The Butterfield Stage crossed the San Pedro River nearby in the early 1860s, but the town didn't really get going until the railroad arrived in 1880, filling its saloons with cowboys, miners, Mexicans, and Chinese. Benson, 36 miles southwest of Willcox and 45 miles southeast of Tucson, is quiet now and offers motels, campgrounds, and restaurants for travelers.
San Pedro Valley Arts and Historical Society Museum
Photos and artifacts show life in the early railroad, mining, and ranching days (180 S. San Pedro, 520/586-3070, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Fri. except closed at 2 p.m. May-Sept., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat., closed Aug., free). Outside in back, you can see a 1923 fireless steam engine used by the Apache Powder Company. A gift shop sells local handmade crafts. From Fourth Street, the main street through downtown, turn one block south on San Pedro.
Cowpunchers compete in team roping, barrel racing, and other events at the Arena, behind Pardner's RV Park on the west edge of town; ask for the schedule at the Benson Visitor Center. The Antique Tractor Pull in early February pits machines against one another in antique (before 1940), classic (1940-60), garden, and pedal classes. Territorial Days on the second weekend of February presents music and other entertainment along with family activities. The Fourth of July celebration features firefighter competitions and fireworks. Butterfield Overland Stage Day on the second Saturday of October entertains with a blues concert, parade, and crafts.
San Pedro Golf Club (926 N. Madison, 520/586-7888, www.sanpedrogolf.com) is an 18-hole championship facility and restaurant north of town beside the San Pedro River. Turquoise Hills Family Golf Center (800 E. Country Club Dr., 520/586-7535, www.turquoisehills.com) offers an 18-hole executive course, a restaurant, and miniature golf near the San Pedro River off AZ 80 south of downtown.
Under $50: Independents include Quarter Horse Motel (800 W. 4th St., 520/586-3371, $38 d) and Sahara Motel (1150 S. Hwy. 80, south of town, 520/586-3611, $35 s, $39 d). Motel 6 (two miles west of downtown at I-10 AZ 90 Exit 302, 520/586-0066 or 800/466-8356, $39 s, $45 d with a pool) is at the turnoff for Kartchner Caverns and Sierra Vista.
$50-100: Days Inn (621 Commerce Dr., just north of I-10, 520/586-3000 or 877/586-3303, $53 d with a pool), Super 8 Motel (855 N. Ocotillo, just north of I-10, 520/586-1530 or 800/800-8000, $50 s, $55 d with a pool), and Best Western Quail Hollow Inn (699 N. Ocotillo, just south of I-10, 520/586-3646 or 800/322-1850, $65 s, $70 d with a pool and hot tub) all hang out near I-10 Exit 304.
$100 and up: Holiday Inn Express (two miles west of downtown at I-10 AZ 90 Exit 302, 520/586-8800 or 888/263-2283, $119 s, $99-119 d) offers a pool and fitness center at the turnoff for Kartchner Caverns and Sierra Vista.
All of these have showers. KOA Campground (0.5 mile north of I-10 Exit 304, 520/586-3977 or 800/562-6823, $20-22 tent, $25-27 RV w/hookups, $39 d cabin) offers a natural setting away from the highways; guests have a pool, hot tub, game room, and store. Benson I-10 RV Park (520/586-4252 or 800/599-0081, $22-24 RV w/hookups) is just north of I-10 Exit 304, then right. Red Barn RV Park (520/586-2035, $12.50 tent or RV w/hookups) is just north of I-10 Exit 304, then right past the Benson I-10 RV Park. Quarter Horse Motel (800 W. 4th St., 520/586-3371, RV $16 w/hookups) is on the west side of town, as is Pardner's RV Park (950 W. 4th St., 520/586-7887, $13 RV w/hookups). Cochise Terrace RV Resort (520/586-0600 or 800/495-9005, www.cochiseterrace.com, $45 RV w/hookups) features a pool, hot tub, and many other amenities; it's on the right, one mile south of I-10 Exit 302 on the way to Kartchner Caverns.
