Kartchner Caverns, Apple Annie’s, Willcox, Sierra Vista, Benson: All That Cochise County Has to Offer. We’ve been to Tucson multiple times, even down to Bisbee and Tombstone. But there is so much more to explore in southeastern Arizona – in particular, in Cochise County. Where else can you pick apples, take a cave tour, or hike in a forest canyon all in the same weekend? This not often explored area of Arizona, just 3 hours from Phoenix, has a lot to offer kids of all ages!
What We Did
Our three-day trip across Cochise County took us to three cities: Benson, Willcox, and Sierra Vista, and then back to Benson. If you’re looking at this same itinerary, we suggest booking anything requiring a reservation first, like a Kartchner Caverns tour, and then planning the rest of your trip around that. (See the end of this blog post for a quickly listed itinerary.)
Day 1. We left Phoenix at 7 am on Thursday, eating breakfast on the go. Our final destination for the night was Willcox, about 3 hours away, and we had lots to explore before resting for the night!
A fun random stop on the way is Bowlin’s “The Thing” . Take a tour and wonder what if aliens had already infiltrated earth and history. (Have you ever seen Men in Black? Kinda the same idea, that aliens were and are all around us, we just don’t know.) The self-guided tour takes about 20-30 min, ending with a viewing of the mysterious Thing.
What is The Thing? You’ll have to stop and find out! The museum is also part of an extensive gift shop and has restrooms and snacks.
Once we arrived in Willcox, we sought out the Rex Allen Museum downtown. Known as the Arizona Cowboy, Rex Allen was a signer, songwriter, and actor born near Willcox. The museum did an excellent job showcasing his life and we learned a lot! The employees were also happy to answer questions. Don’t miss the fun photo op at the entrance!
Right around the corner too, there’s a Willcox mural and a little park with a Rex Allen statue across the street. Also, we found a cool Mario-themed mural alongside Bear’s Vintage Thrift (233 N Haskell Ave, Willcox, 85643)! Kids loved that one.
By now it was time for lunch! You may have heard of Apple Annie’s, and did you know they have a country store? We picked up sandwiches and chips from the café, and ate on the patio, so lovely! They also have pies, homemade goods, decor items, and more. It’s a great place to shop.
Apple Annie’s Orchard itself is about 15 minutes from the store, and note that they are two locations. We actually didn’t know this until we visited! The u-pick orchard is located at 2081 Hardy Rd, Willcox, AZ 85643, and the u-pick produce is at 6405 Williams Rd, Willcox, AZ. (The second location is also where Apple Annie’s has their annual pumpkin patch!)
We highly recommend visiting both locations. Our October visit gave us yummy pears and apples at the orchard, along with pies and donuts. At the produce location, we found the biggest pumpkins ever and loved the corn maze. The views especially from the produce fields were breathtaking. More information here.
After a full day of exploring, we were ready for dinner and headed back to Willcox. Isobel’s at the Border filled our tummies with good Mexican food and was very kid-friendly. Our overnight stay was at the Willcox KOA, which you can read more about below. (Heads up: super cute and cozy cabins.)
Kartchner Caverns, Apple Annie’s, Willcox, Sierra Vista, Benson: All That Cochise County Has to Offer
Day 2. Waking up at the KOA was exciting. Time for a new day! Breakfast was easy, as we just walked over to the on-site cafe for a home-style cooked breakfast. Then the kids enjoyed the playground and yard games. We also walked around the property a bit. There’s a pool! It was nice to have a slow morning after a busy yesterday.
At 10 am we packed up, picked up coffee from Source of Coffee in town, and headed to Kartchner Caverns. Our tour wasn’t until 1 pm, but there was plenty to experience beforehand with hiking trails, a nature center, a mini-movie, and lunch. We’d recommend allowing at least 3 hours here if you are doing a tour.
On that note – the cave tour was fantastic and YES, littles can come along on the Rotunda/Throne tour. (The Big Room tour is for ages 7 and up, and the Helmet and Headlamp Tour is for ages 10 and up.) No photography, strollers or baby carriers are allowed (and no diaper bags of any kind). so be prepared to carry kids if needed and watch them closely so they don’t touch the walls. It’s so worth it! We were floored by the beauty of stalactites and stalagmites, and the history of the cave is fascinating.
Also Kartchner Caverns is an amazing discovery nature center, another not to miss stop with kids. So many hands-on learning opportunities for all ages, plus a fun cave tunnel to crawl through. Learn more and book and tour here!
We really could have stayed longer at the caverns, but it was time to move on. About 10 minutes south of Sierra Vista is a hidden sanctuary where volunteers annually capture, tag, and gently release hummingbirds as they migrate through the area. The best part? Families can join, then hold the hummingbirds after tagging! (Note: This unique experience is best for children who are able to stay calm and mostly quiet. )
The capture area is in one section of the yard, the tagging is at a table, and the release area is nearby. We loved watching every step of the process, especially when the hummingbirds were gently placed in our hands and usually stayed for a minute or so before flying off free. There was something thrilling about holding a tiny gorgeous creature in your hand.
The hummingbird banding usually takes place April-May and July-September. See the City of Sierra Vista’s website for exact dates.
After another full day, we were ready for dinner! And dessert! Pizzeria Mimosa back in Sierra Vista had a beautiful patio and a good assortment of Italian food, from pizzas to pasta and gnocchi and salads. For dessert, we tried out Julie and Sammy’s 31 Flavors near our hotel. This place was super cute and even had toys for the kids. Our overnight stay was at Sierra Suites.
