Grand Canyon Caverns located on the Coconino Plateau,
the Caverns lie within an alluvial plain at an altitude of about 5,300 feet (1,600 m) above sea level. Limestone comprises the vast majority of the subsurface area of this vicinity of the Coconino Plateau, an area riddled with numerous cavernous veins that run for miles in all directions.
Just 66 miles West of Williams ,AZ on Route 66, the Caverns lie 230 feet (70 m) below ground level. They are among the largest of dry caverns in the United States. Dry caverns are a rarity in that as little as 3% of caverns in the world are dry. Because of this fact, stalagmites and stalactites are very few in numbers. The caverns are enormous, with measurements showing that the length of 3 football fields could fit snugly within its boundaries.
345 million years ago, during the Mississippian Period, the southwest United States was enveloped by the ocean. Sea creatures died over the millions of years, their skeletons created a mud-like paste with a dense amount of lime. This eventually hardened into the limestone bedrock, which can be seen in the caverns today. As millions of years came and went, the bedrock was pushed up, to over 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level. These methodical events split the crust of the Earth, releasing water into what is now the caverns.
Approximately 35 million years ago, huge amounts of rainfall carrying a mildly acidic element flowed into the caverns. This solution eventually crept its way through the cracks and caves ultimately contributing to the Colorado River. Millions of years later the evaporating water leaving calcium deposits began decorating the walls and floors, creating wondrous and beautiful formations that can still be viewed by the public today.
In 1927, Walter Peck, a cowboy and woodcutter, was walking through the area on his way to play poker with his friends. when he stumbled and nearly fell into a sizable hole in the ground. The following morning, Peck, and some of his friends returned to the location of the large, funnel shaped hole with lanterns and ropes. Peck was lowered into the hole by his friends with a rope tied around his waist to a depth of 150 feet (46 m) with a lantern and began exploring.
A very large, dark cavern welcomed Peck during his initial exploration where he saw some speckles on the walls that he thought were gold. He gathered up samples of some of these shiny rocks and had his friends pull him back to the surface. Peck then purchased the property and began making preparations for a gold mining operation. Once the assay reports were completed he learned that his potential mother lode was nothing more than iron oxide.
Not one to give up on entrepreneurial opportunities, Peck came up with an idea to lure travelers to the Caverns and began charging 25 cents to lower these early spelunkers down into the Caverns to explore and to view what had been reported in newspapers to be the remains of a caveman that had earlier been located on a ledge. Although the ‘caveman’ had also lured scientist from the east to study the remains, it was later confirmed in the 1960s to be the remains of two inhabitants of the area. These inhabitants had been in the area barely a decade earlier during the winter of 1917-1918, when a group of Indians were harvesting and cutting firewood on the caverns hilltop and a snow storm trapped them for three days. Two brothers died from a flu epidemic and since the ground was frozen solid with deep snow cover, their fellow lumberjacks buried them in what they thought was only a 50-foot (15 m) hole because returning them to their tribal headquarters in Peach Springs, risked spreading the flu.
An entrance was built into the Caverns by blasting a 210-foot (64 m) shaft in the limestone and installing a large elevator at which time the natural entrance was also sealed off at the request of the Hualapai as it was considered a sacred burial place. Near the natural entrance, the skeletal remains of a giant and extinct ground sloth were found; it lived during the Age of Mammals when the Woolly Mammoth and Saber Tooth Cat lived more than 11,000 years ago. The study of the remains indicate it stood over 15 feet (4.6 m) tall and weighed near 2,000 pounds.
In 1962, the Caverns were renamed, Grand Canyon Caverns, with good reason, as it is connected to the Grand Canyon to the north. They are an Historic Route 66 roadside tourist attraction that has survived into the current century with nearly 100,000 tourists annually.
Grand Canyon Caverns is the largest dry caverns in the United States and maybe the largest dry cavern system on earth as they are still being explored and documented by both amateur and professional spelunkers, archaeologists, geologists and other varieties of scientists. At a constant 57 degrees with only a 2 percent humidity year round the Caverns are an ideal preservatory. Air comes into the caverns from the Grand Canyon through 60 miles (97 km) of limestone caves. (See picture of opening at end of article). Scientists were curious as to how far the caverns extended and looked for a safe means of finding out. Rather than explore the canyons, which could take years, red smoke flares were ignited by University of Arizona students, and two weeks later red smoke was seen protruding from vents, near Supai, AZ, in the Grand Canyon, thus the name.
Spelunkers and tourists alike can take a 45-minute, guided, walking tour of the Caverns beginning with a 21-story, or 210-foot (64 m) descent from the earth’s surface in a large elevator, or a shorter 25-minute wheelchair accessible tour. The more hardcore and professional spelunkers can explore on their own, with the proper permission of course, areas that are never seen by the ordinary tours.
The first cavern that one enters after their descent by elevator is the Chapel of the Ages cavern room which is so large it could hold up to two football fields. There have been numerous weddings performed in this room throughout the years. The most popular guided walking tour is about 3/4 of a mile long through winding, natural tunnels where guests will see helecite crystals, a rather rare form of selenite, red-wall limestone, ‘teacup handles’, ‘winter crystals’ and more. The Caverns are a popular natural feature of this vast recreational area in Northern Arizona.