Horse Shoe Cafe (154 E. 4th St., 520/586-3303, daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is an old-fashioned place with Western decor serving American and some Mexican items. Chute-Out Steak House (161 S. Huachuca St., 520/586-7297, nightly for dinner) serves up a variety of steaks plus shrimp, fish, ribs, and chicken. Galleano's (601 W. 4th St., 520/586-3523, daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner) serves American standards plus some Italian items. Beijing Palace (577 W. 4th St. in the Safeway Shopping Center, 520/586-7140, daily for lunch and dinner) specializes in Chinese food. Magaly's Mexican Restaurant (675 W. 4th St., 520/5866-2027, closed Sun.) is a simple cafe with good south-of-the-border food. At the east end of town, 86 Cafe (700 E. 4th St., 520/586-3169, closed Sun.) cooks bargain priced American and Mexican food. You'll also find American favorites at Country View Restaurant (600 N. Ocotillo, just south of I-10 Exit 304) and Denny's (825 N. Ocotillo, just north of the exit).
Information and Services
To learn about sights and services, stop by the central Benson Visitor Center (249 E. 4th St., Benson, AZ 85602, 520/586-4293, http://bensonvisitorcenter.com, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. year-round, also 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun. in winter). The public library (300 S. Huachuca St., 520/586-9535, closed Sun.) is two blocks south of 4th Street. A city park lies three blocks north on Patagonia from 4th Street. The post office (250 S. Ocotillo St.) is two blocks south of 4th Street. Benson Hospital (450 S. Ocotillo St., 520/586-3606) is four blocks south of 4th Street.
Amtrak trains (800/872-7245) stop downtown three days a week in each direction on their route across southern Arizona. Greyhound buses (680 W. 4th St., 520/586-3388 or 800/231-2222) swing by the Benson Flower Shop.
Singing Wind Bookshop
This unique shop (Singing Wind Rd., 520/586-2425, usually 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily including most holidays) on a ranch near Benson carries an excellent selection of regional books and a bit of just about everything else! A children's room has many enchanting books too. Owner Winifred Bundy is a treasure trove of advice about authors and titles. She also organizes three fiestas: music and regional authors on the Sunday preceding Thanksgiving, cowboy and cowgirl poetry on the last Sunday in January, and a literary-themed event on the last Sunday of February. Go north three miles on Ocotillo from downtown (2.5 miles north from I-10 Exit 304), then turn right at the sign and drive a half-mile; there's a gate halfway in.
Jay Gammons loves old towns so much that when he couldn't buy one, he built his own (520/212-2831, www.gammonsgulch.com, $7 adults). He carefully assembled the buildings with parts of old ones along with many antiques to create a ghost town that appears to come straight out of the Old West. Jay has also been in the movie business—his dad worked as a bodyguard for John Wayne—and the town and props have been used in films. Every item has a story as Jay or an assistant enthusiastically takes you around to the saloon with its 1880s bar (you can order a root beer), sheriff's office, mercantile store, wagon shop, blacksmith shop, assay office, hotel, wheelwright shop, telegraph office, barbershop, engine house, undertaker, Chinese laundry, and mine. A nature trail loops through the picturesque desert country nearby.
Call ahead to check the hours and see if you need a reservation. The Gulch is 12 miles north of Benson; from I-10 Exit 306 at the east end of town, head north 11.8 miles on Pomerene and Cascabel Roads (observe speed limits), turn left 0.2 mile on Rockspring Road, then left to the entrance.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
Discovered in 1974, Kartchner Caverns (P.O. Box 1849, Benson, AZ 85602, 520/586-4100, http://azstateparks.com/Parks/KACA/index.html, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, entry is free if you show a tour reservation, otherwise it's $5/vehicle up to four people, $2 each additional person or cyclist) became Arizona's 25th state park in 1988. Because of the exceptional care needed to preserve the pristine interior formations and environment during trail construction, the cave didn't open to the public until November 1999. Beautiful limestone formations, softly tinted yellow and red, decorate the living cave system. You'll see magnificent columns up to 58 feet high, delicate "soda straws" (one is a quarter of an inch in diameter and over 21 feet long, but too fragile to be visited), shields, stalactites, stalagmites, and nearly every other type of cave feature.
