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Kitsch and caves on Route 66Kitsch and caves on Route 66

Grand Canyon Caverns, ArizonaGrand Canyon Caverns, Arizona

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.

  • Grand Canyon Caverns is the quintessential Route 66 stop, with its dinosaur replica, classic signs, motel, and curio shop. But there’s much more: the largest dry cavern in the United States, with tours, a restaurant, and even a motel room 220 feet underground. Add a cowboy adventure, whitewater rafting, or a helicopter ride, and you’ve got yourself one unique getaway. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • So what’s up with the lion pilot? Hey, we told you this trip was great for kids! Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • At Grand Canyon Caverns, wind allowing, it’s preferable to land long on Runway 5, as you will taxi to parking near the hangar at the northeast end. Bring tiedowns just in case. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Rolling out on Runway 5. The runway is usually in good shape. There are no services at the airport, but fuel is available at Kingman, 37 nm southwest. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • When we landed, we continued past the hangar, turning right and taxiing down the dirt road to the gas station and parking on our left. But call ahead to see if that’s available, 928-422-3223. As you cannot see the runway from the road, motorists will wonder where a plane came from! If you park at the airport it’s just a five-minute walk to the motel, but the caverns, curio shop, and restaurant are about a mile farther, up a dirt road off the highway, so you can request pickup via the CTAF or just go in to the motel. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Anyone familiar with the original Pixar film ‘Cars’ will recall its tiny Southwestern town—Radiator Springs—on Route 66. Bypassed by Interstate 40, this quirky tourist stop has fallen into dusty oblivion. Happily, its businesses are revived by a flashy newcomer toward the end of the film. That fictional town is based on the real town of Peach Springs, Arizona, not far from Grand Canyon Caverns. A visit here is like a step back in time. No, there aren’t any real dinosaurs. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Our cavern guide was Jerry Keeler, quite the Wild West character with his cowboy hat, mustache, and beard, shown here with some other guests. Intelligent, friendly, and fun, he tailors his talks according to the demographics and interests of his guests. For instance, he can discuss in detail how recent research and data from the caverns has stirred debate among geologists on the actual age of the Grand Canyon and how it was formed. On the other hand, he says kids are most excited when he shows them where the Easter Bunny really lives. Photo courtesy Crista Worthy.
  • Several hundred million years ago, this part of the world was under the sea. Innumerable marine creatures and plants lived and died here, their shells and debris forming lime, mixing with the mud at the sea bottom, and eventually becoming limestone. The pressures of plate tectonics thrust this rock a mile above sea level. Acidic rainfall slowly dissolved the limestone, eventually forming a huge cavern underground, filled with water. As the climate became arid, the water seeped away, and evaporation and dripping water within the chambers created ornate formations. Eventually the cavern completely dried out and its formation was complete. It was discovered in 1927 by Walter Peck after he stumbled over a large hole in the ground. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Caverns.
  • For the “largest, deepest, darkest, oldest, quietest motel room in the world,” book the Cave Motel Room, which took a mere 65 million years for nature to construct. Your room will be 21 stories underground, 200 feet wide and 400 feet long, boasting a 70-foot ceiling. In this room you’ll find two double beds and a living room with a queen-size fold-out sofa—and no bats. Check in with the day’s last tour and check out before the first tour passes by, or else you might get visitors! Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The Cave Motel Room has been stocked with a record player and LPs, cave-appropriate DVDs, and a collection of old books and magazines. How about a National Geographic from 1917 or books from the late 19th century? Yes, there is a small private bathroom and shower (100 gallons of water are carried down and then back up daily by employees), as well as an attendant at the top of the elevator all night in case of emergency or even if you just want a soda. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Add to your adventure by dining underground in the Cavern Grotto; reservations required. Lunch or dinner includes a cave tour. The idea for the cave restaurant sprang into owner John McEnulty’s head as he dined with his family at the Blue Bayou, a restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Caverns.
  • Near the elevator where you descend into the cavern, there’s a curio shop and a restaurant with good food—we had steaks and shrimp on sugar-cane skewers plus fresh pie. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The Caverns Inn offers 48 quiet motel rooms in a long building. The simple rooms are all at ground level with two double beds or one king, air conditioning, and cable TV, Wi-Fi in the lobby, and a bar, mini-mart, and pool nearby. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • You can book a one- or two-day motorized whitewater trip in the Grand Canyon; all trips begin and end at the motel, so transportation is not a problem. The rafting trips cover the last 70 miles of the Colorado as it slices through the Grand Canyon and include nine sections of rapids. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Caverns.
  • Horseback rides can be for an hour, half a day, or overnight, when you’ll sleep under the stars on an authentic bed roll, and enjoy dinner and breakfast cooked over the open fire near the chuck wagon. Half-day ATV rides are available too, all starting from the motel. Photo courtesy A Cowboy’s Way Ranch.

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.

Once you arrive, you’ll enjoy down-home hospitality and renovated facilities, courtesy of the current owners, big-city natives who fell in love with this out-of-the-way place and bought the entire 800-plus acres in 2002. You’ll begin by meeting your tour guide near the elevator. After descending 21 stories, you enter the Chapel of the Ages cavern; two football fields could fit into this huge room. Your guide will explain the cavern’s history and the different formations you will see, many of which are impressive, though very different from Carlsbad or Kartchner Caverns.

“Gertie,” a replica of the real giant ground sloth that became trapped inside the cavern 11,000 years ago. Her scratch marks are etched into the cave wall above. Photo by Crista Worthy.

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).

One of the cavern rooms still holds rations placed there in 1963 during the Cuban missile crisis. The food and water, stored in large barrels, was enough to feed 2,000 people for a couple of weeks in case of nuclear war. Interestingly, we were told the food is likely still edible, due to the cavern’s continuously cool, dry environment. Photo by Crista Worthy.

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.

Sign up for an authentic cattle drive and ride with the team for 1 or 2 days, sleeping in a cowboy camp under the stars, eating your meals from a real chuck wagon, and telling stories around the campfire. Rent chaps, spurs, and a cowboy hat so you look like the real deal. Photo courtesy A Cowboy’s Way Ranch.

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Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to aopadestinations@gmail.com.
Topics: US Travel

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