Visiting caves, also called spelunking, can be a thrilling and sometimes dangerous venture. In Arizona, you can find caves formed by water, ancient lava flows, or wind and sand erosion. Some of these cave systems are contained inside state parks, and others are accessible on public land.
The nice thing about visiting caves in Arizona is the climate inside them! Most of these caves have the same pleasant temperature year-round, even when it is soaring past 100 degrees outside. This makes spelunking the perfect activity to do any time of year.
If you’re scared of enclosed spaces or frightened of the dark, visiting these caves may not be for you. However, if you like some adventure mixed with a little bit of adrenaline, visiting the dark and moist recesses of some of Arizona’s caves should be on your bucket list.
1. Kartchner Caverns State Park
Discovered in modern times in 1974 by two friends exploring the limestone cliffs in the area, the cavernous halls of Kartchner Caverns didn’t become known by the public until 1988 when the owners of the land around the cave system sold their property to the state of Arizona. It was then formed into a state park to preserve the caverns forever.
Visiting the caverns themselves requires a guided tour, reserved in advance. The tours take about three hours to complete, but since the caves are at a constant 70 degrees and 100% humidity, you can tour these caves even on the hottest summer day. Viewing the various travertine rock formations up close gives you an appreciation for geology and the eons of time that it took to form these spindles and towers.
The Discovery Center is a great place to visit for those who are claustrophobic and don’t wish to head underground into the caves. At this visitors center, you can learn about the history of the caves and learn about the processes by which caverns like Kartchner Caverns are formed.
These travertine rock formations are formed over tens of thousands of years and are very fragile. One touch from a wayward hand could cause permanent damage to the cave system, so be cautious and respectful as you make your tour!
There are also hiking trails, camping, wildlife viewing, and cabins to rent at the Kartchner Caverns State Park.
- Address: 2980 AZ-90, Benson, AZ 85602
- Entrance Fees: $7 per vehicle, extra for cave tours
2. Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Southeast of Tuscon is a cave system so vast, it definitely lives up to its name. Used by ancient peoples as shelter and rediscovered by settlers in the late 1800s, the area around the caves was preserved as a park in the 1930s.
There are guided tours available every day for a varying fee, depending on which tour you pick. The most popular is the classic cave tour, which is family-friendly and doesn’t require any special equipment. The ladder tour requires a little more physical activity, as you scale ladders down, down, down into the heart of the cave system.
The most intense and in-depth (pun intended) tour is the 3.5 hours long wild cave tour. Get ready to get dirty, because this tour will take you through some tight squeezes, pitch-black tunnels, and narrow passageways. This tour is definitely not for the weak or claustrophobic!
If caves aren’t your thing but you’re traveling with others who wish to explore the caves, don’t worry! Above ground, there are miles of trails for hiking, trail running, and mountain biking. There’s also guided horseback riding on the trails. Bring a picnic too and enjoy the desert landscape.
At sunset, thousands of bats take flight out of the caves during certain times of the year. In fact, half of Arizona’s bat species use Colossal Cave as a home or waypoint during migration.
- Address: 16721 E Old Spanish Trail, Vail, AZ 85641
- Entrance Fees: None, but cave tours range from $20-$125
3. Lava River Cave
Formed by a flowing river of lava from one of Flagstaff’s volcanoes about 700,000 years ago, this cave is a mile long and is an easy walk for most skill levels. The tube was created when the outside and bottom of the flow hardened first, then the lava continued to flow in the middle and eventually emptied.
The cave is cold year-round, ranging between 35-45 degrees even in summer, so bring a jacket! The rocks tend to be sharp and slippery, so always wear appropriate footwear. It is also recommended to bring three sources of light, as it gets pitch black at the end of the cave. Turn off your lights at the very end to experience some of the deepest darkness you’ve ever experienced.
Located only 30 miles from Flagstaff, the roads can be closed in the winter, so always check conditions beforehand. If there’s enough snow, you can even ski in to the Lava River Cave. Visiting Lava River Cave is a fantastic addition to any Flagstaff trip.
- Address: 171B Forest Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86001
- Entrance Fee: None
4. Peppersauce Caves
Formed by limestone (like most of Arizona’s caves), this cave system is located about 10 miles from Oracle, Arizona northeast of Tucson. These caves don’t have any official tours, and no parking lot, but there is a sign near the road to point you toward the entrance.
Getting into the cave requires a shimmy through a narrow entrance. Headlamps are a must, and non-slip shoes are encouraged as well. The rocks in this cave are wet and slick! The temperature inside is a constant 70 degrees, even in summer. Do not enter the cave if it’s going to rain, as the water levels inside can rise to dangerous levels.
Once you are inside the entrance, you’ll find a 15-foot ladder that you’ll need to climb down in order to get to the “birth canal”, a small hole that requires you to shimmy through on your stomach. Wear clothes that can get wet and muddy, because there’s no way to stay clean in these caves!
After passing through another couple of formations and features, you’ll find yourself in “the signing room”, which is mostly dry with a low sloping ceiling. There’s usually a notebook and pens here for people to sign their names in celebration of traversing the cave.
There are other parts of Peppersauce Cave that are less explored, but sticking with the main sections will help you stay safe in your spelunking adventure!
- Address: 10.4 miles past Oracle on Mt Lemmon Rd
- Entrance Fee: None
5. Coronado Cave
This is a fairly small and more accessible cave than the others on this list, located near the Mexico-Arizona border. Getting into the cave requires a free permit that you can pick up at the visitor center.
