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The Grand Canyon Caverns (Havasupai: Ŧathiil Ñwaʼa or Ŧathiil Ñhaʼa, Coordinates: ), located just a few miles east of Peach Springs, Arizona, 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. Air comes into the caverns from the Grand Canyon through 60 miles (97 km) of limestone caves. 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. 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 scientists 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 Hualapai Native Americans were harvesting and cutting firewood on the caverns hilltop and a snowstorm trapped them there 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.
During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration made an agreement with Peck in 1935 to build a new entrance to the Caverns. In 1962, another 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 Glossotherium Harlani were also found. This giant and extinct ground sloth 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.
Peck had named the caverns the Yampai Caverns, with the name being changed several times and up until 1957, they were known as the Coconino Caverns. During 1957 through 1962, they were known as the Dinosaur Caverns and there are plenty of these contemporary but artificial 'dinosaur' artifacts from this era, that exist to this day. In 1962 the caverns were renamed the Grand Canyon Caverns, with good reason, as they are connected to the Grand Canyon to the north.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. government deployed enough water and food rations to the caverns to support up to 2,000 people for up to two weeks. These supplies remain there today and are seen by all visitors who tour the caverns, but a more interesting fact is that these supplies are still as ready to eat and drink as they were more than four decades ago due to the constant dryness and cool temperature of the air inside.
Not simply an Historic Route 66 roadside tourist attraction that has survived into the current century with nearly 100,000 tourists annually, the Grand Canyon Caverns are the location of ongoing scientific work related to not only cave exploration, but space exploration as well. A cosmic ray telescope was installed in 1979 under 126 feet (38 m) of solid limestone by the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of New Mexico. The purpose of the telescope of course is the study of interstellar cosmic rays that constantly bombard the earth from deep space, penetrating solid rock.
The Grand Canyon Caverns are 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 the ideal preservatory. The caverns are featured in a 2011 documentary produced by PassmoreLab of San Diego, California, entitled The Inner Earth, in which the caverns will be featured with other amazing caves from Belize, Hawaii, and Iceland.
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, including the large cache of cold war era rations placed there in the 1960s.
While the Caverns are the most popular natural feature of this vast recreational area in northern Arizona, next to the Grand Canyon, there are plenty of accommodations on site that enable tourists and scientists alike to spend time here. A hotel, The Grand Canyon Caverns Inn, a RV park and campgrounds, restaurant, convenience store, and a 5,100-foot (1,600 m) runway, all located along the longest remaining, contiguous stretch of historic Route 66 enable visitors to arrive by plane or vehicle and stay to explore, both underground and above ground features, as long as desired. In fact, the Caverns area has such educational value that the Elderhostel organization offers several travel adventures to the resort complete with transportation, meals, overnight lodging, and of course, educational classes in the inn's meeting and banquet rooms along with walking classes touring the caverns and the surface areas to learn about geology, biology, history and many other topics of interest.
For those hikers headed to the Native American resort village of Supai, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn is the closest lodging and meal establishment on top of the Canyon with both highway and runway access where hikers prepare for their 5-mile (8.0 km) descent into the Canyon, and return after their ascent from the village for food and rest prior to heading back whence they came, usually Phoenix or Las Vegas.
Located on the Coconino Plateau, just a few miles west of the Aubrey Cliffs that rise to over 6,100 feet (1,900 m) above sea level, 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. During the 1950s scientists allegedly began searching for the source of fresh air one encounters in the Cavern's depths. It is said that the engineers set off a significant number of red flares in the Snowball cavern room and once it all dissipated engineers searched for many days in the surrounding countryside for signs of seepage from the earth's surface but no smoke was ever seen. It is said[who?] that a few weeks afterward rangers who worked at Grand Canyon National Park reported seeing red smoke seeping from the rocks in the canyon walls nearly 63 miles (101 km) to the north of the Caverns close by the village of Supai.