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Amazing caverns and the O.K. CorralAmazing caverns and the O.K. Corral

Benson and Tombstone, ArizonaBenson and Tombstone, Arizona

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.

  • You’re NOT a member of AOPA? Doc Holliday and the Earps might have something to say about that! Photo courtesy O.K. Corral.
  • Roy Jones of SouthWest Aviation offers this spiffy 1955 Dodge Coronet as his around-town courtesy car. Photo courtesy SouthWest Aviation.
  • These Marines arrived via the Osprey in back. Wonder how many of them can fit in the Coronet? Photo courtesy SouthWest Aviation.
  • A chile relleno, grilled chicken taco, and grilled steak taco from Mi Casa, in Benson. Photo courtesy Mi Casa.
  • Kartchner Caverns is a ‘living’ cave. Water is still dripping, and formations are still growing. Cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered the cave in 1974 and kept it a secret until informing the property owners, Janes and Lois Kartchner, in 1978. After meeting with state officials and receiving assurances that the state would protect the caverns and with help from the Nature Conservancy, the Kartchners began the process of transferring ownership to the state. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Arizona State Parks has worked to make the caverns wheelchair accessible. Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks.
  • From the parking lot, you’ll ride a tram to the caverns site. Above ground, there are numerous hiking trails. The area is a magnet for birders, who have excellent opportunities to spot birds rarely observed elsewhere in Arizona. Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks.
  • The Victorian-style Cochise County Courthouse was constructed of red brick in 1882 and is the center of Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park. Its museum includes a period sheriff’s office, artist drawings and interpretations of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, saloon and gaming room, period lawyer’s office and courtroom, and exhibits on Wyatt Earp, mining, ranching, and Tombstone residents. Outside in the courtyard is a reproduction of the gallows where many convicted criminals met their fate. Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks.
  • After getting your shootout tickets, stop at Tombstone’s Historama for a 26-minute multimedia history presentation narrated by Vincent Price that runs on the hour, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Photo by Herby via Flickr.
  • See Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Virgil and Morgan Earp fight the McLaurys and Clantons in daily reenactments of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in The Streets of Tombstone Theater. Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks.
  • Grizz, blacksmith at the O.K. Corral, uses only 1880s techniques. He can stamp your name in an old horseshoe or forge you a custom branding iron. Photo courtesy O.K. Corral.
  • At the Rose Tree Museum, the world’s largest rose bush is a white Lady Banksia. The original root came from Scotland in 1885. From this single trunk, it spreads over an arbor that covers more than 8,000 square feet. Photo by Fritz Liess.
  • John Clum once said, ‘No tombstone is complete without its Epitaph.’ He founded the ‘Tombstone Epitaph’ newspaper in 1880; the paper is still in publication. Visit its free museum and receive a reprint of the 1881 ‘Epitaph’ with the original Gunfight reports as part of your O.K. Corral admission ticket. Learn how Clum captured the Apache warrior Geronimo and why he hired the Earps to defend Tombstone. Watch how the ‘Epitaph’ was printed in the 1880s on the original Washington hand press. In the back shop, see composing stones, linotype machines, type cases, and interpretive displays that chronicle the newspaper’s ‘hot metal’ days. Photo courtesy Tombstone Historama Corporation.
  • Bring your kids to Tombstone, Arizona, for a taste of the Wild West. Photo courtesy O.K. Corral.
  • Most of the people buried at Boothill Graveyard met a less-than-normal demise. Many of the graves are identified with newer wooden grave markers that describe the manner of death, such as ‘murdered,’ ‘shot,’ or ‘hanged by mistake.’ You’ve probably heard about the grave marker shown here. The more ‘respectable’ citizens originally interned at Boothill were relocated to the ‘new’ city cemetery long ago so as not to spend eternity surrounded by outlaws. The name Boothill refers to the concept of dying with one’s boots on, not an uncommon occurrence in the American West. Photo by Peter Jarvinen.

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.

Sure enough, Roy Jones, who started SouthWestern Aviation in 2002, has free tiedowns and not one, but two courtesy cars. They’re generally first-come, first-served, but you can call ahead to be sure one is there. Roy grew up around aviation and remembers the way FBOs used to be. Tell him a clean joke that makes him laugh and you’ll get a 5-cent-per-gallon fuel discount. Stop in on “Can’t Pass Gas Saturday” when he guarantees he will beat the lowest price within 50 nautical miles by at least 20 cents a gallon. As an example, fuel went from $4.79 down to $4.11 on a recent Saturday. Take the minivan to the caverns (a 25-minute drive) or Tombstone (a 45-minute drive). His other car is a spiffy blue 1955 Dodge Coronet, reserved for stylin’ around town. Visit the much-beloved Singing Wind Bookshop for books about the Southwest, Mi Casa for some of the best Mexican food anywhere, or Horseshoe Café, home of meat-lover’s prime rib, chicken fried steak, delicious coconut cream pie, and friendly folks. Mention Roy’s FBO at the Days Inn for a discount.

A few “soda straws” hang above stalagmites in Kartchner Caverns. The formations on the left are often referred to as “bacon” due to their appearance. Photo by Robert Shea.

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.

After the shootout at the O.K. Corral, get your photo taken with Wyatt Earp and the rest of the gang. Photo courtesy O.K. Corral.

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.”

Four camping cabins are available at Kartchner Caverns State Park. Each two-room cabin sleeps up to six, with one queen and two sets of twin bunk beds. You supply linens or sleeping bags and pillows. Cabins feature a table and four chairs, a mini-fridge and microwave, along with a heater and air conditioning. Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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