Kids especially love this unforgettable vacation: Fly to a well-maintained, mile-long, dirt/gravel runway along Old Route 66 to explore giant underground dry caverns, dine inside the cave, and even sleep in the “Cave Motel Room” 220 feet underground. More fun times include whitewater rafting, helicopter rides, horseback adventures, and cowboy cattle drives.
On the 095 radial 15 nautical miles from the Peach Springs VOR, you’ll find the one and only Grand Canyon Caverns, the largest dry caverns in the United States. Best of all for pilots is the airstrip, plenty long at 5,100 by 45 feet of dirt and gravel (see details in photo captions). But first, don’t miss the opportunity to overfly the Grand Canyon! Pull up the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area VFR chart via SkyVector or ForeFlight. You’ll need to fly through one of the four allowed corridors, at the directed altitude. Watch out for fixed-wing and helicopter tour traffic.
Kids can be awestruck walking inside the giant caverns. My husband toured them as a boy and remembered being intrigued by a mummified bobcat. Sure enough, the cat, which fell into the cavern about 150 years ago, was still there. I was most impressed with the marks left by a giant ground sloth (Glossotherium harlani), that also fell into the cavern. These huge animals flourished during the Pleistocene Epoch along with sabertooth tigers, mammoths, and other fantastic creatures. The University of Tucson built a life-size replica of the animal, which measured more than 15 feet long and weighed almost 2,000 pounds when alive. The replica sloth, nicknamed Gertie, now stands under the huge scratches in the wall the real sloth made as it vainly tried to escape the cave before succumbing some 11,000 years ago.
Add to your adventure by dining underground in the Cavern Grotto; reservations required. Lunch or dinner includes a cave tour. Speaking of adventures, how about staying overnight in the largest, deepest, darkest, quietest motel room of your life? That’s right, you and up to five others can stay in the one and only Cave Motel Room, 220 feet below the surface. Your reservation includes a private caverns tour (details in photo captions).
Above ground, the cavern tours building also houses a restaurant that serves good home-style food and great pies; a curio shop is adjacent. Your kids will love panning for “gold.” They’ll get a bag of sand they can sluice outside the restaurant. Don’t worry about them being disappointed—they’re guaranteed to find something, usually interesting rocks or fossils. You don’t have to sleep underground; near the caverns is a three-bedroom detached house that’s perfect for families. Down by the gas station there’s a mini-mart (check out the fun retro stuff in the Flash-from-the-past “museum”), 1950s-style motel, and swimming pool.
But wait—there’s more—the folks at A Cowboy’s Way Ranch will pick you up for trail rides or cattle drives on their well-mannered horses (see photos for details). Other trips that depart from the motel include one- or two-day Grand Canyon whitewater rafting trips, helicopter scenic flights, trips to the idyllic Havasupai Nation waterfalls, and an evening two-hour “Ghost Walk” (this I haven’t tried, so I can’t vouch for what happens). Also onsite is a rodeo ring; contact the Caverns to find out when rodeo events are scheduled.
There’s no doubt the Grand Canyon Caverns and its airstrip are off the beaten path. But that’s part of the enjoyment—you make all these discoveries out in “the middle of nowhere.” The caverns, the cast of characters, the kitsch, all combine to leave you pleasantly amused and your kids wowed. Now that’s a good family trip! Tack on a visit to the nearby Grand Canyon West Skywalk and you’ve got outdoor and underground adventures your kids will be telling their friends about for months.
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