By Alison Bailin Batz
Just over two hours from the Valley (and about 30 miles from Sierra Vista Municipal Airport) sits Benson – the kind of sweet, backroads destination you initially stumble upon, and then angle for ways to return to again and again.
Benson was founded when the Southern Pacific Railroad came through Southern Arizona in 1880; it’s named for Judge William Benson, a colleague of the railroad’s president who spent many years in the mining towns around the region.
The town’s top attraction is Kartchner Caverns State Park (azstateparks.com/kartchner). This limestone cave is “live,” meaning its icicle-like formations continue to grow thanks to water seepage from the surface. This underground landscape is cool – literally – with an average temperature of 72-degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Reservations are necessary to tour the cave.
Back above ground is the most extraordinary place to browse and buy books, and it’s smack in the middle of a working cattle ranch. The Singing Wind Bookshop (facebook.com/singingwindbookshop) is a true Arizona original, in business since 1974. The shop is beloved as “the headquarters for books about the Southwest.” You can while away hours here, and you’re welcome to pack a picnic lunch to enjoy the jaw-dropping, 360-degree views.
If Kartchner offers geologic discovery, Holy Trinity Monastery (holytrinitymonastery.org) spreads spiritual delight. The lovely grounds of this Benedictine monastery are open to visitors of all faiths. First you’ll encounter a towering Celtic cross; amble a bit and you’ll enjoy an enclosed courtyard garden, pecan trees, and a nun-run RV park. Whatever you do, don’t miss the bookstore and its wonderful, fresh-baked bread.
Another can’t-miss attraction – The Oasis Sanctuary (the-oasis.org). Established in 1997, The Oasis Sanctuary is a unique avian rescue and life-care facility dedicated to providing permanent care, shelter and rehabilitation for companion parrots that have no re-homing options. In particular, it is a refuge for exotic birds such as parrots, cockatoos, macaws and other psittacine birds. If you are interested in visiting The Oasis site, guests are welcome by appointment. There is a suggested minimum donation of $10.
Now, if seeking nature beyond the beautiful bird, try Cochise Stronghold (cochisestronghold.com) nature and interpretive trails. This rugged natural fortress was, for some 15 years in the mid-1800s, the home and base of operations for the famed Chiricahua Apache Chief, Cochise. He is reputed to have been a master strategist and leader who was never conquered in battle. Upon his death, he was secretly buried somewhere in or near his impregnable fortress. The exact location has never been revealed or determined. Today, there are several trails within the Stronghold, ranging from less than a mile to five miles one way. Benches are strategically placed, so you can sit and listen to the whispers of those from long ago and enjoy the superb views of the canyon.
If there are any Old West fans in your group, don’t leave Benson without a quick stop at Gammons Gulch Movie Studio (gammonsgulch.com), a working movie set that gives tours nearly daily. And for the sophisticated set on your trip, make time for the Gallery of Dreams Fine Art Gallery (agalleryofdreams.com) in town. At any given time, the space exhibits 50-plus artists from throughout the United States, all working in different styles and media. In addition to oil and acrylic painting, the Gallery of Dreams exhibits a full complement of original artwork including jewelry, mixed media, leather work, fountains, bronze and stone sculptures.
Of course, like any great spot in Arizona – they have golf! The San Pedro Golf Course (sanpedrogolf.com), owned and operated by the city of Benson, is an 18-hole championship course. This facility has six sets of tee boxes that allow for play from more than 7,300 yards all the way down to 3,500 yards. Hence, it offers a quality golfing experience at an affordable price for players of all skill levels. The front nine meanders through mesquite groves along the San Pedro River, while the back nine plays through natural canyons with significant elevation changes. San Pedro is pure golf played in an all-natural setting, free from man-made obstructions.
And finally, there are several options for accommodations. Camping and RVs are among the most popular ways to enjoy the area, but there are also a host of bed and breakfasts and guest ranches from which to choose, including Cochise Stronghold Retreat (cochisestrongholdretreat.com), Down by the River Bed & Breakfast (downbytheriverbandb.com) and Double R Guest Ranch (doublerguestranch.com).
For more information, visit bensonvisitorcenter.com.