Fly to Benson for friendly fixed-base operator service “like it used to be.” Borrow the car to see Kartchner Caverns or visit Tombstone, where “Wyatt Earp” and his compadres shoot it out at the O.K. Corral.
Bang! Bang! The airplane pitched up and down yet again as we fought headwinds and hot thermals over southern Arizona. We’d been visiting family in Alabama and were nearly home to the California coast, yet we’d had enough. I started looking down for a place to land. “There’s Tombstone,” I said, “We could go see a shootout at the O.K. Corral.” But it was evident that no one was at the airport, at least a three-mile walk from town—in the heat. We pressed on. Then I remembered, “How about Benson? I think they have a courtesy car. Yeah, that’s where those fantastic caverns are!” Benson it was.
Now, the Kartchner Caverns: Simply the most exquisite I have ever seen! Their history is remarkable. First discovered on private property in 1974, the caves were kept secret to protect them from damage until the state could acquire them. They were not opened to the public until 1999, when proper facilities and protocols were in place to keep them protected. Unlike Grand Canyon Caverns' "dry caves," Kartchner is a “living” system. Water still drips, the formations (many of them extremely fragile and colorful) are still growing, and many sensitive life forms live in the caves. Reserve your tour in advance (several different tours are available) and arrive at least 30 minutes early. No cameras, bags, water bottles, etc., are allowed. Prior to entering the cave environment, you’ll walk into a conservation chamber and the door will close behind you; that’s to prevent outside air from getting in. Staff regularly clean cave surfaces of dust, lint, and skin cells brought in by people. Don’t touch the formations! Just look and enjoy. Unlike most caves, this one is rather warm: 72 degrees and 99.5 percent humidity. From the beginning, Arizona State Parks has done a commendable job of protecting this priceless site, including the above-ground wildlife and hiking trails. A café, visitor’s center, campground, showers, and new camping cabins are available at the park, too.
Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park is a must-do for fans of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Wild West. Earp moved frequently and at various times earned his living via gambling, saloon-keeping, mining, and real estate speculation. He eventually settled in California, but what everyone remembers is the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. See it reenacted daily at 11 a.m., high noon (of course!), 2 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. Tickets can only be purchased at the O.K. Corral in person on the day of the performance; buy yours early since it often sells out. Then visit Grizz the blacksmith and walk through the stables as they appeared in the 1880s. Sit in the buggies or pan for gemstones in a running water mining sluice. The Prostitute's Crib tells the story of Tombstone's "soiled doves." See the hearse in which the dead made their final trip, up to Boothill Graveyard. The Rose Tree Museum, a former inn, has the world’s largest rose tree. Other attractions include the headquarters of the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper, Crystal Palace Saloon, Western Heritage Museum/Store, and Goodenough Mine Tour. After all that, the Tombstone Grand Hotel is the place to hang your hat in “The Town Too Tough to Die.”
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