in elevation past semi-desert grassland and oak-juniper woodland.
This is a desert area. Respect the wildlife for your safety and their well-being. Always keep your distance. Watch for butterflies in the spring. Be aware of scorpions. The Arizona Desert Scorpion is the biggest in North America. They are nocturnal and usually come out at night.
Hummingbirds are most prominent during the migratory season between April through early October. The area lists 63 species of birds. Here is a handy guide. Find out more about the Arizona hummingbird migration.
Watch for several types of rattlesnakes. Be careful where you step and never place your hands in areas you cannot see. Avoid wearing sandals. Rattlesnakes are most active in the summer months. There are also lizards, tortoises and Gila monsters. Gila monsters are venomous, very slow moving and live in underground burrows.
Always be aware of your surroundings and take extra precautions. Mountains lions, coyotes and gray foxes are in the area. Find out more about wildlife viewing and check out the trail cameras.
State park entrance fee is $7.00 per vehicle. This fee is waived if you have paid for a cave tour or campsite.
Kartchner Caverns State Park is located about an hour’s drive from Tucson, Arizona.
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