21 Stories Underground – “Grand Canyon Caverns”
Saturday, October 28th, 2017
The weekend before Halloween I took my mom and pops out for a day trip to a place I had not visited since 2007. I wanted to share the experience of traversing some deep underground caverns with them so we hit Route 66 and made our way to Grand Canyon Caverns just east of Peach Springs, Arizona. The place seemed just as it was ten years ago, but naturally the fee did go up a tad. We did the regular tour which is a 45 minute guided walk over a 3/4 of a mile path through the caverns for about $20.95 plus tax per person (October 2017 rates). The place is set up so that you have to navigate through the small restaurant to get to the gift shop where you will purchase your tickets for the available tours. I believe the maximum group size is about 10 people and mainly for the fact that the elevator can only hold so many people at once.
“The restaurant itself is a really nice set up.”
Grand Canyon CavernsGPS Coordinates: 35.5179758° N, -113.2213637° W
Once we attained our tickets, we wandered around in the waiting area to the rear of the facility. There were lots of small exhibits displaying facts about the discovery of the caverns along with actual bones and crystals that were brought up the deeper parts of the cavern system. There were remains of creatures that have been extinct for over 10,000 years in the caverns which is a drop in the temporal pan compared to the age of the caverns which date back roughly 35 million years ago.
A Summarized History of the Caverns
In 1927, Walter Peck discovered the caverns by chance. After a failed search for gold, he opened the caverns to travelers and began charging 25 cents admission, which included a view of a purported caveman. In the 1960s the “caveman” was shown to be the remains of two inhabitants of the area, who had died in the winter of 1917-1918. Part of a group of Hualapai Native Americans harvesting and cutting firewood on the caverns’ hilltop, they were trapped there for three days by a snowstorm. Two brothers died from influenza, and since the ground was frozen solid with and covered in snow, they were buried in what was thought to be only a 50ft. (15 m) hole, as returning them to their tribal headquarters in Peach Springs risked spreading the flu.
In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration made an agreement with Peck to build a new entrance to the Caverns. In 1962, another entrance was built by blasting a 210 ft. (64 m) shaft into the limestone and installing a large elevator. At that time the natural entrance was also sealed off at the request of the Hualapai Indians as it was considered a sacred burial place. Near the natural entrance, the skeletal remains of a Paramylodon harlani (Glossotherium harlani) were also found. This giant and extinct ground sloth lived during the Age of Mammals around 11,000 years ago, when the woolly mammoth and saber tooth cat roamed North America.
Peck had named the caverns Yampai Caverns, with the name being changed several times. Up until 1957, they were known as The Coconino Caverns. From 1957 through 1962, they were known as The Dinosaur Caverns. In 1962, they were renamed The Grand Canyon Caverns, as they are connected to the Grand Canyon to the north.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. government designated the caverns as a fallout shelter, with supplies for 2,000 people. These supplies remain in the caverns. In 1979, a cosmic ray telescope was installed at Grand Canyon Caverns, 126 ft. (38 m) below the surface. (Source: Wikipedia)
“The elevator still displays the fallout shelter sign from the 60’s.”
Into the Depths of the Earth.
Once the elevator doors opened to bring up the previous tour group, we were allowed to load in with a few other people and prepared for our descent into the caverns below. The freight elevator is well maintained and in the event of a malfunction, there are stairs that tightly corkscrew around the elevator shaft as an alternative escape option.
The origins of this cavern system began 345 million years ago during the Mississippian Period when the southwestern United States was covered by ocean. Skeletons of sea life settling to the depths, created a mud with a high percentage of calcium. This eventually hardened into the limestone bedrock seen in the caverns today. Over millions of years, the bedrock was pushed up to over 5,000 ft. (1,500 m) above sea level. Approximately 35 million years ago, rainfall flowed into the rock, and eroded passages that lead to the Colorado River and what is now the Grand Canyon. Millions of years later, the evaporating water left calcium deposits on the walls and floors, creating the formations that can be viewed today.(Source: Wikipedia)
“Once you arrive, you’ll find that most of the caverns are lit with some form of lighting.”
“Some areas of the caverns had mysterious access points to what looks like hidden pathways.”
