Kartchner Caverns State Park
On the other side of I-10 from Colossal Cave, one of Arizona’s most long-awaited “openings” was that of Kartchner Caverns State Park (520/586-4100), a massive limestone cavern—over 2.5 miles long—that is rated by experts as one of the 10 most beautiful in the world. It was discovered by a pair of avid cavers, Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, back in 1974. It then took 25 years of negotiation and more than $28 million worth of careful construction of tunnels and facilities before the cave was opened to the public. Advance reservations for one of the guided tours (around $25) are all but required if you want to enter the cave to see the 150-foot-square Throne Room, with its 60-foot ceiling, or the larger but less lofty Rotunda Room, or any of the other phantasmagorical sights. The caverns, which are kept at near 100 percent humidity by a set of airlocks at the entrance, are remarkable for their diverse and delicate formations, including over 30 different types of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, shields, and helictites, not to mention the longest “soda straw” in the United States—a thin tube of limestone over 21 feet long but only a quarter-inch in diameter.
Kartchner Caverns State Park is just west of Benson, nine miles south of I-10 exit 302, along Hwy-90. If you don’t manage to join a tour, it’s still worth stopping at the 23,000-square-foot visitors center (520/586-4100, daily, $7 per vehicle) to see the movie describing the cave and its discovery. There are also some full-scale replicas of the cave’s features, along with an above-ground hiking trail through native hummingbird habitat, a 62-site campground with full hookups, and four camping cabins.
Off I-10 along the banks of the San Pedro River, Benson (pop. 4,870) was founded as a Santa Fe railroad connection to booming Tombstone and the Mexican harbor town of Guaymas. Trains still rumble through town, but there’s not much to see apart from fading roadside signs. Reb’s Café and Coffee Shop (1020 W. 4th St., 520/586-3856) and the Horseshoe Café and Bakery (154 E. 4th St., 520/586-2872), across from the railroad tracks, are where locals go to eat. Thanks in part to the popularity of Kartchner Caverns, Benson has a number of motels congregating around I-10 exit 304.
The Amerind Foundation Museum
From Benson, our route cuts south on old US-80 (now Hwy-80), while I-10 races east over the mountains that 100-plus years ago were a stronghold of Apache warriors under Geronimo and Cochise. If you’re following the interstate, a couple of sights are worth looking for. The more satisfying of these, the Amerind Foundation Museum (520/586-3666, Tues.-Sun., $10), lies 13 miles or so east of Benson, off Dragoon Road a mile southeast of I-10 exit 318. Started in 1937, the private nonprofit museum is devoted to the study of local Native American cultures, with everything from ancient arrowheads to contemporary Pueblo pottery on display in the spacious mission-style buildings. Not surprisingly, the best collections are of Hopi, Navajo, and Apache artifacts, with well-presented exhibits of ceremonial and domestic objects—kachina dolls, rugs, and ritual costumes.
I-10: The Thing
Advertised by signs all along the freeway, one of the country’s odder roadside attractions stands atop 5,013-foot Texas Summit, along I-10 at exit 322: The Thing (520/586-2581, $2). A gas station, a gift shop, and a Dairy Queen stand in front of a prefab shed full of stuff ranging from a Rolls Royce said to have been used by Adolf Hitler to The Thing itself, a mummified corpse whose “secret identity” has yet to be revealed. “What is it?” the signs ask.