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Adventure, Thrills & REM Sleep—20 Stories Underground

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— January 15, 2019

Adventure, Thrills & REM Sleep—20 Stories Underground

  • Grand Canyon Caverns is at once an adventure park and artifact-rich exhibition hall—220 feet below ground.
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The Southwest is so stunningly beautiful and historically rich, you can spin around blindfolded, stop and follow your nose, and you’ll end up somewhere remarkable. One of our favorite stops as we crisscrossed the region was the Grand Canyon Caverns, about five hours north of Tucson. Its location along Route 66 and the big plastic dinosaur out front hints at some of the kitsch you might find on the property. But the privately-owned Grand Canyon Caverns is so much more.

Grand Canyon Caverns is at once an adventure park and artifact-rich exhibition hall—220 feet below ground. And you can spend the night—the main “room” is fitted with all the furnishings of a comfortable hotel room, and then some. It just happens to be 65 million years old.

There’s plenty to get thrill-seekers excited without an overnight stay. The most challenging and exhilarating way to visit the caverns is via its Wild Tour, a three-hour excursion from the entrance to the newest cave found on the property in 2014, a large room full of crystal structures. The tour is tough enough for owners to carefully vet visitors who sign on for athleticism; only 70% of them make it in and out.

Visitors who don’t complete the strenuous challenge get put on a less vigorous tour says owner John McEnulty, who bought the caverns and surrounding property in 2002. “We don’t hurt anybody’s feelings,” McEnulty says. “They just don’t get the grand prize”—the satisfaction of completing the tougher cavern circuit.

An Explorer Tour takes the adventure-minded into seven of some 300 side rooms off the main cavern area, each with its own identity and beauty. At several swirling rock configurations formed by water flow over the millennia, visitors can rappel down with a guide to about 300 feet below the surface level. The first of the rooms that owners opened features a translucent white selenite dome and quartz walls. “It’s like being in an ice palace somewhere in a whiteout blizzard, but filled with diamonds,” McEnulty says.

It was not diamonds but gold that Walter Peck, a young woodcutter, thought he discovered when he explored the cavern in 1927. Peck was on his way to a poker game when he stumbled and nearly fell into a large, funnel-shaped hole, which he and friends returned to the next morning. The gold that Peck thought he had found turned out to be sparkles of minerals with far less value.

McEnulty turned the site of Peck’s misfortune into a lucrative tourist attraction, with the overnight stay—and a grotto restaurant with dirty dishes raised by pulley—a major draw. Overnight guests in the main cave, about 200 by 400 feet with a 70-foot ceiling, have included rocker Ozzy Osborne and actress Hayden Panettiere.

Grand Canyon Caverns has also attracted the producers of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures,” whose hosts explore locations where paranormal activity has been reported. McEnulty asserts his staff does nothing to embellish whatever errant sounds or visions guests encounter. Nervous? You can sleep in the pitch black in the soundless cavern, or opt to have some light. You can also contact an overnight guide residing 200 feet up near the elevator that brings you in and out of the cavern, which sleeps six.

We braved the night, albeit with some low-key light, though we heard that an earlier visitor spent the night in bed on her elbows and with eyes wide open. Grand Canyon Caverns also offers a ghost walk at 5 p.m. each day, complete with ghost meters. “We don’t trick it up,” McEnulty says. “We make no effort to do anything artificial.”

Grand Canyon Caverns, filled with an odd collection of fascinating relics, is a living museum—but one in which visitors are welcome to step onto the other side of the red velvet rope and immerse themselves among the exhibits. Just off the sleeping area, there’s auditorium seating with the original 1928 seats from the American Film Institute. You’ll encounter a well-preserved mummified bobcat from the 1860s. (The atmospheric conditions in the dry caverns are the same as in the pyramids of Luxor, Egypt, McEnulty says, and he expects the bobcat to remain in good condition for years to come.)

A 15-foot tall, 1,500-pound replica of a North American ground sloth is on the spot where the real creature’s bones were found; the original animal’s remains were donated to a grateful University of Arizona, which made and offered the replica in return.

Besides the caverns, the property touts four lodging types: motel rooms, a three-bedroom house, an RV park, and a campground. McEnulty makes several capital improvements each year, and this year is adding a sizable zip line.

The property is amidst a forest, with trees as old as 150 years, unlike surrounding areas where trees have been cut down to make room for ranch land. Indeed, Grand Canyon Cavern’s eco-friendly owners have created a safe haven for wildlife, with elk, deer, antelope and other animals packing the property during hunting season, McEnulty says. For more information, visit gccaverns.com.

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