Plumb vast caverns, study railroad history and visit a Kennedy retreat in the Arizona desert
With exquisite landscapes serving as a backdrop, Arizona's deserts offer lots of fun outdoor activities for even the most adventurous visitors. Benson stands out for its rich history and its numerous diversions. The eclectic town will keep you guessing what's around every corner.
Founded when the Southern Pacific Railroad was built in the area in 1880, Benson is perhaps best known as the gateway to the Kartchner Caverns State Park. Named after a close friend of the president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Judge William B. Benson, the area was originally developed as a resting place for the Butterfield Overland Stage mail delivery route.
The Southern Pacific Railroad served the area until the Union Pacific Railroad purchased the line in 1997. The cultural feel of the city is rooted in the Old West and traditional railroad heritage. In historic downtown Benson, the Benson Visitor Center is actually an exact replica of the railroad depot that stood over a century ago. Today, RV travelers can access Benson by Interstate 10, which runs through town.
Off State Highway 90, just south of Benson at the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains, you'll find the magnificent Katchners Cavern State Park. This 550-acre park features a vast cave system that was first discovered in 1974 and wasn't open to the public until 1988, when it was purchased as an Arizona State Park. This pristine limestone cave has many unique features, including numerous minerals and unique formations that have been growing for thousands of years.
Visitors can choose from two hour-and-a-half guided tours to view the various calcite formations, including stalagmites that grow up to the ceiling from the ground and stalactites that hang like giant melting icicles. Both tours are a half mile long. The Rotunda, or Throne Tour, features the discoverers' original trail and explains the role that water plays in creating the caverns. The Big Room Tour takes you underground to discover the colorful formations as well as the cave fauna, both ancient and living.
The park's fascinating discovery center boasts a large gift shop, interesting displays about the region, a theater and museum exhibits. Hiking trails, shaded picnic areas, a deli, amphitheater and hummingbird garden serve weary travels seeking a peaceful rest stop for the day and night.
Kartchner Caverns is home to one of the world's longest soda straw stalactites. The 21-foot-long geological marvel is located in the Throne Room. Also in the Throne Room is the most massive and tallest column in all of Arizona, the Kubla Khan, which stands 58 feet tall. In the Big Room you can see the world's most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk and the first reported occurrence of turnip shields, birds nest needle quartz formations, and other unusual formations such as shields, totems, helictites and rimstone dams.
Just outside Benson is the Jay Six cattle ranch, where a young John F. Kennedy recuperated from illness in the dry desert sun. Kennedy was also sent there in 1936 along with his brother, Joe, to work for rancher Jack Speiden. The 40,000-acre ranch has hosted a number of political figures over the years, including senior statesman Barry Goldwater.
This region of southern Arizona boasts some of the best bird watching in the world. Grab your binoculars and hit the Birding Trail on San Pedro River, not to mention the exquisite Waterfowl Viewing Pond. Avian fans will also enjoy the nearby southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, which offers many activities, tours and guided walks.
If you tire of the wide array of birds and waterfowl, keep an eye out for the many mammals, reptiles and plant life that flourish in the area. The San Pedro River, which flows north from Mexico, attracts wildlife to its rich, fertile wetlands. The region is said to be one of the very last undeveloped areas in the United States. Historians say the area has hardly changed over the past century.
Held every April, the Benson Bluegrass Festival brings locals and visitors together for a long weekend of talented bluegrass bands, delicious southwestern food, arts and crafts, and exhibits.
Some history buffs might also enjoy a self-guided walking tour through Benson's Historical District to see buildings erected during the railroad era of the late 1800s and early 1900s. One such structure is the restored Zearing Mercantile, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has served as a general maintenance store and meat supplier in decades past. While walking down Fourth Street, the main street though town, you'll notice many murals along the route. These give the old west vibe that help make this charming town so appealing to the eye.
Check out the San Pedro Valley Arts and Historical Society's museum to discover exhibits and information about Benson's colorful past. Every year, the organization stages a reenactment of the Pony Express to honor the logistical challenges of early mail carriers.
Benson is a diamond in the rough that has something for everyone, with great nature trails, deep caverns and a railroad legacy that continues to fascinate.
For More Information:
Benson Visitor Center
Arizona Office of Tourism