Forty miles southeast of Tucson, under the limestone rock of the Whetstone Mountains, lies Kartchner Caverns. It was discovered in 1974 by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, two amateur cavers from Tucson. A simple cleft in the rock led to a fantastic underground world they called Xanadu.


Photo: Mark Duggan

Cave "bacon" in Kartchner Caverns.

Except for telling the Kartchner family, who owned the land, they kept the cave a secret for years, fearing it would be vandalized. Eventually, Tenen and Tufts came to believe that the best way to protect the cave was to turn it into a state park. The Kartchners agreed. Years of legislative wrangling ensued, but Kartchner Caverns State Park finally opened in the late '90s.


Photo: Mark Duggan

Gary Tenen at Kartchner Cavern's original entrance.

Since then, millions of tourists have experienced the wonders of the cave as part of a guided tour. But Gary Tenen is not the cave's average sightseer. When he returns to Xanadu, it's partially in memory of Randy Tufts, who passed away in 2002. But he's also acting as a sentinel for the cave's future. He keeps a close eye on the cave's health, checking it frequently for signs of drying. “This is an amazing natural resource,” he says. “It must be preserved for future generations."

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Photo: Mark Duggan

A dripping wall of formations in Kartchner Caverns.


Photo: Mark Duggan

Kubla Khan and the Throne Room


Photo: Mark Duggan

Soda straw formations descend from the cave ceiling.


Photo: Mark Duggan

Water measurements inside the cave.


Photo: Mark Duggan

Cave wall and soda straw formations.


Photo: Mark Duggan

Pencil thin soda straw formations.