Exploring cool caves and mines in southeastern Arizona.
Temperatures in southeastern Arizona can soar in the summertime. Luckily, this colorful corner of the state offers four unique underground tours that will satisfy anyone’s thirst for adventure and provide welcome respite from the heat.
First Stop: Colossal Cave
From Tucson, travel east 21 miles on Interstate 10 to exit 279 and head north. Follow signs to Colossal Cave Mountain Park through 8 miles of scenic Sonoran Desert vistas. Colossal Cave sheltered people a thousand years ago, and it’s easy to understand why. The cave remains a comfortable 70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Visitors can take a 45-minute half-mile underground tour each hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and enjoy the beauty of six-and-a-half-stories of stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and other geological wonders. If time’s not a constraint, longer and more strenuous tours are available. Tales are told of train robbers using the cave as a hideout in the 1800s. The park has camping facilities, miles of hiking and birding trails, horse rides, and a petting zoo.
Explore Tombstone’s Silver Mines
Back on I-10, go 24 miles east to State Highway 80, exit 303. Drive south through the historical town of Benson, an original Pony Express stop, and enjoy murals depicting Old West scenes near the old railroad station. Continue 26 miles to Tombstone and turn right on 5th Street to the 1878 Underground Mine Tours entrance.
The Tombstone area has 300 miles of mining tunnels. The 45-minute Good Enough Mine Tour leads to the inner workings of one of Tombstone’s earliest silver mines. Original artifacts, mining equipment, and silver ore are showcased in this underground tour where the temperature hovers around 64 degrees Fahrenheit. If you can spend an extra day and are truly adventurous, try the three-hour Toughnut Mine Adventure Tour or arrange for The Girard System Extreme Tour — a seven-hour grueling ordeal through well-preserved workings of the Tombstone Mining District.
Tombstone is a great place to stay overnight on this road trip. Here you can stroll along the same sidewalks Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday strode upon. Then, belly up to the bar in the Crystal Palace Saloon or Big Nose Kate’s to enjoy a cool, refreshing sarsaparilla.
All Aboard the Queen Mine Tour
About 26 miles east of Tombstone on Highway 80, as you emerge through the tunnel at Mule Mountain Pass, you’ll see the outskirts of Bisbee, AZ. Where Tombstone is a western town with typical false-fronted wooden structures, Bisbee’s buildings are made of brick and mortar, and the city is nestled in a canyon. Turn right on Dart Street (a sign states Old Bisbee Historical District, Next Right), drive straight to the stop sign, and cross the road into the Queen Mine Tour parking lot. Peruse mining exhibits while awaiting your tour. Once you set off on your tour, the mine train takes you into the bowels of the earth for one hour. A jacket is recommended, as the temperature in the mine is 52 to 58 degrees. As you chug into the horizontal shaft, keep in mind that there are 10 levels of tunnels above you and 33 more levels below! The Queen Mine was one of the largest and richest copper-producing mines in the world. Over 8 billion pounds of copper were extracted before the mine closed in 1975.
Last Stop: Kartchner Caverns
About 50 miles northwest of Queen Mine, you’ll find the underground gem of Arizona — Kartchner Caverns State Park, which includes a campground, hiking trails, and Discovery Center with a theater presentation, museum, and gift shop. These remarkable caves are “living,” which means their formations are still being created by rainwater percolating through the ground above. The cave has an average temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit with a constant humidity of 99 percent.
The spectacular hour-and-a-half long Rotunda/Throne Room Tour is open year-round. It features the original trail of the amateur spelunkers who discovered the caverns and fascinating formations, such as cave “bacon.” The light show and dramatic music, which introduces “Kubla Khan,” the largest underground column in Arizona, leaves spectators speechless. If you have time for only one underground adventure, this is the one you don’t want to miss. It’s extremely popular, so make reservations.
To return to Tucson, take State Highway 90 north for 9 miles to I-10, and head west about 44 miles. The entire underground adventure loop is a little more than 200 miles.
If You Go
Colossal Cave Mountain Park: 16721 E. Old Spanish Trail, Vail, AZ. Cave Tours: $16 adults (military discounts available), $9 ages 5-12, 4 and under free; 520-647-7275; colossalcave.com.
1878 Underground Tours: 501 E. Toughnut St., Tombstone, AZ. Price: $15 adults, $7 ages 5-12, 4 and under free; 520-255-5552.
Queen Mine Tour: 478 Dart Road, Bisbee, AZ. Price: $13 adults, $5.50 ages 4-12, 3 and under free; 1-866-432-2071; queenminetour.com.
Kartchner Caverns: 2980 S. Highway 90, Benson, AZ. Price: Rotunda/Throne Room Tour: open all year; $23 adults, $13 ages 7-13, $5 under 7; Big Room Tour: Mid-October to Mid-April; $23 adults, $13 ages 7-13, under 7 not allowed; 520-586-2283; azstateparks.com/parks/KACA.
This article was first published in Arizona Highroads in July/August 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.