By Jennifer Longdon
Photos by Loren Worthington
There are many great parks in Arizona. There’s only one under it.
It was the thick ocotillo and a miner’s tip that the area might contain a sinkhole that drew Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen to that ridge. Tufts and Tenen, roommates at the University of Arizona in the 1970s, were avid cavers looking for a virgin cave to explore. In their wildest dreams, they did not expect to find a national treasure.
Caves like Kartchner are created when water erodes large limestone deposits over time. Ocotillo thrives on soil rich with limestone. So, as Tufts and Tenen scanned the range in front of them, the dense growth of ocotillo seemed the most likely place to look.
They found a small hole, about the size of a grapefruit, and a draft of warm, moist cave air rose with the scent of bat guano as they began to dig. After some time, they were able to belly-crawl through 85,000 years of bat guano through a slim opening no wider than a stretched-out wire coat hanger into a still-living cave.
In a state that boasts the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, the Petrified Forest and ancient ruins, the bar is set quite high to be considered a natural wonder. And there it was, 2.5 miles of some of the most mineralogically-diverse, well-decorated caverns in the world.
Tufts and Tenen kept their find secret for years in order to protect the cave from damage. Eventually, they approached James and Lois Kartchner, the ranchers who owned the land. Together, they dedicated themselves to protecting and preserving the fragile caves. Thus began a clandestine adventure of codenames (the cavern was referred to as ‘Xanadu’), secrecy oaths, surreptitious routes and blindfolded tours to keep the location and scale of Kartchner Caverns secret until the land was designated an Arizona state park and could be protected for the future.
In November of 1999, 25 years after its discovery, Kartchner Caverns State Park opened to the public. While nature is rarely ADA–compliant, much of the development of public access at Kartchner was done post-ADA. An effort has been made to make the park as accessible as possible without damaging the natural formations. This is the only cave in the world that is wheelchair accessible.
We were given rare access to the trails and cavern so that we could share our adventure with you. So, if you go, here’s what you need to know…
Located near Benson, Arizona, adjacent to the Coronado National Forest, Kartchner is an easy 3-hour drive from the Phoenix Valley (only an hour from Tucson) straight down I-10 to the well-marked turnoff for the final 10 miles on AZ-90. You can make a day trip but with so much to see and do in the region, take advantage of an overnight stay and visit Tombstone, Bisbee or Tubac, explore the Kitt Observatory or the missions at Tumaca’cori National Park.
Hotel rooms in the area are a quick Google search away. Kartchner does offer RV space, campsites and rustic cabins, some of which are accessible to people with mobility issues. Check the website for availability and reservations.
Choose a tour
Currently there are three tours offered.
The Big Room Tour (which we took) is the longest tour available at an hour and forty-five minutes, an hour is spent underground. Children under seven are not allowed on this tour. The Big Room is closed to visitors from April to October when it becomes a bat maternity ward.
The Rotunda/ Throne Room Tour is steeper and shorter. The tour lasts 90 minutes with 50minutes underground. This tour is available year round and there is no age restriction. On the Rotunda/Throne Room tour, you’ll see the largest formation in Arizona, the renowned Kubla Khan.
The Headlight and Helmet Tour is currently offered on Saturdays only. As the name suggests, you’ll see the caves solely from the light of your headlamp. From October to April, you’ll tour the Big Room, the rest of the year, you’ll tour the Rotunda and Throne Room. Children under 10 are not permitted on the Headlight and Helmet Tour.
Do make a reservation for cave tours as they book up months in advance.
Keep in mind:
The parking lot at the Discovery Center has 13 accessible spots. The two closest to the Discovery Center are marked for van access and share a wide access aisle. The remaining 11 spots are very wide and have no access aisles and we found that if we hugged the driver’s side of the space we had enough room to drop our ramp and exit the van.
Safety for visitors and staff and preservation of the caves is job one for the rangers. With that in mind, there are some restrictions.
- Pets are NOT allowed in the Discovery Center or on the cave tours. The Arizona heat can be deadly even in the spring and fall. It is not safe or appropriate to leave your pets in your vehicle during your visit to the caverns. Your service dog can accompany you but some find the subterranean environment challenging.
- NO food or drinks – including water bottles, are allowed in the Discovery Center or carried into the caves. Make sure you’re well-fueled and hydrated before you get on the tram for your tour. There are drinking fountains inside the Discovery Center and the Bat Cave Café serves a menu with something for everyone. Make sure you try the Prickly Pear Lemonade. It’s delish!
- Check in at the Discovery Center at least an hour before your tour. This will allow you time to see the exhibits and watch a short film on the formation and discovery of Kartchner Caverns. We found it informative and entertaining. Be advised that early in the movie, there is a simulated thunder storm with strobing effect in the theater. It’s short but intense.
- No packs, purses, cell phones or cameras are allowed on tour. Photography is not permitted in the caves (we had special permission) and anything that could potentially fall into the cave or be lost or left along the trail is not allowed to prevent contamination and potential damage. Lockers are available for rental.
- The tram offers a gentle, 5-minute ride through raw desert from the Discovery Center to the cave entrance. Enjoy the sights along the way. Each tram can hold two riders in wheelchairs. The ride is smooth enough that tie downs are not needed.
- To protect the fragile ecosphere inside the caves, you pass through two airlocks that keep the dry desert air from damaging the caves. These passages can trigger claustrophobia for some people. This is the smallest space you will experience on the tour. You will also pass through a misting system to keep lint and skin flakes to a minimum inside the caves.
