Colossal Cave Mountain Park
16721 E. Old Spanish Trail, Vail
HOURS: Mar. 16–Sept. 15 daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m.,
Sept. 16–Mar. 15 daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
COST: Park entry $5 per car with up to five people;
cave tours $8.50 adult, $5 child 6–12
Sure it’s a “dead cave,” and certainly in recent years it has become but a poor country cousin to the living underground wonderland that is Kartchner Caverns State Park just a few dozen miles to the southeast, but Colossal Cave Mountain Park near Vail, about a half-hour drive through the desert east of Tucson proper, has many charms nonetheless.
Colossal Cave has been used as a shelter, an altar, a hideout, and a tourist attraction by various bands of natives and colonists for the last 1,000 years or so, according to prehistoric artifacts and historic local newspaper accounts. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps built a few structures near the cave’s entrance in that inimitable stacked native-stone style, and installed lights and railings through about a half mile of the sprawling grotto.
The typical tour follows this route, while the guide narrates a general natural history of the cave with a bit of human history (including a tale of outlaws) peppered in. It’s all very basic, but interesting and really fun, especially with kids.
Those looking for a more adventurous route should check out the Saturday-night Ladder Tour (5:15–9 p.m., $35 with dinner, must be at least 12 years old and fit, reservations required), on which you’ll shimmy and squeeze through passageways far off the tourist path in a helmet and headlamp. After the cave tour, there’s a gift shop and a café and long views of the desert.
A few miles down the road but still within the park the 130-year-old La Posta Quemada Ranch offers more activities, particularly for children. In addition to trail rides and a gift shop, the ranch features a large sundial, displays on the cave and the CCC’s work in the park, and a habitat for two old Desert Tortoises, Henry and Big Nasty. It’s unlikely you’ll see either tort unless you arrive in the morning, especially during the hotter months. There are plenty of shady and peaceful places to picnic here, and you can even camp if you make a reservation.
© Tim Hull from Moon Tucson, 1st Edition