I used to love driving. The longer the drive, the better. The first time I drove out west, I made the 3700 km trek from St. Jacobs, Ontario to Chateau Lake Louise (Alberta) in two and a half days. By myself. Without cruise control. The muscles in my accelerator foot hurt like hell by the time I arrived, but what an experience.
Late night driving was a particular favourite. With no sun blazing through the windows, the ambient air would cool and I could remove my shades. The roads emptied of vehicles, save for mine and the odd transport truck. It was damn near spiritual; just me, junk food, tunes, and the highway.
Those days are long gone and have been for quite some time. A body that stopped giving a shit at thirty is one reason, kids is another. Neither are conducive to fifteen hour drives, though we do still put in the odd eight or ten hour stint when circumstances demand it. Those aren’t the best days for the kids. Or me.
There are, however, benefits to this brave new world of paced travel. Needing to add extra overnight stops during our road trips, we sometimes stumble into experiences we would otherwise never have known about. Our Grand Canyon adventure last spring offers a perfect example of what I mean.
Utah and Arizona Road Trip
A bucket list trip of sorts, we flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and spent the following week exploring the holy trinity of American canyons; Zion, Bryce, Grand. Being geo-nerds, we couldn’t resist a short side trip to see the fittingly named Meteor Crater located 45 minutes east of Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a crater. Made by a meteor.
This diversion from our otherwise elliptical route, while totally worth it, did mean we would no longer be able to (willing is probably more accurate) drive back to Las Vegas non-stop. It was just too much driving for one day and so began our hunt for a suitable spot between Flagstaff and Las Vegas to spend the night. If said suitable spot had a little something interesting to do or look at as well, all the better.
It likely won’t surprise you to learn that there is a whole lot of nothing between those two cities. Sure, you’re making excellent time driving Interstate 40, but that’s about all you’re doing. It’s not completely barren desert by any means, but there certainly isn’t accumulations of civilization every thirty minutes along the way. This required a deeper dig.
Deeper digs, though often successful, tend to conjure solutions that aren’t overtly mainstream. You won’t be stumbling upon tip-of-your-tongue attractions supported by nationwide franchise accommodations. And while that is perfectly fine and undoubtedly appeals to many, for nervous travellers who don’t handle surprises (or mistakes) well, like me, it can be stressful.
Put those unconventional accommodations and attractions in the middle of a semi-desert on a forgotten, nearly-abandoned segment of highway, and it takes a concerted steeling of nerves to click the registration button. But click it I did, and what appeared on paper to be the setting of a slasher film ended up being an unexpected highlight to our holiday. That’s quite an accomplishment considering the heady competition our road trip included.
Grand Canyon Caverns – Inn – Restaurants – Tours
I’ll be dead honest. When I first discovered Grand Canyon Caverns, I was skeptical. Everything about the place felt sketchy. It was isolated. There were few online links discussing the place. Even the website was amateurish. This was the kind of remote, semi-abandoned destination where dozens of buried, serial killer victims are eventually discovered, not a full-service, family-friendly motel, restaurant, and tourist attraction.
On the other hand, it had a cavern tour. And that geology nerd in me just couldn’t let this fact go. A cavern tour would make a perfect addition to a trip already including canyons and craters. Why the hell not add a cavern while we’re at it. And if it lived up to its potential, Grand Canyon Caverns would make an ideal final stop before returning to the bright lights and big sounds of Sin City.
So, I booked a room in the motel for one night and registered the four of us for the first cavern tour the next morning. And then we waited, with continued trepidation, for that fateful day and night to arrive. If there was going to be a huge regret on this trip, a waste of money, a revelation of poor decision making, Grand Canyon Caverns was going to be it. Thankfully, it was anything but.
Grand Canyon Caverns is located on a desolate stretch of Route 66 that was all but forgotten when the I40 carved a more direct trajectory between Seligman and Kingman in Arizona. Where the I40 continues due west, the historic Route 66 veers north towards the Grand Canyon to swing through the town of Peach Springs and the southern edge of the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
Even a sheltered Canadian lad like me knows about the famous Route 66. Not in any great detail, mind you. I’m getting old but I’m not that old. Still, I’m old enough to know Route 66 is, or was, a major roadway across America and that one could, if so inclined, get their kicks on it. Whatever that means.
Aside from that vague pop culture reference, I really had no idea if Route 66 still existed. Was it still a major artery to the west coast or had it completely disappeared? When I found Grand Canyon Caverns on the map, I learned it’s a little bit of both.
