AZ's 'grand' caverns<BR>Monolithic subterranean passages are just off Rt. 66

Down, down, down – 250 feet down through solid rock.

As the elevator doors open, cool, 42-degree air raises goosebumps on visitors' skin and a wonder of Mother Nature opens before their eyes.

A giant cave of monolithic proportions looms ahead, its walls covered in calcium carbonate formations like giant white snowballs and smaller clustered formations affectionately called "grapes" by tour guides.

The two main rooms – "Chapel of Ages" and "Halls of Gold" – are each large enough to fit a regulation football field inside.

Formed by water about 345 million years ago, the caverns are now dry, with evidence of prehistoric waterfalls in the limestone walls as well as lithified fossils of clams, scallops and sea turtle remains.

Air filtering in the underground caverns comes from underground fissures as far away as the Grand Canyon, pure and unpolluted – 60 miles away. Guides say bacteria and viruses cannot live longer than 72 hours in its sterile environment.

Curious wafts of air seeping through niches and floor fissures, as well as seismic imaging, indicate that other caverns exist as many as 1,300 feet below.

Since 1949, spelunkers have been exploring regions in the caverns too dangerous for the general public, in the hope of finding more rooms and passageways.

An average of 70,000 people visit the still privately owned Grand Canyon Caverns annually, said Bill Jackson, the caverns' marketing specialist.

The monolithic caverns were discovered in 1927, when, after resting relatively undisturbed and undiscovered several hundred feet below a bustling surface for about 60 million years, Walter Peck, a young woodcutter on his way to a poker game, nearly fell into a 9-foot hole that had washed open from a previously unnoticed surface fissure.

He returned the next day with friends and lowered a buddy down by rope and lantern into the dark hole.

Two Indian skeletons and a saddle were there resting on a 50-foot ledge, much to Peck's friend's consternation. It was not until the 1960s that scientists were able to access the bodies and found they were two young Hualapai Indians who died of influenza and were tossed into the caverns by comrades as a burial during the winter of 1917-18.

Intrigued with the caverns' possibilities all those years ago, Peck bought the caverns hoping they would be a gold bonanza – which they weren't.

Nonplussed, enterprising Peck proceeded to open the caverns to touristry. For seven years, he lowered interested visitors down the old-fashioned way – by rope and armed with a kerosene lantern, for the hefty price of 25 cents.

In 1936, he was able to upgrade the system with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), through a series of wooden steps and a "swinging" bridge, whereupon he raised the entry price to 50 cents.

More easily accessible, but still as dark, flashlight-toting visitors toured the caverns until 1962 when Peck installed an elevator and modern lighting system.

Now, the caverns are fully reachable even for handicapped visitors and are lit with tasteful accent lighting. Chain link fencing borders a concrete pathway around the three-mile tour area.

The hike is relatively mild, with only a few low stairs and rises.

Other objects add interest to the tour: A realistic model of a 15-foot-tall, 2,000-pound giant sloth, extinct for more than 11,000 years, towers over visitors at one turn in the tour. Those in the know surmise the sloth fell into the caverns more than 100 years ago and died, but not before it immemorialized its displeasure at being trapped in the cave by severely clawing the side of a wall.

The sloth is a relative of the anteater, armadillo and the now-living and much smaller three-toed sloth.

The sloth was not the only unfortunate victim of the caverns: "Dead Bob," a bobcat that presumably fell through a small opening in the caverns more than 100 years ago, has become the cave's mummified mascot. Scientists estimate that Bob was about 5 years old at the time of his death, sometime in the early 1850s.

Though not ever alive, a giant concrete Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur looms outside in front of the lodge as a reminder of the age of the caverns and welcomes guests with a bird nest in its mouth.

The Grand Canyon Caverns also boasts a rustically decorated lodge with a well-stocked gift store, a small museum area and a wonderful selection of mouth-watering food from burgs to vegetarian fare.

The personnel are as friendly as small-town neighbors and continuously solicitous of visitors' comfort and preferences.

The Grand Canyon Caverns is a must

for families or others who want a pleasant day of exploring without too much exertion.