It was 2003 when the late Long Beach businessman/philanthropist Don Temple asked me if I had ever been to the “secret caves.”
I would often stop in to chat with Don, who owned the RV storage facility where we park our motorhome. Don was always curious about my travels because he too had a passion for travel. Many of his travels were in his own airplane — he once flew it around the world.
So when Don told me about the Kartchner Caverns in Benson, Ariz., I was intrigued. I had never heard of the place.
“That’s because they’ve kept it a big secret,” he said. I admit it was the “secrecy” that piqued my interest.
As Don and I pored over the brochure he pulled from the desk drawer in his modest little trailer-office, I learned that the caves were discovered in 1974 and kept completely secret until 1984! One by one, as select people were let in on the secret, they recognized how significant the discovery was, and kept the secret too.
In 1988, the discovery was made public. By then, Arizona had quietly passed laws to make the site an Arizona State Park.
Following years of study, planning and development, Kartchner Caverns State Park was opened for public tours of the “Rotunda and Throne Room” in 1999. The tour lasts about an hour and a half — almost an hour is underground.
A second tour, the “Big Room Tour,” that lasts almost two hours, was opened in 2003. This tour is only available from mid-October to mid-April in order to accommodate a seasonal visit by a certain species of bats during the summer months.
Don admonished me to get a reservation if I decided to go. I took him seriously because Don never kidded about anything. He was right. It was difficult to get a reservation and even more difficult to get a reservation for a “convenient” time, but we were booking months ahead, so we worked it out.
My wife and I first went to the secret caves in October 2004. We took the Rotunda/Throne Room Tour. On our second visit in January 2011, we took the Big Room Tour. This year, we repeated the Rotunda/Throne Room Tour.
Having been there three times now, I can attest that the mystical experience is still there. The colors and formations of the various minerals, stalactites and stalagmites are beyond description. These tours of nature’s handiwork are every bit as spectacular as any 3-D adventure movie or a Disneyland attraction.
A word of advice before you go — arrive an hour early. The tram that takes 20 people up the side of the mountain to the cave entrance always leaves on time!
Temperature in the caves is a pretty comfortable 72 degrees, even with 99% humidity, so casual clothing is appropriate. Regrettably, you can’t take cameras, cellphones, purses, backpacks or bottled water inside, but there are lockers available near the Discovery Center and Gift Shop where you can stash your personal items.
Benson is a little off the beaten path, but other nearby points of interest like the historic towns of Bisbee and Tombstone, the Rex Allen Museum in Willcox or the Cochise Stronghold can fill your time in the area.
If you enjoy Kartchner Caverns, you owe your thanks to my friend Don Temple. If he were still alive, he would give you his humble smile in return.