By and large, Route 66 has been replaced by big, multi-lane, interstate highways, some of which incorporated portions of the old road and some of which bypass it all together. Grand Canyon Caverns is located on one such ghostly stretch of highway no longer part of the main thoroughfare. When you take the exit from I40 onto this forgotten, two-lane blacktop, it’s like traveling back in time.
A hint of those forgotten times comes courtesy of a short section of split highway immediately in front of the ramshackle structures comprising the Grand Canyon Caverns. You don’t suddenly split a highway for no reason. Sure enough, on a wall inside the main office you’ll find a faded, framed newspaper clipping harkening back to a time when this place did indeed need a split highway to accommodate the summer tourist traffic coming to and from the caverns. The day we visited? I’m not sure if we passed another vehicle the entire forty miles from I40 to the caverns.
As we turned into Grand Canyon Caverns, conflicting emotions swelled within me. There was elation at finally reaching our destination and getting to rest after a long day of exploration and driving. This was countered with apprehension as my senses took in the scene before me. My overwhelmed brain kept returning the same questioning conclusion … WTF?
Two large signs informed us that we had reached the correct place. But really, with this being the only evidence of habitation for miles in any direction, these signs could simply have read “yup” and we’d have pulled in. A green billboard with white lettering welcomed us to Grand Canyon Caverns while a vintage yellow with blue lettering elevated sign welcomed us to Cavern Inn. A space for an additional letter remained empty. It was unclear if this was done intentionally or if the ‘s’ at the end of Caverns had broken at some point in the past.
Assorted national flags affixed to the fencing along the highway projected a tourist friendly locale. Rusted metal dinosaur creations patrol an area at one end of the parking lot, décor for a mini-golf course. Several buildings in varying states of neglect allude to a once thriving diner and gas station. And everywhere you look, in and around the buildings and scattered about the parking lots are dozens of junk vehicles and myriad, old gas station paraphernalia. It’s what couch potatoes think is a pickers dream.
This first impression could easily scare away wary travellers. This looks nothing like a functioning, let alone thriving, rest stop. But then we noticed the new “Radiator Springs Gas” sign fastened to the abandoned garage. And the white, prop teeth on the front of an old, rusted tow truck. A little later we passed a fifties era police car with a single cherry on top and ‘Radiator Springs Police Department’ decals on the hood and door.
These vehicles may be relics of a bygone time but that borrowed branding certainly isn’t. Suddenly the place felt alive, and friendly. Family friendly at that. Just be sure to fill your gas tank back in civilization. The gas pumps here do appear to be functioning but you won’t want to pay the price to fill up here.
We eventually spent an hour or more wandering around the property looking at all the broken down vehicles littering the premises. There were fire trucks and cars of various vintages and states of decomposition. Many carried homages to that beloved Pixar movie. The entire place is like an art gallery filled with sculptures honouring a long-gone golden age of road travel.
And the pièce de résistance of this exhibit was the Caverns’ Inn, a 48 unit motel spread over several single-storey white and green buildings with a glorious Route 66 sign between two banks of rooms. The Caverns’ Inn is about as retro as it can get! I loved it. The kids were … perplexed. They were about to get a history lesson.
We parked the rental car in front of our assigned unit, replete with its own a/c unit and exterior light. Passing through the solid, wood entry door with keyed deadbolt lock, we gazed upon our two bed motel room. It was perfect. Main walls were painted brick while an interior wall separating the sleeping area from the bathroom was exquisite wood panelling. As they should be.
Kitschy artwork ornamented the room. A nightstand with lamp and a desk with chair completed the furnishings. A bar fridge stowed beneath one end of the desk was somewhat newer in age but still plain enough to suit the surroundings. The only evidence of twenty-first century modernity was a small, LCD television that now stood where surely a black and white tube tv once had.
The bathroom comprised a single sink with toiletries and towels open to the primary room whereas a toilet and tub/shower were enclosed behind an interior door. Beneath the sink I discovered a genuine, wall-mounted bottle opener. And here I was traveling without bottled beer. Fool!
I adored this motel. Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to spend a week in such a place. There are limits to my embracing of time travel. But for a single night, maybe two, oh lord Caverns’ Inn was fun. Just seeing the looks of bewilderment on my kids’ faces after having spent their lives shacking up in tourist-catering Holiday Inns and Best Westerns with pools and big TVs with fifty plus cable channels, large beds, and fancy furnishings was worth any discomfort a throwback like Caverns’ Inn imparted on my creaky body.
This was how their grandparents had traveled. Even in my childhood, such motels were still far more common than the chain hotels that dominate family vacationing today. Considering our next and final stop was the Mandalay Bay Resort on the Vegas Strip, Caverns’ Inn was a perfect reminder of how spoiled we are nowadays.