- The environment inside the caves is constant at 70 degrees and 99% humidity. Your glasses may fog at first. Some folks with breathing or heart conditions may find the temperature and humidity challenging. Dress in layers to ensure comfort above ground outside and in the warm, moist underground caves.
- Inside the cavern, there are narrow passages, sharp turns and steep grades which create size restrictions for scooters and wheelchairs as not every chair will fit on the trail. Walkers without front brakes and some canes and crutches are not permitted due to the steep grade; as much as 12% in some areas. Details are available on the park’s website.
- Two in our tour group use manual wheelchairs and had some challenges with the grade, nothing that stopped us from enjoying our time there. We quickly learned on the first slope that our hand rims were damp and slick from the humid air, making downhill braking tricky. I highly suggest that you go with companions that can help with braking on grade and power on the inclines.
- Good gloves help as does a human holding on to the back of the chair. In most places, there is an installed handrail that helped with governing speed downhill and allowed better leverage to pull up the inclines. If you use a powerchair, the slopes can be less challenging, make sure you have a good charge and use a seatbelt if trunk stability is an issue.
Enjoying the tour
Each tour is staffed by two rangers and paced to allow time for questions and wonder. There are some places where one can sit. There are handrails throughout and flat resting spots at regular resting spots on the trail. Due to the high humidity, some people may find it harder to breathe. We found the hand rims on our manual wheelchairs became damp, which made braking a bit more thoughtful. Gloves with a good grip surface may help.
The otherworldly shapes grow at a rate that cannot be measured in a single human lifetime. Throughout the caves, the rangers will point out the layers of time – fossils, sedimentary strata, crystal formations and of course, the cave growing one drop of water at a time. The sparkle you see is water still moving through the limestone layers, still growing stalactites, stalagmites and helictites.
Cavers, it seems, are obsessed with food. Many formations have food-related names from cave bacon, undulating variegated ribbons that do resemble bacon, to fried eggs, the flattened tops of some stalagmites with yellowish centers reminiscent of sunny-side up egg yolks, popcorn and strawberries. The only known occurrences of “turnip” stalactites in the world are at Kartchner. Delicate hollow stalactite tubes called soda straws hang from the roof. These grow at a rate of one inch per hundred years. The largest known soda straw formation in the world can be found in the Big Room at Kartchner.
If you’re looking for a day trip with your winter visitors, Kartchner should be on your list of must-see Arizona locations. If you can take a few days to enjoy the area, the richness of southern Arizona is a treasure trove of history and majestic vistas.
Don’t miss out on Kartchner at night. Time your visit to join a star party and explore the solar system with rangers and guest speakers with views of the brilliant night sky without light pollution from cities. Thousands of bats hibernate in the area. During their active months, you can see them leaving the caves en masse at dusk to feed on insects.
Kartchner is open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas day). Fewer people visit in the summer, even though temperatures in Benson tend to run cooler than Phoenix and Tucson.
Raw natural beauty and universal access rarely seem to go together but Kartchner has worked to thread the needle that balances untouched wonder with thoughtful planning to include as many people with disabilities as possible. This isn’t a mall, so access is imperfect. There were places along the trail that this big chicken balked. But, heart-in-my-throat, I continued and was rewarded for the effort. Go and see for yourself. With a little planning, a couple of friends to push uphill or act as a second set of brakes going down, and a sense of adventure, Kartchner Caverns is a journey worth taking.
As planned, ASPT is adding 100 new cabins to the inventory of rental cabins currently available at selected state parks in the coming years. According to Sean Hammond, AZ State Parks ADA Coordinator, twenty-five percent of the rental cabins at each site will be “wheelchair friendly” upon completion of the project. Kartchner Caverns is the first park to get new, accessible cabins.
The cabins, which can sleep 4 – 6 people, consist of two rooms with bed frames, electricity, heat and AC. Picnic tables, grills, accessible restrooms and showers are typically located nearby.
The cabins are rustic but provide a middle ground for people who may want to enjoy an outdoor experience and yet sleep indoors. The bed frames can hold appropriate-sized air mattresses and allow individuals whose disabilities would not be compatible with sleeping on the ground an alternative so they can still enjoy the outdoors.
Sean Hammond – Grants and ADA Coordinator, Arizona State Parks and Trails
For the first time in memory, Arizona State Parks and Trails (ASPT) has a dedicated ADA coordinator. Sean Hammond was hired for the role in January. Hammond started his career with ASPT first as a volunteer and then as a Ranger at Kartchner Caverns.
As ADA coordinator, Hammond works to catalog and improve accessibility at all of Arizona’s 35 state parks. As part of the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), parks’ staff are mapping trails using High Efficiency Trail Assessment Process (HETAP) to get a precise measure of grade, width, slope, length, terrain, etc., along every inch of state trails. This information will ultimately be posted on ASPT’s accessibility page and on each park’s page so each person can personally determine the level of access available to them.
ASPT has big plans for improving access throughout the park system. Along with mapping all trails and assessing overall park access, Hammond will oversee a trial of mobi-mats on the beach at Lake Havasu State Park this spring. Hammond is exploring innovative partnerships to increase opportunities for people with disabilities to get closer to the natural beauty of Arizona State Parks and Trails.
He lists his favorite accessible parks as Kartchner, the only accessible cave in the world; Lake Havasu beach with the installation of accessibility mats; Boyce Thompson Arboretum as close to the Phoenix Valley (few wheelchair users can access the entire trail), and Dead Horse with an accessible fishing dock and cabins.
Jennifer Longdon is known to drink too much coffee, ask too many questions and then write about it. She has served on numerous Boards and Commissions focused on disability advocacy including the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues, the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Public Impact Panel. Jen has a T-4 spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair full time.