How to Explore Arizona’s Kartchner, Lava River, and Colossal Caves This Fall

How to Explore Arizona’s Kartchner, Lava River, and Colossal Caves This Fall

Photo courtesy of Kartchner Caverns State Park 

By Teresa K. Traverse

October 3, 2023

The weather in Arizona is just on the cusp of cooling down enough that you can finally hit the hiking trails. And if you’re looking to shake up your outdoor fitness routine—or embark on a new adventure—you should consider visiting one of Arizona’s caves. 

Grab a flashlight—or better yet, don a headlamp—and head underground to check out these three subterranean wonders. As with any outdoor recreational activity, be sure to leave no trace and exercise caution when you’re exploring these natural attractions. Remember: Even if it’s sunny outside, bundle up for cooler temps before heading inside. 

If you’re interested in doing more caving in Arizona, check out the local chapters of the National Speleological Society (NPS) located throughout the state. Learn more about caves and what makes them so important at the NPS website.

Kartchner Caverns State Park 

2980 S. Hwy. 90, Benson 

Cost: $7 per car of one to four adults; $3 for one individual/bicycle. Park entrance fees are included in the price of a cave tour. 

How to Explore Arizona’s Kartchner, Lava River, and Colossal Caves This Fall

Photo courtesy of Kartchner Caverns State Park

Located in Benson in southern Arizona, Kartchner Caverns State Park beckons with just over 2 miles of underground caves. If you’d like to explore these caves, you must book one of four tours offered by the park. Guests 18 years old and up can take photo tours on the third Saturday of every month. 

The only trail offered year-round is the rotunda/throne tour. If you choose this tour, expect to spend around 90 minutes learning more about these caves. Discover how water formed them, see finds from the original trail, and observe the largest column formation in all of Arizona, dubbed “Kubla Khan.” 

Lava River Cave

171B Forest Road, Flagstaff

How to Explore Arizona’s Kartchner, Lava River, and Colossal Caves This Fall

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Cost: $5 for a daily Red Rock Pass. The park hosts fee-free days on holidays, including Columbus Day (Oct. 7-9), Veterans Day (Nov. 11), and Thanksgiving (Nov. 23) this fall. 

Flagstaff is home to the roughly 1-mile-long Lava River Cave, which you can visit year-round. As you might have guessed from the name, this place was formed 700,000 years ago when a volcano erupted nearby and left behind plenty of molten rock, which formed this marvel. Expect an uneven floor below and stalactites hanging from the ceiling above. 

Again, be sure to bundle up before you head inside this cave. According to the Forest Service, the temperature inside the cave remains between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Dogs and other pets are not allowed inside. During the winter, the roads leading to the area are closed to vehicles due to snowy conditions. You can ski or hike in, however. The route is about 4 miles. 

Colossal Cave Mountain Park 

16721 E. Old Spanish Trail, Vail 

Cost: $23 and up

Located about 40 minutes from Tucson, the Colossal Cave Mountain Park is spread out across 2,400 acres. Visitors can enjoy hiking, running, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Best of all? There’s no trail-use fee or permit required. If you’d like to check out this park’s namesake cave, however, you’ll have to book a tour. 

If you book the 45-minute Classic Cave Tour, be prepared to descend about six stories into the cave. No special gear is required, but you’ll need sturdy shoes. The cave temperature is about 70 degrees year-round. Grab the provided hurricane lamp and take the Lights Out Lantern Cave Tour to see the underground world lit up. Anticipate a variety of cave formations and maybe even spot some wildlife. 

If you’re searching for an even more intense caving experience, consider the Ladder Tour. This 90-minute tour requires you to climb ladders, scramble across rock bridges, and squeeze through narrow passages. Full-fingered gloves are required and available for purchase onsite. A helmet and headlamp will be provided on this physically challenging tour. 

History notes: Colossal Cave Mountain Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as the park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a group created to provide jobs during the Great Depression.

READ MORE: Meet 8 Arizona Restaurants That Have Been Featured on Food Network

Author

  • Teresa K. Traverse

    Teresa K. Traverse is a Phoenix, Arizona-based writer and editor. Her work also has appeared in national print outlets including Weight Watchers, Bust and Parenting magazines and on sites like Tripadvisor, Wine Enthusiast, SFGate, Brides, Rachael Ray Every Day, Bustle, Racked, ForRent.com, WeddingWire, Refinery29, The Daily Meal, Oxygenmag.com, USA Today and Fast Company. She's the managing editor of Sedona Monthly. In her spare time, she loves hiking, reading magazines and spending quality time with her long-haired Chihuahua, Rocket. Visit teresaktraverse.com to check out more of her work.

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