This isn’t to say there weren’t some luxuries available to motel patrons. Or, more accurately, would have been had we not arrived in early spring before the entire enterprise was functioning at full warp.
There was an outdoor pool on the premises, across the way from the motel, next to the main registry building. It was still closed for the season and void of water. Though it was a nice March day by Canadian standards, it would have been a chilly swim to say the least.
A quaint patio area and bar located off the main building were also still closed. Too bad, because by that point I was ready for a brew. I imagine this all makes for a wonderful summer stay when it is open. Swimming, cold beer, relaxing on the patio, and having a bite; the American dream.
There is even a modest toddler playground with little riding animals that look like something from the set of IT. I started wishing we had come a couple months later so we could fully enjoy all Caverns’ Inn had to offer. Of course, there’d be plenty more people around so perhaps I’m fine with missing out on a few perks.
By all accounts, our night at Caverns’ Inn was comfortable and satisfying for a one night stand. We had some noisy neighbours at one point who were sitting outside in the arid evening air enjoying music and conversation. They quieted down after an exasperated request on our part. That’s hardly an indictment of the place itself and in a way, I suppose, another throwback to golden era travel.
Our one night stay came with a free continental breakfast the next morning. Another modern convenience we’ve become accustomed to, it was both nice and surprising to have it included with our vintage experience. That said, it wasn’t the finest of breakfast dining.
Located in the café, part of the main building including the check-in desk and general store, we served ourselves from a small selection of cereals, breads, and muffins along with coffee and juice. Not exactly the eggs, bacon, and pancake breakfasts you get at modern hotels. I got the impression that this cafe was not truly open yet, which might explain the limited offerings and lack of staff. Again, I’m willing to discount this uninspired offering considering the time of year we were there. It was enough to get us moving.
I would never recommend staying at Caverns’ Inn for a week vacation. Honestly, why would you. But what a wonderful experience for an overnight stay. For us Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, Caverns’ Inn is a delightful memory come to life. For anyone younger, it’s like spending the night in a museum. Very cool.
Before our night’s rest, though, we needed sustenance. This posed a potential problem. We were miles from civilization, so no fast food joints awaited us. We had brought along a small cooler filled with picnic items for our day hikes. We could have scrounged up a tolerable snack, but it was hardly going to be satiating. Our only hope for a filling meal was the Caverns’ Restaurant.
Housed in the same building as the cavern tour entrance, about a mile back from the motel, the Caverns’ Restaurant was yet another crapshoot on our historic Route 66 adventure. With the whole enterprise in varying stages of start up, we weren’t even sure the restaurant would be open on a Wednesday night. Thankfully it was and once again my first impressions were obliterated.
We drove up a dirt road to find a large, green building that, if not newer, had certainly been refurbished far more than any other building on the property. Inside was a surprisingly large restaurant, curio shop, and meeting point for the cavern tours.
The interior of the restaurant was quite attractive with wood everywhere; walls, ceiling, furnishings. Together it instilled an Old West vibe to the place without looking like a pioneer village exhibit. Several booths and round tables filled the expanse offering diners plenty of choice for seating. A large buffet serving station positioned to the one side of the restaurant hinted that peak summer season has some kick-ass gorging going on here.
We found ourselves a table and waited for the lone waitress to take our order. Food offerings were the expected comfort foods, none of which will leap off the page as incredible feats of culinary imagination. That’s to be expected and honestly suits this place far more than any yuppie fusion cuisine. What wasn’t expected was the quality of the damn food. Wow!
I ordered a double cheeseburger and fries. Hey, I earned it. I fully expected a non-descript grease-burger and oven-baked fries out of a bag. What I got was the biggest, juiciest, most delicious burger and home cut fries I’d had in a long, long while. Oh my god, they were good. So filling. Uncomfortably so. But so delicious.
Service was admittedly slow. We were the only customers much of the time but still waited too long to be served. Mind you, the wait staff were pulling double duty working both in the restaurant as well as working on the facility itself. I’ll forgive them the delays considering the circumstances. I trust during peak tourist season, with far more visitors, this is a hopping restaurant appropriately staffed.
With no other options available outside of a long drive or bringing something with you, the Caverns’ Restaurant could have been a huge letdown. Instead, it was the opposite. All four of us had a delicious, filling, quality meal. Even our picky kids found something to their liking on the menu.
My only regret regarding the Caverns’ Restaurant was that I had no room for pie. And holy cow, did I want a piece. That coconut cream pie looked heavenly. But even a fork full of it would have had me bent over a toilet heaving. There just isn’t room in my middle-aged gut anymore.
