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 – Coleridge, Kubla Kahn
You might not know it from reading Coleridge’s stanzas, but Xanadu is actually in Southern Arizona. To be precise, the entrance to Xanadu is found in Benson, Arizona. Don’t believe me? It’s true. That’s where the Kartchner Caverns are found, caves that were originally named “Xanadu” by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts to protect them and keep them secret from the general public. Alright, fine – if you want to be technical, Coleridge was talking about an imaginary land, one that only existed in his mind and one that was probably fostered by a wicked opium addiction, but he might as well have been talking about the Kartchner Caverns, because they are that phantasmagorical.
Enough about Coleridge – let’s talk caves. The Kartchner Caverns are over 50,000 years old, and are some of the most well preserved limestone caves in the world. These caves are a part of the Arizona State Park system, and have an interesting human history from the late twentieth century on. As I mentioned above, the caves were discovered by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, and they were so concerned that the caves would be co-discovered or found by other parties and either ruined or despoiled, they only referred to the caves with code words. Eventually, they introduced the caves to various parties, and eventually the caves were acquired by the State Park system to be protected in perpetuity for the general public. (A more extensive history of all the secret shenanigans of Gary and Randy can be found here: http://www.explorethecaverns.com/caverns-history.html).
I recently visited the Caverns, and took the Rotunda/Throne Room tour. As the park website suggested, I booked my cave tour tickets early, and arrived early. Even though the parking lot was beginning to fill up on a sunny Sunday, the park rangers helpfully moved me to an earlier tour that had availability with no charge. The Ranger leading the earlier tour noted that my group was somewhat lucky, as it only had 13 people in it, as opposed to the usual thirty (30!). The first unique thing I noticed about the Caverns, after the informative museum and shuttle ride to the cave entrance were the massive airlock doors that you must pass through to enter the caverns. That’s right; I said doors – plural, as there are three. The state of Arizona spent over 28 million dollars to protect the caves – and their warm, moist environment from the dry environment of the desert. From what I could feel, the doors are doing a great job. The ambient temperature in the cave was roughly ten to fifteen degrees warmer than outside (it was a cold morning), and it was downright muggy.
As for the remainder of the tour, I’ll be honest: I’d prefer to explore this location or any location on my own. Now that I’ve complained, I’ll be the first to admit that the Ranger leading the hike was well versed in the different formations of the Throne Room and the Rotunda, and very knowledgeable about the history of the caverns, and the scientific processes that formed them. The tour ended with a light and music show at the infamous “Kubla Kahn” pillar – which is the largest limestone column in Arizona, which was also pretty cool.
Directions: The State Park website provides this handy web form to get you to their park: http://azstateparks.com/parks/kaca/map_driving.html
Tips: Astute readers and even first time visitors will notice that I have posted no pictures of the caverns and are probably wondering why there are no photos in this entry. Alas, the caverns do not allow photography at all. However, there are some great videos of the formations at these links, which give you an idea of what you can see: http://youtu.be/ISewwO38xs0, http://azstateparks.com/parks/kaca/index.html. It’s also important to note that portions of the caverns are closed during the year to protect the native bat population. Finally, if you’re one for conspiracy theories and or good fiction, read this link to learn how the caverns may be inhabited by a monster, and why that is the real reason why photography isn’t allowed: http://sylvestrusmaximus.tumblr.com/post/15805539951/the-creature-of-kartchner-caverns-preview.
More Information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kartchner_Caverns_State_Park, http://www.moon.com/destinations/tucson/excursions-tucson/kartchner-caverns-and-the-huachuca-mountains/sights/kartchner-caverns-state-park