Grand Canyon Caverns
Peach Springs, AZ
by Howard Sheldon
In 1927, a heavy rain widened the natural funnel-shaped opening to the upper level of an unknown system of caverns in western Arizona. A woodcutter for the Santa Fe Railroad by the name of Walter Peck found the entrance one evening on his way to a poker game at the nearby Yampai railroad siding house. The caverns were probably his only true winnings.
Walter took a gamble and named them Yampai Caverns. The caverns have changed names several times. Up until 1957 they were also known as the Coconino Caverns, then changed to Dinosaur Caverns; since 1962 they have been called the Grand Canyon Caverns.
The following morning, Walter and some friends brought ropes and lanterns with them to the new hole in the trail. They tied a rope around the waist of a local cowboy and lowered him into the hole. By the time the cowboy's feet touched the floor of the hole, 150 feet of rope had been let out and he found himself in a very large and dark cavern. Using a coal oil lantern, he began exploring; but the only thing that excited him was that he thought he had found a very rich vein of gold when the light picked up some sparkle in the rocks.
Gathering up a sack full of samples, he tugged on the rope and was hauled to the surface. Upon reaching the surface, he quickly showed the samples and then told of finding the remains of two humans and part of a saddle at the 50-foot level. By the time the newspapers had finished with the story, the human remains were those of prehistoric cavemen and there was no mention of the saddle. Soon, scientists had come from the east to pick up and study the bones. While this was occurring, Walter purchased the property and the Caverns, preparing to mine the gold.
However, when Walter saw the assay reports on his gold mine, much to his dismay, no gold was found, only lots of iron oxide or rust! He had wagered his money on an empty funnel-shaped hole. But, being an entrepreneur, he soon came up with a solution. He would charge 25 cents to enter the Caverns where the "cavemen" had been found. He developed a very primitive elevator. Visitors were tied to a rope and lowered into the hole. Each visitor had to furnish their own light source. Upon reaching the floor of the hole the visitor could explore the caverns on their own. It would have been unwise to untie the rope and stray far, for if their light failed, the inexperienced explorer might not find the rope again!
In 1936, during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) work camps constructed a wooden staircase at the cavern entrance, then a series of wooden ladders for the descent. Finally, in 1957 a beautiful wooden swinging bridge was added to allow access to the Chapel of Ages. The trek is estimated to be approximately 15 stories of walking in and out if you were to compare it to a building.
After this phase of construction was completed, the price was increased to 50 cents, but now more than one person could enter the Caverns at a time. This was the only way in and out of the Caverns until 1962, when an elevator became operational. It had taken two years of blasting a shaft 210 feet deep plus an additional 18 months to install a modern-day elevator. The original natural entrance was then sealed off forever.
As it turns out, the remains of the two humans were members of the Hualapai Indian tribe who had died the winter of 1917. As the story goes, a group of Hualapai Indians were out cutting firewood when two members fell sick from the flu and died. Due to the frozen ground conditions and a need for an immediate burial, the two fallen brothers were dropped in a well-concealed hole that no one would ever disturb. Six years later Walter Peck stumbled upon that same hole in the ground. The permanent sealing of the natural entrance to the caverns was done out of respect for the religious beliefs of the Hualapai Indians. The natural entrance is a sacred burial ground.
Exploration at the Grand Canyon Caverns is ongoing. Curious wafts of air seeping through niches and floor fissures provide proof that other caverns await discovery deep below. Existing below the present day Grand Canyon Caverns, 1500 feet below ground level, two large rooms were discovered with seismic testing. What is down there is food for any wild imagination. At present, it is too costly to reach the rooms unless a natural way can be found. Since December 1949, spelunkers have been exploring regions in the caverns too dangerous for the public to visit, in the hope of finding more rooms and passageways.
Over the years, a number of unfortunate creatures have wandered into the caverns, only to have their fate sealed in a slow death with no way out. The remains of a giant ground sloth (Glossotherium harlani) was found and a model has been created. "Gertie" is 15 feet tall; it is estimated that the living sloth would have weighed approximately 2,000 pounds. The giant ground sloth became extinct between 11,000 and 20,000 years ago. Its living relatives are the modern-day tree sloth or three-toed sloth, the armadillos and the anteater. A mummified bobcat was found around 1950 and is believed to have fallen into the caverns about 100 years previous to its discovery.
