As part of our summer adventures this year, we took a trip to Kartchner Caverns south of Tucson in Arizona. Discovered by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts in 1974 and kept a secret until 1988 to protect the cave from pilferers and vandals, Kartchner Caverns is now a State Park and a true delight.
Not only does it boast awe-inspiring formations in a series of impressive caves, this is a living cave. That means water still seeps through crevices, drips from stalactites and sometimes floods the muddy floor of the Rotunda Room.
This cave is still a work in progress (though we’d have to live a very long time to notice the changes) and it’s delicate environment requires a high level of protection.
Touch a nearby formation and you’ve stunted it’s growth forever. The process of growing layer upon microscopic layer of calcium deposits doesn’t work when the oil from human hands enters the equation.
Even lint from our clothing can be a problem. Airborne lint clings to the cave wall and offers a place for algae growth. Very rapid algae growth.
So my boys and I went down the corridor through three vault-style doors (to protect the interior of the moist cave from the dry Arizona air), walked through misters so lint wouldn’t fly off our clothes, and diligently kept our hands to ourselves and the railings in spite of the don’t-I-look-like-so-much-fun-to-touch formations we passed.
Fortunately for us, there’s a replica in the Discovery Center where we can feel to our heart’s delight:
Where does Xanadu come in?
The founders of these caverns needed a code word so they could discuss their find in public without betraying their secret. A friend, majoring in English, referred them to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” (or “A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment”).
The poem begins:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Thus their secret cave became Xanadu. After many months exploring Xanadu, Tenen and Tufts came over a ridge within the cave and discovered a vast inner room with a massive column in the center.
The young men began to giggle.
If this was Xanadu, then this was surely the King’s throne room and there in the center was Kubla Khan himself.
The highlight of this tour was the final light and music show in the Throne Room. Our tour guide called it rock music (har har) but really it was the inspiring Adiemus. Magnificent.
Or, as my 8-year-old son declared, “That was the most awesomest tour ever!”
If you’ll be in the area this summer (or any time, really) I highly suggest a visit. If you’d like to see what’s closer to home, check out this directory of caves across the United States.
Don’t forget, visiting a State or National Park isn’t just a fun family adventure. It’s scout-friendly too. I was going to list some requirements to keep in mind as you make your summer plans, but that list got to be a tad long. So that’ll be in it’s own post, up next.