If you’re looking for a real Arizona adventure, what could be cooler than finding your way underground?
Deep, dark caves and caverns stretching beneath the arid Arizona landscape can provide a much-needed cool off from those hot days in the sun. Plus, with some remarkable geology and ecology, caves have a lot to teach us about our world.
A few important tips about cave exploration:
- Always bring a light. And a backup light in case the first fails. Go with a guide if you are not familiar with the cave or not experienced in underground navigation and travel.
- Dress warm! Most of the time, caves are pretty cool and damp. You’ll want to wear something warm and that you don’t care if it becomes permanently stained.
- Wear a helmet. When it’s dark, even with a light, you’re more likely to bump your head in an overhead environment.
- Do not enter any flooded passages. You don’t know where they lead, and there might not be an easy escape.
It is extremely easy to get turned around and lost in caves. If you don’t have experience caving, please go with someone familiar with the cave, or head out with a guide. Although we list fee info in this article, be sure to check with the parks ahead of time in case of fee increases, as well as cave closures.
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1. Cave of the Bells
Why you should go: get down and dirty in one of Arizona’s deepest wild caves.
- Nearest town: Sonoita
- Cost: Free ($100 depository)
Located in the Coronado National Forest south of Tucson, the Cave of the Bells is one of the more popular wild caves in Arizona. Unique from most caves, the interior of this one actually gets bigger the deeper you go. The unique geology of this place took thousands of years to develop, and all of the minerals and formations you encounter in this cave are incredibly fragile.
The Cave of the Bells is quite remote and therefore in better condition than other caves open to the public. That said, due to vandalism in other spots, the Forest Service has opted to close and lock the gave with the option to schedule a visit. They want to preserve the cave and keep it in good condition for all to enjoy. The keys are available at the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Tucson for a $100 deposit.
After traveling down a rough dirt road and opening the gate, you’ll want to secure a rope to get down the 10-foot drop into the cave. Make sure you secure the rope well so you can more easily get out. The cave starts as a large cavern with numerous side rooms and tunnels.
With a bit of exploration, you’ll even find a warm lake about 80-meters below the surface. The lake is thought to be warmed by deep geothermal sources and maintains a temperature of about 76-degrees Fahrenheit. There are some beautiful crystal and mineral formations on the cave walls so remember to tread lightly and protect the resource for everyone to enjoy.
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2. Colossal Cave
Why you should go: Tour a spectacular show cave within a 45 minute drive of Tucson.
- Nearest town: Vail
- Cost: $22 to $150 for guided tours
Also southeast of Tucson is the popular Colossal Cave Mountain Park. This spot is a one-stop option with guided tours of the caves, a campground, a historic ranch, a cafe, and a gift shop. The cave tours come in several flavors, depending on your experience and tenacity.
The Classic Tour is a family-friendly option that is more of a walk than a spelunking adventure. Learn about the history and legends of the cave and witness the stunning rock formations on this half-mile walk.
The Ladder Tour is for those 12 and older who want to go a bit deeper. Explore more remote sections of the cave, squeeze through narrow passages, climb ladders, and maybe even see a bat or spider. Gloves are required for this adventure, and you’ll need to provide your own.
The last option, the Wild Cave Tour, comes in intermediate and advanced options and is only open to those older than 16 years. You will explore the darkest reaches of the cave, crawling through dirt and mud for three and a half hours. You’ll want to bring some knee and elbow pads for this one.
After a full day of caving, why not get out and explore the rest of the park. The ranch is has a unique history, including bandits and cowboys, and trail rides are a great way to explore the park. You can camp at the park’s campground and enjoy a stunning view of the night sky that is almost devoid of light pollution.
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3. Coronado Cave
Why you should go: Explore a primitive cave just a stone’s throw from the Mexican border.
- Nearest town: Sierra Vista
- Cost: Free
Coronado Cave is a large undeveloped cavern, 600 feet long and 70 feet wide. Amazingly, no permit is required to enter and explore this cave. Located within Coronado National Memorial, the cave is notable for being one of the most easily accessible and explored caves in southern Arizona.
