Journeying east from Tucson on I-10, many think of Benson as a convenient stop on the way to grander destinations in Texas, New Mexico, and beyond. Stop for a bite to eat, gas up, get out. Or peer from the window of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, assess the smattering of buildings, the yellow grass, the reflective gray of the San Pedro River, and think it an uneventful place.
This unassuming desert town, however, offers surprising adventure.
Known as The Hub City and Gateway to Cochise County, Benson made its debut as a train town. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which arrived in 1880, developed Benson into a terminus for transportation of mining and ranching materials, including copper from southeast Arizona. By 1924, multiple Southwest railroads led to Benson. Though no longer a railroad nucleus, Benson continues to serve as a popular interstate rest stop and, for those in the know, a distinct tourist destination.
To reach Benson’s best known attraction, Kartchner Caverns State Park (2980 AZ-90), follow I-10 east from Tucson, take Exit 302, and follow AZ-90 south for nine miles. The park sign and a dirt road will appear on the right. Take a 90-minute, subterranean tour of the Rotunda/Throne Room and discover a water-sculpted underworld while park guides share information about the stunning, and sometimes eerie, formations. This half-mile walk showcases glittering stalactites and stalagmites formed by the steady drip of water through rock over tens of thousands of years. Formations include moon milk, cave bacon, and soda straws hanging from the walls, true to their names in appearance. In some places, stalactites and stalagmites have grown long enough to connect, forming columns. The tour culminates with lighted views of Kubla Khan, a 58-foot tall column.
A movie in the visitor center details the discovery of Kartchner Caverns. Two spelunkers, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, crawled for several hours through narrow portals, sometimes no wider than a coat hanger, following a stream of warm air and the smell of bats, until they found the rooms. Indoor displays tell the cave’s history, including a life-size replication of a giant pig-nosed Shasta ground sloth whose 80,000-year-old bones were discovered deep in the caverns and whose death will forever remain a mystery.
If you’re tempted to pet the shaggy sloth’s fur, it may be time to move on to Forever Home Donkey Rescue and Sanctuary (360 E. Rockspring Road). From I-10 through Benson, take Exit 306 toward N. Pomerene Road, which turns into North Cascabel Road. After 14 miles, turn left on W. Rockspring Lane and follow the sanctuary signs. Schedule your visit with owners John and Tish Hiestand at ForeverHomeDonkey.com. They welcome individual and group visits to tour the sanctuary and interact with donkeys.
Forever Home unofficially began in 1997, when the Hiestands bought Blackjack, a bushy Poitou-mix destined for the slaughter house. They acquired other donkeys to provide company for Blackjack and soon became a home for donkeys with physical and emotional complications. Some were injured after being used for rodeo roping practice, others were victims of neglect. Today, the Hiestands’ herd of 17 donkeys includes the original Blackjack.
Donkeys are less reactive than horses, patient, and great around children. “They’re extremely good companions,” says Tish. “More like dogs than horses.” Visitors are invited to pet the donkeys while learning their names and stories of survival. “They’re a very unappreciated animal, considering civilizations have been built on their backs,” says Tish. When asked what she likes best about donkeys, Tish mentions their personalities: “They go toward life. They still appreciate people, even when they’ve been mistreated.” The donkeys at Forever Home are gentle, eager for an ear pet, and even more eager to nose your backpack for snacks.
To take this adventure indoors, head to Singing Wind Bookshop (700 W. Singing Wind Road) by following I-10 W to Exit 303. Drive 16 miles down North Ocotillo Road and turn right on West Singing Wind Road. The bookstore sits in a cluster of buildings down a dirt road to your left.
Winifred Bundy has run the bookstore on her private ranch for about 40 years. In addition to stocking two rooms with books organized by every topic imaginable and specializing in Southwest subjects, Bundy hosts book talks and history lectures at her ranch.
Leaving the bookshop, take Ocotillo Road south and turn left on Fourth Street. Park by the Benson Visitor Center (249 E. Fourth St.) and view murals painted by local artist David Quarles. The panels depict railroad construction, mining history, and local flora and fauna. Mules carry cartloads of ore, a Union Pacific freight train chugs across an arid landscape, and a roadrunner stands beside a budding barrel cactus. Quarles’s detailed strokes tell the story of Benson’s birth and development. (For a backstory on each scene, visit BensonVisitorCenter.com.) View more of Quarles’s art across the street at Quarles Art Gallery (234 E. Fourth St.), where oil and acrylic paintings of wildlife, landscapes, and portraits line the walls top to bottom.
For lunch or dinner, drive about a mile west on Fourth Street to Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant (723 E. Fourth St.). It’s easy to miss: look for a yellow house-turned-restaurant tucked away from the road. Inside, terra cotta and turquoise walls are hung with folkloric art. This family-owned restaurant specializes in dishes inspired by traditional recipes from La Paz, Mexico. Enjoy spicy albondigas soup, Popeye’s spinach enchiladas decorated in zigzagging white sauce, or Baja-style shrimp tacos, with beans topped with a saguaro-shaped chip. Whatever the order, you can expect mouth-watering decorative flair.
Destination or pit stop, don’t forgo a visit to the Gateway to Cochise County. Nowhere else in Arizona will you find Benson’s combination of caves, docile donkeys, bookstore-on-a-ranch, and artistically presented Mexican food. ✜
Saraiya Kanning is a freelance writer, silk painter, and birder living in Tucson.