Coronado Cave is about 600 feet long and 70 feet wide at some parts, and to get from room to room, some crawling might be required. The hike to the entrance can be slightly challenging, with a 500-foot climb in only a half-mile.
Once inside, feel free to explore and enjoy the many stalagmites and stalactites, which are columns of rock formed by dripping water over thousands of years. It is recommended to wear sturdy shoes and gloves to avoid damaging the cave walls.
- Address: On W Montezuma Canyon Rd south of Hereford, AZ
- Entrance Fee: None
6. Grand Canyon Caverns
As the name suggests, this cave is located near the Grand Canyon. The limestone walls of this cavern system are of similar geology to the soaring walls of the canyon as well. It was discovered by modern people in 1927 and officially protected in the 1960s.
The ancient history of this cave is fascinating; there is evidence that ancient people used it as shelter, and there was even a fossil skeleton of a long-extinct giant sloth found near the natural entrance. Grand Canyon Caverns also has the distinction of being the largest dry cavern in the United States, as most caverns are still active with dripping water.
There are four different tours you can pay for, ranging from beginner to advanced levels. The more advanced level tour requires gear and takes you down into the deepest recesses of the cavern, rarely seen by visitors. The beginner tour is accessible for all ages and levels and allows you to see the bigger areas of the cave with an easy walk.
If you’re visiting the Grand Canyon and want to add a little more adventure to your trip, Grand Canyon Caverns is an excellent choice. There are camping sites, cabins, and bunkhouses located conveniently nearby.
- Address: Route 66 Mile Marker 115, Peach Springs, AZ
- Fees: Varies; for camping, cabins, and cave tours, check at https://gccaverns.com/
7. Wave Cave
This small cave is at the end of a popular Arizonian hike on the southwest side of the Superstition Mountains. It is so named due to a rock formation inside the cave that looks like a wave on the seashore. It is big enough to stand on and makes for a fun photo opportunity.
The hike to Wave Cave is 3 miles round trip and rated as difficult, climbing up over 860 feet in elevation on the way up. The last climb up to the cave is especially steep, requiring you to use your hands at times. Once you make the top, it is more than worth it! Wave Cave is plenty big enough for several groups to hang out to escape the Arizona sun.
Take caution on your way down, as it is very steep with loose gravel. Always check the weather and avoid doing this hike on the hottest summer days. The Wave Cave makes for a fun but challenging hike with good views at the top.
- Address: Peralta Trailhead, Gold Canyon
- Parking Fee: $15
8. Onyx Cave
This cave is notoriously hard to access, but if you put in the work, you could have the whole cave system to yourself for several hours. Onyx Cave is privately owned by a company called Escabrosa Grotto, Inc., and in order to schedule a reservation to visit the cave you must mail in your request at least 2 weeks in advance.
Once you attain your key to the gate to the caves, you are free to explore! The cave was gated off in 1974 in order to protect it from vandalism and damage. It is now restored to its original beauty and condition.
Onyx Cave is a series of rooms and passageways that wind in and out of the limestone, creating a honeycomb effect. They haven’t been deeply explored in many years, so when you visit do so at your own risk!
- Address: Visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coronado/recarea/?recid=25516 for directions
- Entrance Fee: None
9. Cave of the Bells
The shining feature of this cave is the underground lake that is located about 80 meters below the surface. Similar to Onyx Cave, the entrance is gated and so you must contact the Coronado National Forest Supervisor’s office and apply a refundable $100 deposit for the keys.
Once you have the keys and find the gate, you are free to explore! The Lake Tunnel entrance will take you to the famed underground lake, and you’ll notice something strange – the temperature of the lake and the air get warmer as you go deeper. Experts believe this means there is a heat source under the surface of the lake.
Getting here requires four miles on a dirt road, and 4WD or a high-clearance vehicle is highly recommended. It is located near the towns of Sonoita and Panguitch in south-central Arizona.
- Address: Visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/coronado/recarea/?recid=77768) for directions
- Fee: $100 refundable deposit
10. Wind Cave
While not a true cavern or large cave like the other caves on this list, Wind Cave still counts! It was created through wind erosion on the side of a cliff on Pass Mountain, in Usery Mountain Regional Park.
The hike up to Wind Cave is one of the most popular hike in Mesa, Arizona, and is 3 miles round trip with about 800 feet of climbing. Once you reach the cave, enjoy the shade and the view! You can see all the way to downtown Phoenix and other areas of the valley from here.
The cave itself is shallow but has plenty of places to sit and enjoy a snack and the view. Take your time on the way up, as the entire trail will be exposed to the sun in the afternoon. This trail is best done in the mornings when the mountain provides plenty of shade.
- Address: 3939 N Usery Pass Rd, Mesa, AZ 85207
- Entrance Fee: $7 Day Pass
Cave exploring is a popular activity for adrenaline junkies and adventure seekers. While it can be dangerous at times, if you come prepared with maps and the correct equipment, you can see parts of the underground world that few people ever get to see.
Arizona may not have the largest number of caves to explore, but the ones that do exist here have storied pasts and new nooks and crannies to discover. From the huge rooms in Kartchner Caverns to the gently sloping walls of Wind Cave, there are a variety of rock formations and interesting features to enjoy.
Arizona’s caves are worth your time and give you a chance to experience underground terrain that few get to see. Any one of the caves on this list can give you a memorable (and slightly claustrophobic) experience!