After a short hike up to the entrance, you’ll scramble down a boulder slope into the entrance. From there, the cave is actually relatively straightforward, with several level passages lined with stalagmites and stalactites. It is thought the cave was often used as a shelter by various groups of people beginning as early as 8,000 years ago.
Despite its simple character, the cave is still pitch black, and it’s easy to get turned around, so it’s best to have a partner with you. If you can’t find a partner, consider joining a free ranger-guided tour provided by the park.
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4. Grand Canyon Caverns
Why you should go: the easiest way to explore the limestone caves of the Grand Canyon.
- Nearest town: Peach Springs
- Cost: $25 to $150 for guided tours
If you’re looking to tack on a bit more to your Grand Canyon experience, why not explore some caves that wind through the Canyon’s rock formations? Located 210 feet below the surface, Grand Canyon Caverns is an incredible place to explore. Although not located within Grand Canyon National Park itself, this cavern is located in the western region of the Canyon, just south of the Hualapai Reservation.
The highly developed cave is definitely a tourist trap. But when you get to have some pretty extreme caving tours, do you care? Several tour options here range from a simple walk with protective fences to deep spelunking experiences — there is something for everyone to enjoy. There is even a ghost tour adventure! If you’re looking for an extraordinary experience, why not book the cavern hotel suite and spend the night underground.
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5. Lava River Cave
Why you should go: Explore a “cool” underground tunnel formed from an ancient lava flow.
- Nearest town: Flagstaff
- Cost: Free
Part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, the Lava River Cave (known to locals as the “Lava Tubes”) formed about 700,000 years ago by — you guessed it — a river of lava. Ask the top sites and bottom cooled; the center remained molten and continued to flow through the new tunnel until the eruption ceased and the tunnel emptied out. As you walk along the floor, you’ll see what appear to be ripples, evidence of the past lava river.
There is much more to know about the cave’s geology that you can read about before your departure. The temperature in some parts the cave is quite chilly — 45-degrees Fahrenheit —so you’ll undoubtedly want to bring along a jacket to explore this mile-long underground feature. This is one cave that isn’t difficult to get lost in. As a long tube (with one split that reconnects with the main tunnel) you’ll head straight down to the end and back.
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6. Kartchner Caverns
Why you should go: Take a gander at the most impressive cave system in Arizona.
- Nearest town: Benson
- Cost: $23 to $30 per tour, $7 per vehicle park entrance fee
Located in the state park, there is more to Kartchner Caverns State Park than just the caves, including hiking trails and a campground. That said, the caverns are the real draw! At an average temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the cave is quite pleasant to explore and much warmer than most caving experiences. Most spots are dimly lit, with a few narrow passages or enclosed areas. If you want to explore the cave, you’ll need to book a tour with a guide.
You can choose from three primary tours: the Rotunda/Throne Tour, the Big Room Tour, or the Helmet and Headlamp Tour. Keep in mind that there is no photography allowed in the cave, so if you want to snap some pictures, you’ll need to reserve the special Photo Tour offered every third Saturday of the month.
The cave houses some pretty spectacular features, including a massive 58-foot-tall column, one of the world’s longest soda straws at 21 feet, the world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk, and more!
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7. Cave of the Domes
- Nearest town: Grand Canyon Village
- Cost: National Park entrance fee ($35 per vehicle)
The only legal-to-access cave in Grand Canyon National Park that is open to the public, the Cave of the Domes, is a reasonably simple cave to explore and is the only cave in the park you don’t need a permit to enter. On top of that, you get to take an incredible and challenging hike to get there.
Located at the end of Grandview Trail on Horseshoe Mesa, the cave is about 3.5 miles down the trail below the South Rim. It’s undoubtedly a long round trip for a single day but quite manageable for the avid hiker. Getting down from the top of the mesa to the entrance can feel a bit exposed — a fall here would be fatal, so take your time and watch your footing. The main room of the cave is open and leads back under the mesa.
There are several smaller side passages that you can crawl through and tight spots for the more adventuresome. The ceiling of the cave (the domes) is still forming and will be wet and sometimes dripping, but the ground is dry. This is an excellent place for a hiker to take a quick side stop and explore while out and about exploring the Grand Canyon.
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