Grand Canyon Caverns is a natural limestone cave 210 feet underground. Here are a few facts about the caverns that you will find fascinating:
The temperature is a constant 56 degrees F. year round, with a humidity of 6%, making this a dry or dead cavern. Water has not been inside for a long time, although there is physical evidence that water was present and helped form the cavern's features. The tour guides point out depressions in the limestone walls where waterfalls once existed. Fossils of prehistoric clams, scallops and evidence of sea turtle remains have been found lithified in the limestone walls as well.
Only three percent of all caverns in the world are dry, which adds to this cavern's uniqueness. This modern cavern is lifeless. Bacteria and viruses cannot live longer than 72 hours in this environment.
The two main rooms -- the "Chapel of Ages" (130 yards long) and the "Halls of Gold" (210 yards long) -- are each large enough to fit a regulation football field in them.
In early 1963, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US government stored enough food and water in the caverns to support 2,000 people for two weeks. Although these rations were never needed, because of the cool-dry conditions of the caverns, the food is still edible.
An average of 70,000 people visit the Grand Canyon Caverns annually. During the summer about 250 people visit each day. The caverns are privately owned.
There are many other wonderful features of the caverns. Use your imagination until you can see them for yourself. They include:
- Devil's Den
- Snowball Palace
- Mammoth Dome
- Grape Clusters
- Cave Coral
- Winter Crystal (Selenite)
- The Giant's Keyhole
- A 160-foot, man-made tunnel blasted through solid rock.
Don't unfairly compare the Grand Canyon Caverns with other state or federally funded underground attractions. Enjoy the caverns on their own merit. They will capture your interest for the entire 45-minute tour. William J. Jackson III, an expert guide, will not only inform and educate you about the caverns, he will also entertain you. His repertoire of 1001 cavern puns will leave you feeling hospitably received during the tour. This is rustic Arizona adventuring at its best!
How to Get There
There are only three ways to get to the Grand Canyon Caverns. From Kingman, exit Interstate 40 at the Route 66 exit just outside of Kingman. Take Rt. 66 northeast about 65 miles. A few miles past Peach Springs is the Grand Canyon Caverns exit. From Seligman, exit Interstate 40 and take Rt. 66 about 25 miles northwest to the Grand Canyon Caverns exit. The final way is to arrive by air. A 5,200-foot paved airstrip is available for cavern guests.
From Seligman, Arizona: 25 miles
From Williams, Arizona: 66 miles
From Flagstaff, Arizona: 96 miles
From Phoenix, Arizona: 196 miles
From Kingman, Arizona: 65 miles
From Las Vegas, Nevada: 168 miles
From Grand Canyon, Arizona: 123 miles
From Albuquerque, New Mexico: 419 miles
From Los Angeles, California.: 423 miles
Grand Canyon Tour Information
Guided walking tours depart every half hour daily, except Christmas Day. Advance reservations are not necessary, however, it is recommended that groups notify the Caverns of date and approximate arrival time. Admission prices are charged.
Additional information and tour prices:
Grand Canyon Caverns
PO BOX 180
Peach Springs, AZ 86434
Fax number: 928-422-4471
Where to Stay
The Caverns Inn is a 48 unit motel conveniently located at the entrance of the Grand Canyon Caverns. 928-422-3223
Souvenirs and Food
The restaurant and curio shop are located in the Caverns Building. The hours of operation for the restaurant are similar to the hours of operation of the Caverns.
Other activities available in this area include a trip with Canyon West tours. Grand Canyon West is the Grand Canyon's best kept secret. "Ranch Days," cookouts, camping, tours, river rafting and horseback riding can be arranged with our neighbors, the Hualapai Indian Tribe. Guaranteed reservations for all these activities are required, so book early and experience the unspoiled beauty of the Grand Canyon State, including the Hualapai Indian Reservation and the Coconino Plateau. When you become guests at the Hualapai Indian Reservation, be sure to observe their laws and local customs. Ignorance of their laws and resulting violations will garner fines and penalties. Artifact hunting is not only an irreverence of Native American peoples and their deceased, it is also punishable by federal law.
Note: Grand Canyon West should not be confused with Grand Canyon National Park. They are distinct and separate entities.
Hualapai Indian Nation
P.O. BOX 538
Peach Springs, AZ 86434
Grand Canyon National Park
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