Begin your visit in the Discovery Center, where you can watch a 15-minute video about the exciting discovery of the cave. Exhibits illustrate local geology, cave features, and the web of life inside. Highlights include a replica of the long soda straw and a reproduction of the 80,000-year-old Shasta ground sloth, whose bones were found in the cave. A cut-away cave model shows the layout of the chambers. Even if you're not taking a tour, the Discovery Center makes a worthwhile visit. There's a gift shop and over-priced vending machines, but no restaurant. Outside, you can wander through the hummingbird garden, go for a hike, or have a picnic. The information desk has a bird list.
The park offers two tours, each a half-mile loop: the Rotunda/Throne Room (1.5 hours, open year-round; $19 adult, $10 kids 7-13, free under 7) and the Big Room (1.75 hours, open Oct. 15-April 15; $23 adult, $13 ages 7-13, no children under 7). A tram takes you from the Discovery Center to the cave entrance, which has protective air locks. Once inside, you'll experience the cave's temperature of 68ºF at 99 percent humidity. Guides ask that you not bring cameras, strollers, walkers, or food inside the cave. The paved paths have moderate grades but no steps; wheelchair users should call for advice. Tours depart daily every 20 minutes from 8:40 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. You can tour both sections of the cave in one day, though this isn't recommended for people with heart problems. Note that the Big Room, which opened to the public only in 2003, closes each summer when bats move in. Try to make reservations for the cave tours as far in advance as possible, though last-minute spots may become available due to cancellations. If you can't get a reservation, try for one of the tickets sold first come, first served each morning; call ahead and ask advice on what time you should arrive and get in line. The reservation number 520/586-2283 is open Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. except state holidays.
The 2.4-mile Foothills Loop Trail provides an aboveground perspective of the park and takes 2-3 hours; a spur trail leads to a viewpoint, adding a mile and 45 minutes to the roundtrip. The 4.2-mile Guindani Loop Trail heads deeper into the Whetstone Mountains of the Coronado National Forest. Bring water and wear sturdy shoes for these trails.
The campground offers first-come, first-served sites with electric and water hookups for $22; guests have showers and a dump station. Both tents and RVs are welcome, but everyone should check in before 5:30 p.m. The park is in the Whetstone Mountains just west of AZ 90, nine miles south of I-10 Exit 302, 11 miles from Benson, 19 miles from Sierra Vista, 28 miles from Tombstone, and 49 miles from Tucson.
This small town is seven miles south of Benson on the way to Tombstone. Phileman Merrill, an adjutant general of the Mormon Battalion, founded the town of Marcus at springs beside the San Pedro River in 1877; it later took the name of another Mormon (Latter-Day Saint). Holy Trinity Monastery lies 1.5 miles south of town.
Holy Trinity Monastery
This Benedictine monastery on the banks of the San Pedro River welcomes visitors to experience the tranquility and spiritual life here (P.O. Box 298, Saint David, AZ 85630, 520/720-4016, www.holytrinitymonastery.org). The monastery began in 1974 and now houses monks, sisters, and a small group of lay people. The community looks after 150 acres, which includes a pecan orchard, lakes, and riparian and desert areas. You could begin your visit at the Monastery Store (on your left as you enter the grounds), where you can pick up a map, get information, browse the gifts and books, and register for overnight stays. Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel stands nearby on a low hill. Trinitas Art Gallery & Museum presents historical and religious exhibits, but you may need to call ahead to see them. A library holds spiritual and regional titles. There's also a thrift shop. A 1.3-mile trail loop begins near the RV park and heads over to the San Pedro River with excellent birding opportunities; a second trail branches off partway and loops back in about 1.4 miles. People on retreat can stay in the accommodations, and anyone is welcome to use the RV park, which is first-come, first-served and costs $15 w/hookups.
You're invited to participate in the daily schedule, which includes a mid-day prayer at 11:45 a.m. (10:15 a.m. on Sunday) followed by mass 15 minutes later. Art festivals run on Mother's Day weekend in May and on the second weekend of November. Holy Trinity Monastery is nine miles south of Benson on the way to Tombstone; look for the 74-foot Celtic cross on the west side of AZ 80 between Mileposts 302 and 303.
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