“The lighting in the caverns makes it a real visual treat for any avid photographer.”
A Unique Motel Experience
As an extra option, the Grand Canyon Caverns offers one motel room for up to 6 people located 220 ft. (67 m) below the surface in the largest of the cavern rooms at 200 ft. (61 m) by 400 ft. (122 m) and 70 ft. (21 m) ceilings. The walls are 65 millions years in the making and composed of limestone which make the caverns some of the driest in the world with 0% humidity. Not a single animal or insect lives in these caverns making this the quietest motel room in the world.
The room is completely furnished with all the amenities you would expect of a standard motel stay. Two double beds, a living room with a queen fold out sofa, a small library of books, dictionaries, and magazines dating back to the late 1800’s, a functioning record player with records, a table and chairs, a bathroom, personal lighting as well as several options for the overnight stay in the caverns. The room is available 364 days a year, however, due to the fact that the tours run 363 days a year, your privacy may be limited during tour hours.
If you are curious about the rate, the Cavern Suite is going for about $850 a night sans tax and comes with a an attendant that is top side should the guests need anything at all throughout the night including cooking up meals at their request. Not too bad, but at $850 a night, it sounds about right. The room is booked up almost half the year for special events including weddings so move fast if you can afford to shell out this nightly rate.
“The room doesn’t have any real walls except for the ancient rock of the surrounding cavern.”
“Navigating the caves was amazing as every corner revealed a unique cavern passage way.”
After walking a short distance through some of the winding pathways, we arrived at one of the other large rooms in the cavern system. This room contained all the emergency supplies left there by the U.S. Government during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Designated then and still to this day as an official Fallout Shelter, the caverns are estimated to hold a small population of 2,000 survivors for a significant amount of time. Naturally the water would taste absolutely awful now, not to mention all of the meal rations by now. The supplies are more of an exhibit now than an actual source of survival.
“Steel drums full of iodine treated water and boxes of very expired food rations live here now.”
“From a different angle you can see just how many supplies were left in this cavern.”
As we wandered deeper into the cave system, we encountered all sorts of amazing crevices leading to what appears to be hidden caverns. In the summer of 2015, the Grand Canyon Caverns announced that after more than 7 years of tracking a breeze that was coming from on of the far ends of the cavern system, they found a new series of caves with crystal formations that no human eyes have ever seen before. They believe that there is more to be discovered, but it will take some times to map the new cave system and see how far it extends.
“Located at the bottom of this cavern is the entrance to the newly discovered cave system.”
“Moving further long the tour, we are constantly reminded to watch our heads.”
“Rock debris conceals small paths to what may be other caverns.”
“The wooden stairs in some of the caverns are still remnants from many decades ago.”
“It’s not a very long tour, but man, the lack of humidity can leave you feeling very thirsty with all the ascents.”
“Although there are a lot of ascents in the caverns, there are also some pretty spectacular descents with a view.”
On the way back to the elevator, you will run into the Cavern Grotto, a small patio deck where you can sit and order a meal from the restaurant above. I imagine the beautiful view makes quite the pairing with any tasty meal. The 16 x 16 ft. (4.8 x 4.8 m) deck has four tables and can seat up to 16 guests. The deck also hosts a salad and dessert bar and dinner is “All you can eat”. The going rate for a meal here varies but includes the price of cavern admission with lunch being $49.95 and dinner at $69.95.
“Certainly looks like a unique place to have a meal, but we’ve got dibs on the restaurant up top.”
Once we arrived at the elevator, we got in and made our way up toward the surface with a rather feisty appetite in tow. The three of us had a seat at the restaurant and enjoyed a slice of their home made lemon meringue pie while we waited on our delicious sandwich combos. Definitely one of those moments where having dessert first isn’t a terrible idea, Ha! Aside from the relaxing, wood themed dining environment, the staff here is really nice and accommodating. I highly recommend this experience for anyone who is looking for a sweet venture off old route 66 in Arizona.
Nothing makes me happier in my ventures than to share them with those that I love. My mom and pops definitely had a great old time on this trip and I look forward to many more with them. There’s a whole lot of great places to explore in Arizona, so let the adventures commence!
Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”
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