Instead of pie, we ambled around the curio shop next to the restaurant checking out the myriad knickknacks and souvenirs to commemorate a visit to Grand Canyon Caverns. Items ranged from the typical plastic crap to interesting prints to rock samples to branded clothing. Anyone wanting a memento will find something to buy, be your tastes run-of-the-mill or quirky.
Cavern RV and Campgrounds
Before I delve into the very reason this place exists, I should mention that the motel is not the only accommodations on the premises. There is also Cavern RV and Campgrounds available for the camping crowd.
Located next to the restaurant and tour entrance building, Cavern RV looks to be a fairly barebones campground. But as we learned many times during our stay, looks can be deceiving.
Obviously, people aren’t coming here for a week long camping vacation. Perhaps its a single night stay to do a cavern tour while passing through, much like we did. Or maybe it’s a couple days stay to enjoy rafting activities on the Indian Reservation. Whatever the reasoning, RVers will find this campground plenty suitable.
The individual campsites are a bit difficult to discern from afar. Basically a gravel pad separated by stubby pine trees, there are 48 sites with electrical and water service. You’re not going to get lush lawn and towering forest in this part of the country.
A converted worksite doghouse provides a bathroom and shower complex for campers and a small playground out front of the restaurant provides a little something for the kids to do. Campers have access to the pool and the website says a disc golf course and miles of nature trail are also available. Who knew?
We didn’t camp at Cavern RV, so take this small review with appropriate amounts of salt. As a convenient spot to stay on a journey or when visiting the caverns, Cavern RV and Campgrounds is just fine. I’d certainly recommend it as just that.
For a longer stay or as an actual camping trip destination, I’d be inclined to look elsewhere. But, then again, that’s not what this campground is about. It’s functional for what it aims to do plus you get power and water as a bonus. And, hey, you can’t go wrong with the sunsets and the night sky out there in all that emptiness. Talk about a dark sky preserve!
Okay, let’s get to the star of the show; Grand Canyon Caverns. Let’s be honest, if it wasn’t for the caverns this place would not exist.
Billed as the largest, dry cavern in the world, Grand Canyon Caverns lie two to three hundred feet below the surface. Created by acidic rain waters dissolving the Mississippian limestone formations of what was once an ancient sea, the caverns now sit 5000 feet above sea level. As this area of the continent rose and the climate changed several times, the interconnected caverns dried out leaving ornate mineral deposits within.
The Grand Canyon Caverns are now completely dry. Moisture no longer enters these cavities. As such, it neither grows nor evolves without the fluids that drive such natural processes. What remains is a unique underground world hidden from human eyes for millions of years.
Accessible by elevator, Grand Canyon Caverns has quite a colourful history. Rediscovered in 1927 by an unwitting woodcutter heading to a poker game, these most recent explorers thought they’d found gold in the sparkling walls. They hadn’t.
The eventful history is well-documented on their website, but for tour patrons the guide does a wonderful job sharing that history as he/she walks you around the caverns. Our guide, a young man from Mississippi, was terrific and made the 45 minute tour a delightful experience.
The history and local lore of these caverns really adds to the atmosphere. There’s the naturally mummified bobcat that was found. As were bones from an extinct, ice-age giant ground sloth also thought to have made claw marks on the cavern wall in one spot. Then there’s the convoluted history of tourism in these caverns including the earliest who were lowered into them by rope!
As tourism evolved so did the caverns accessibility. Ropes gave way ladders which then gave way to a wooden suspension bridge repurposed from the building of the Hoover Dam. Nowadays the caverns are accessed via elevator. Many other additions have been made over the decades including concrete walkways and wood or steel stairways all making for an accessible, comfortable tour. I wouldn’t recommend stiletto heels, mind you, but you certainly won’t need the latest in hiking gear to enjoy the caverns.
Grand Canyon Caverns is also a nuclear attack shelter for the area. As such, it continues to be stocked with rations and survival supplies by the US government as it has been since the latter half of the twentieth century. I don’t know how well they’d do at only allowing a specified number of survivors down here, but it’s fascinating to contemplate nonetheless.
The caverns are lit well enough to navigate but photography will be a challenge for amateur picture takers or those with automatic point and shoot cameras. And though you are underground, by no means is the air stuffy or humid. Other than being surrounded by rock, if felt no different than walking around a temperature-controlled, albeit dry, museum.
Geological formations and mineral deposits can be seen at plenty of locations along the tour. They aren’t going to blow your mind. Some are certainly interesting and attractive but you’re not going to find ten foot stalactites hanging from the ceilings or huge crystal formations in the walls.
