In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan, 1798.
In 1974, spelunkers Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen were looking for a new cave to explore. They hiked the Whetstone Mountains, about 6 miles outside of Benson, Arizona, which were known to have limestone deposits. Searching foothills covered with the succulent plant ocotillo (which require more water than most cactus growing in the area, and are therefore an indication of underground water), they found a sinkhole with air rushing out. They enlarged the hole to the size of a stretched-out coat hanger, and crawled in.
Background: limestone is made up of the bodies and shells of long dead sea creatures. It is a much softer rock than most others, and is easily eroded by water. If the mountains had limestone deposits in them, there was a good chance that water seeping through the soil would reach, and eventually erode, these deposits, leaving underground caverns. Once a spelunker has found a sinkhole, especially one with a noticeable airflow in or out (or—lucky day—the scent of bat guano emanating from the hole), they could be reasonably sure that there was a chamber of some size underground. A general rule of thumb seems to be that if one’s head and shoulders will fit through the hole, the rest of the body will follow. I personally, will wait for the guided tour on a walkway.
What Randy and Gary found, having crawled through the narrow passage and then slogged through mudflats into what was later named the Rotunda Room, was a series of beautiful, football field-sized galleries with 70 foot ceilings, decorated with multi-hued stalactites, stalagmites, columns, shield and drapery formations, and 20,000 year old “soda straws”—thin, hollow stalactites, some reaching over 20 feet in length.
In the room they later called the Throne Room, Randy and Gary discovered an enormous 58 foot tall column (the tallest and most massive in all of Arizona) which they dubbed Kubla Khan. Having decided to keep the cave a secret until they could figure out how best to protect and preserve it, Randy and Gary referred to the cave by the code name “Xanadu” whenever they were in a place where their conversations could be overheard. In 1978 they told property owners James and Lois Kartchner about their find; fourteen years after the initial discovery of the cave, the Arizona State Parks department bought the land from the Kartchner family and named it Kartchner Caverns State Park, eventually opening the site as Arizona’s 25th state park.
Kartchner Caverns is referred to as a living cave—a wet cave in which water is still dripping (flowing, running, seeping) and calcite formations are still growing. Enormous care has been taken to protect and preserve this site. Environmental stations set up within the cave constantly monitor the temperature and humidity levels—the temperature in the cave is a steady 67° F (19.4° C) and the humidity is maintained at 99%. Airlock “conservation chambers” separate the cave from the arid outside conditions, and allow entry into the cave without disrupting the internal environment. Visitors are not allowed to carry anything—not water bottles, nor backpacks, nor cameras—into the cave, and are warned not to touch anything other than the handrails. The manmade pathways in the cave are washed down each night to remove any foreign material (skin cells, hair, dust, mold, dirt) inadvertently carried into the cave by visitors; scientists performing geologic or other studies and workers setting up lighting systems are required to stay on the areas traversed by the original explorers. In this way, 95% of the cavern remains untouched and undisturbed by humans. Gary and Randy’s original footprints through the mudflats are still visible; workers who have had to cross the mudflats since then have been told to stick to the trail, and if they fell, they were to fall straight forward or straight back, as to not leave any additional marks in the mud.
Kartchner employees and volunteers take all of this very seriously; my friend was not allowed in the Visitors’ Center with an empty water bottle. They’re also a bit holier-than-thou about the superiority of their cave, and the precautions taken to protect it; they scoff at the fact that the parking lot for Carlsbad Caverns is on top of the cave; over time, oils and other run-off from the cars will seep their way into the cavern and injure the purity of the formations. Unlike Luray Caverns, in Virginia, where lots of colored lights are used to play up the rock formations, only natural-color lighting is used in Kartchner, so that all of the colors you see are those innate in the minerals and cave formations. I truly admire the efforts being taken to protect and preserve this natural wonder (Kartchner has been voted one of the top ten caves in the world), but there’s just a hint of the rabidly extreme in the manner of most of the people working there. . .
There are a second set of rooms in Kartchner Caverns that are not yet open to the public—the “Big Room” and adjoining chambers are still under construction. Development of walkways, lighting systems, etc. in these rooms is considerably hindered by the fact that this area is used as a “maternity camp” by about 1,500 female Myotis velifer bats who return each year to have their pups here, and the humans in charge of construction feel strongly that these winged mammals have first dibs. One park ranger has the job of sitting by the natural entrance and tracking the bats’ comings and goings—only once they have all left for the season does construction resume, and even when construction is complete, and it’s time to open the rooms to the public, this section of the cave will be off limits during the months that the bats are in residence.
In addition to the cave itself, the park contains five-mile and 2.5 mile hiking trails, an outdoor amphitheater, a hummingbird garden, a campground, and a 23,000 square foot Discovery Center with exhibits, a short film, educational information, and a gift shop. The park is open seven days a week; there is an entrance fee ($10 per vehicle) as well as a fee to tour the cave ($12 for an adult ticket). Since the size and number of tours are limited, it is advisable to call ahead for reservations. It's less than a hour away from Tucson, and well worth the trip; if get there early and find you have to wait for a late afternoon tour, you can always check out Tombstone or the town of Sierra Vista (where Ft. Huachucha is located.)
Arizona State Parks
1300 W. Washington
Phoenix, Arizona 85007
Tel. & TTY 602-542-4174
From the (520) calling area: 1-800-285-3703
Cavern reservations: 520-586-CAVE
The Official Destination Guide of Cochise County , 2000 edition; Kartchner Caverns State Park brochures,
and Larry, our tour guide, 5/17/02
Thanks to Saturnine for catching my New World-centrism and converting fahrenheit to celsius for me.