Welcome to Coronado National Memorial. One of the only places in Arizona where you can explore a cave on your own. Not just any cave, Coronado Cave. No permits, guides or lines. Arizona never fails to amaze me, and Coronado cave exceeded my expectations. I’ll guide you as you follow in the footsteps of Coronado, and conquer your fears in the darkness of the cave.
On February 23, 1540 Coronado and over 300 soldiers set out from Compostela, Mexico. Nearly five months later, they arrived at present-day Gallup, New Mexico. Why you may ask, would they set out on such an expedition? Cabeza de Vaca is the answer. He spread tales through Mexico City of large cities, abundant goldsmith, and doors decorated with turquoise and emerald. Could you ignore such fantastic claims? I couldn’t. He supposedly wandered the American Southwest for eight years. As word spread of the richness of the New World, explorers were eager to begin an expedition
Antonio de Mendoza, Viceroy of New Spain, chose Francisco Vásquez de Coronado to lead the expedition to the New World. Although the famed Seven Cities of Gold (aka Cibola), were never found, Coronado made important contacts with the current residents of this “New” world. He was also one of the first Europeans to explore the Grand Canyon. Coronado and his men passed through Coronado National Memorial, and left their mark on history. Although Coronado died in obscurity, he laid the foundations for future exploration and settlement of the American Southwest.
Coronado national Monument is managed by the National Park Service. It is located just 90 miles south of Tucson. Here you can drive up a switchback for expansive views of Mexico, hike deserted trails, watch wildlife in their natural habitat, and even explore a cave. At the visitor’s center you can get lost in the history of Coronado and his men, or just sit down and watch the spring, sometimes deer are present. Maybe you want to go further and spend a few hours hiking in the Huachuca mountains? Although I often visit for the panoramic views, Coronado National memorial has something for almost everyone. Even geology lovers will have plenty to see, although collecting is not allowed on National Park lands.
Getting to Coronado from is an easy scenic drive and only requires three turns from start to finish. Once on I-10 south, and again on Hwy 90 South, and finally into the memorial. Coronado National Memorial is only twenty miles from the U.S.- Mexico border and thirty miles from Bisbee, Arizona. The first stop is the Visitor’s center. If you plan to do any hiking, be sure and check in with the park ranger and explore the history of Coronado N.M. Also, take a few minutes to find out about Coronado and his men. They left their mark on the American Southwest in ways that are still visible today.
Hiking to the Cave Entrance
The hike up to Coronado cave is easy but steep. We hiked this trail at the beginning of November and it was still hot. I recommend at least two quarts of water per person. We usually carry at least two liters per person when hiking in the Arizona desert. The trail starts a quarter-mile past the visitor’s center. We left our car at the visitor’s center and walked the quarter-mile down to the cave trail on the right. By the time we had finished exploring, we wished we had parked right in front of the trail. After about an hour of some small rock scrambles and exploring the uneven cave floor, the quarter-mile hike back was tough.
Note: Pets are not allowed on the cave trail or in the cave. Smoking is not permitted. Also prohibited are littering, collecting souvenirs, and tagging the walls with messages. Please keep the noise to a minimum so as not to disturb the bat’s habitat or disrupt the experience of others’ enjoying the cave.
Getting in Coronado Cave
Moment of truth here, I was scared! I’ve been to some unusual places during my six years in the Army, but I’ve never scrambled down into a cave! I seriously almost stayed at the entrance and let Joe explore. That would have been a BIG mistake. I didn’t drive and hike all that way to chicken out at the last-minute, so I swallowed my fear and started down the hole.
It was totally worth it. It looks MUCH scarier than it actually is. Although I did have to keep three and sometimes four points of contact on the ground, it wasn’t difficult to get into the cave. After I had scrambled down, I paused a moment to look back up at the opening and think about who may have been there before me.
It’s a unique experience, that’s for sure. I kept looking back as I walked further into the cave. The opening got smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until all I could see was complete darkness. Now I’m looking ahead instead of behind, and it feels surreal. The floor is uneven, and I can only see a few feet in front of me. Even with a flashlight and headlamp, it is VERY dark. There’s an entire subterranean world to explore. It is highly recommended that each person carry two sources of light, not counting a cell phone. Once we had made it all the way to the back of the cave, we decided to turn off our lights and sit a moment in the dark silence. It was a moment of complete sensory deprivation. Something I’ve never experienced before.
Exploring in the Dark
We had the unbelievable luck of having the entire cave to ourselves for over an hour. The silence is beautiful. This cave is still a living cave, which means that water is still present and formations are still active. Most of the stalactites and stalagmites were snapped off by centuries of vandalism. There are however, still some major formations present in the cave. My favorite formation is at the back. A close inspection will show the presence of beautiful quartz crystals. Since I could not find any scientific name for the formation, I will refer to it as, “Coronado’s Crown”
Coronado Cave Layout
Exploring Coronado cave is a great place to conquer one’s fears because you can’t get lost. The cave layout is simple. There’s the entrance, one great room, and hallway, and another great room. At the back is Coronado’s Crown, a great place to sit down and explore a few minutes of total sensory deprivation. Even though we spent over an hour in the cave, there were many corners and smaller formations that I didn’t get to. There is a small spur off to the right of the hallway to explore. It has been vandalized by graffiti. If you look around you may find water dripping down some of the formations.
Humans have visited Coronado Cave for thousands of years. Vandalism has taken its toll. Only the largest formations remain, and even those are chipped away by human hands. Please do not touch the formations. We found a few places where water is still seeping in through the cave. That means that there’s hope for more formations one day. Bats still use the cave as their home (although we didn’t see any). Loud noises can disrupt their habitat.
I saw several places of outright vandalism. Why is it that humans feel the need to make their mark everywhere? What would the cave look like if everyone left their mark? Awful. Please just don’t do it. Please don’t remove anything from the cave either.
Exploring Coronado cave requires no technical caving knowledge, but it does need a bit of common sense and preparation. I recommend at least two sources of light, not counting a cell phone. Although the cave is only 800 ft long, one would have a difficult time finding the entrance in the dark. The floor is uneven and walking around is actually a bit challenging. Most of the time our light source was directed up at the formations instead of down at the ground. It’s extremely difficult to walk when you can’t see your feet or what’s in front of you.
In addition to two sources of light, bring adequate water and let someone know you’re going into the cave. There are a few very slick spots on the floor near the outer edges of the cave. Happy caving and enjoy your visit, you may be walking where Coronado and his men once explored.
Hours: Coronado National Memorial is open year-round from civil twilight dawn to civil twilight dusk (approximately 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1/2 hour after sunset).
Fee: Coronado national Memorial is 100% free, free, free! God Bless America for the beauty of places like this!
Address: 4101 E Montezuma Canyon Rd. Hereford, AZ 85615 Phone: (520) 366-5515