Additionally, some of the mineral formations have been damaged over the years by throngs of tourists touching them, leaving grime and residue which have discoloured otherwise snow white deposits. That’s a shame and there is no way to restore them without destroying them. You are no longer allowed to touch but what is done is done. Still, novice and expert geology aficionados alike will enjoy the modest treasures found within the caverns.
There are several tours each day with three different tour options appealing to most any visitor. There’s a short tour, a long tour, and an extra long tour, the latter taking you into the most recently discovered extents of the caverns. They even run a paranormal tour for those who enjoy a little scare in their cave explorating.
We took the regular tour (the middle one). At forty-five minutes in length, it was perfect for our family. Without the young kids I’d consider the longer tour. Those with mobility constraints would be advised to take the short tour. No one should leave disappointed.
While touring you’ll pass what appears to be a stage with seating for perhaps a hundred people. Apparently there have been musical performances down here in the past which sounds like a fantastic experience. Alas, they are no longer allowed to do them according to our guide. I forget the reasoning. But the fact the chairs remain in place suggests they may once again try to do this. Imagine how amazing a concert or theatrical performance would be in this setting!
Touring the Grand Canyon Caverns, while enjoyable and well worth the visit, is not the only thing you can do in them. There is also a restaurant in the cavern. The Cavern Grotto is a full-service restaurant found two hundred feet below ground. Situated on a raised platform in the open cavern, the Grotto offers up an exclusive dining atmosphere. With a handful of tables and a bar, diners can order meals which are prepared in the surface restaurant before being brought down to the Grotto via elevator and pulley system.
Knowing how good the food is from our own restaurant experience up above, the Cavern Grotto would make for a truly one-of-a-kind meal. Romantic, if you ask me. Pretty much the perfect place for geologists to get engaged. Hint hint.
Reservations are a must at Cavern Grotto. You can’t just pop in for an appetizer during a tour or scoot in for a quick beer and burger after work. With limited seating, I also suspect openings disappear quickly during peak season. Looking back, I kind of wish we had eaten down there. It would have memorable. The only way to enhance that awesome cheeseburger I had. I’d have even made room for the pie.
The Cave Motel Room (Cavern Suite)
After eating at Cavern Grotto, you might need a nap. Or maybe you and your sweetheart have a little something special planned for dessert. No problem, Grand Canyon Caverns has yet another treat for you. You can spend the night in the cavern.
The Cave Motel Room is a complete hotel suite located in the cavern, two hundred feet below ground, next to the stage I mentioned above. On another raised platform, the room consists of a two single beds, wardrobe, television and bathroom. It’s quite the sight.
And I do mean a sight; especially for those of us on tours. The entire cave motel room, save for the bathroom, is open. Open, as in, no walls. People on tour can see the entire suite and you in it. We took the first tour of the new day starting at 9:30 and the guests who had spent the night in the Cave Motel Room were still there finishing their morning routine, thankfully dressed.
My point is, don’t think you’ll be lounging around in here all afternoon with only your own digestive noises to fill the silence. Tours will be happening while you are present, and you won’t have any privacy. But come night time, when the tours are finished, and the Cavern Grotto has closed, it’ll be just you and the entire cavern, alone.
The very thought of this is both intriguing and terrifying. With 0% humidity in the caverns, nothing supposedly lives down there, but I’d have a hard time not obsessing over could be crawling (or flying) around me in the pitch darkness.
I imagine it takes some nerve to calm yourself once abandoned for the night in the cavern motel room. A magical experience if you can stomach it. We, sadly, could not stomach it. More accurately, we could not stomach the cost.
As you can surmise, such a singular attraction comes with a hefty price tag. Costing a whopping $900 per night, you must really want to spend the night in a cavern to pony up that kind of cash. Add in the conversion from US dollars and we tight-ass Canadians just couldn’t justify it. Perhaps another time. Sans kids. Post lottery win.
Still, the Cave Motel Room is a genuinely distinctive accommodation and deep-pocketed travelers will be well rewarded. Many special memories could be made in this underground haven. Imagine telling your child they were conceived i … oh, never mind.
We had a wonderful time at Grand Canyon Caverns. All our fears were completely unfounded. Despite arriving during shoulder season and the facility not yet being fully functional, we had a delightful stay. I wholeheartedly recommend this place to anyone taking a road trip along the south side of the Grand Canyon and looking for something different to do. I’d certainly go back.
And the best part about Grand Canyon Caverns? It’s a work in progress. The entire facility is slowly but surely being rebuilt and re-invigorated with new activities and improvements added annually. Case in point, I’m looking at the website as I write, and they are advertising daily Fire Truck Rides. I don’t recall that being an option when we visited. Brilliant!
I’ve never been happier to hate long drives.
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