Day 3. We love hiking, and starting our final day of exploring Cochise County with a nature walk was the best idea. After continental hotel breakfast, we went south of Sierra Vista to Ramsey Canyon Nature Preserve.
This beautiful wooded area quickly became a top favorite stop of the trip! Our kids loved the stream, the multiple hummingbird stations, and the easy hike of 2 miles. The canyon boasts a rare, moist environment, unusual for the desert Southwest. It was peaceful and refreshing. Definitely put this hike on the top of your list!
Back at the hotel, we changed and packed up, being sure to leave out our swimsuits. But first, lunchtime! The German Cafe was just down the street and had some tasty authentic German food. Try the Swabian Cheese Spatzle for sure! We also love the potato pancakes and Rueben sandwich.
So why did we need our swimsuits? Because it was water time! The Cove, boasts two water slides, a wave pool with zero-depth entry a toddler-sized pool, a warm water pool, and more. Hats off to the city for an amazing indoor aquatic center! The kids didn’t want to leave. You can read more about The Cove here.
Next to The Cove is Veteran’s Memorial Park, with a huge playground and often hosts events. There was an art show the day we visited, which was fun to walk around. Also at this park is a bike and skate park, restrooms, and plenty of parking.
We may have spent too long at the art show, because our next stop was supposed to be in Benson, about 40 minutes away, to visit the visitor’s center and train setup. Unfortunately, the center was closed when we arrived. But bookmark this spot – kids will love the model train, and the option to even drive a train! While here, also pick up a mural book because Benson has some amazing murals, all viewable by walking just around the small downtown area.
Before driving back to Phoenix, we stopped at Wild Dogs for dinner. This place is fabulous! Family run, eclectic, and had some of the best hot dogs we’ve ever had. Topping options are endless, try classic toppings or the pastrami dog, or an Arizona favorite, the Sonoran dog. It was a wonderful way to end our three-day getaway to Cochise County.
Kartchner Caverns, Apple Annie’s, Willcox, Sierra Vista, Benson: All That Cochise County Has to Offer
Where We Ate
We had some delicious food over the weekend, which is always part of our family travels. Even if you’re just passing through Benson or Willcox, bookmark these kid-friendly restaurants!
Wild Dogs Gourmet Hot Dogs – 1020 W 4th St, Benson, AZ 85602
Apple Annie’s Country Store – 1510 N Circle I Rd, Willcox, AZ 85643
Isabel’s South of the Border – 115 S Haskell Ave, Willcox, AZ 85643
Roadrunner Kafé – 700 Virginia Ave, Willcox, AZ 85643
Pizzeria Mimosa – 4755 E. Neapolitan Way, Hereford, AZ 85615
Julie and Sammy’s 31 Flavors – 268 W Fry Blvd, Sierra Vista, AZ 85635
The German Cafe – 1232 E Fry Blvd, Sierra Vista, AZ 85635
Where We Stayed
We stayed in Willcox and Sierra Vista during our weekend adventure, and these two overnights worked very well with our itinerary.
In Willcox, we stayed at the KOA and in an adorable 2 bedroom cabin. The cabin also had a bathroom and full kitchen, perfect for our family of five. Nearby was a playground, which the kids loved, and the Roadrunner Cafe. We would totally stay here again! The location was right off the Interstate, and just 5 minutes from downtown Willcox. You can browse cabin (and camping) options here.
In Sierra Vista, we spent a night at the newly renovated Sierra Suites hotel. They had a pool, which we didn’t have a chance to use but it looked great, and also a nice hot breakfast for all guests. We were comfortable here and liked the southwest-style decor. It’s a good central option for exploring the city for sure. More details on their website.
If you like a pre-planned itinerary, this is the list for you! Thanks to Explore Cochise for hosting us, and putting together a family getaway to show us all that Cochise County has to offer families! A few more history-based ideas can be found here.
- Leave at 7 am from Phoenix and drive to Willcox
- If you need a bathroom stop, try the Pilot Travel Stop just south of Tucson
- Or continue to Benson and stop at Bowlin’s The Thing.
- Arrive at the Rex Allen Museum in Willcox around 11:30 am. Tour!
- Drive over to Apple Annie’s Country Store for lunch.
- Travel out to the two Apple Annie’s farm locations for seasonal fresh fruit and produce!
- Dinner time at Isabel’s South of the Border at 6 pm.
- Check-in at the Willcox KOA and relax for the night.
- Eat breakfast at the KOA restaurant, RoadRunner Cafe, and enjoy the pool and playground.
- Start the drive to Kartchner Caverns by 10:30 am.
- Tour the cave, learn at the amazing discovery center, and grab lunch at the café.
- Leave for hummingbird banding in Sierra Vista at 2:30 pm.
- From 4-6 pm enjoy observing and holding hummingbirds.
- Enjoy dinner at Mimosa Pizzeria, and dessert at Julie and Sammy’s 33 Flavors.
- Check in to Sierra Suites and relax. Ask for a late check-out.
- Enjoy a complimentary breakfast at the hotel.
- Take an early morning hike at Ramsey Canyon (8:30 am) – you won’t regret it!
- Check out of the hotel by noon.
- Try some classic German dishes for lunch at the German Café.
- Splash and swim at The Cove for the afternoon!
- Leave by 3:30 pm for Benson, and pop into the Visitor’s Center to drive the train.
- Have dinner at Wild Dogs in Benson, and start the drive back to Phoenix, full of memories.