The story of the Grand Canyon Caverns’ formation starts 345 million years ago, at the bottom of an ancient sea. This was during the Mississippian Period of geologic time. The entire Southwestern U.S. was covered by ocean. As tiny sea animals lived and died, their shells and skeletons fell to the ocean floor creating a fine, oozy mud, very rich in lime deposits. This mud eventually became the limestone bedrock which is the base rock of the Caverns. Later on, forces deep within the earth, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, cause the ocean floor to rise several thousands of feet, becoming the mountaintops of today. The Caverns’ elevation is now more than 5,000 feet above sea level. These upheavals split the earth’s crust. Rainwater started entering these cracks and seeping into the limestone. This was the very beginning of the Grand Canyon Caverns.
Millions of years ago, there were periods of abundant rainfall and tropical downpours. The rainwater carried a mild acid solution. As this acid came in contact with the limestone, it dissolved away the softest parts. This created connecting passageways and cavities that soon filled with water. As climatic conditions changed and the rain fell less frequently, the water table began to lower until these cavities were left empty. By this time, millions of years had been involved in forming the Grand Canyon Caverns, but still, millions more would be required to ornately adorn them. Due to further changes in conditions, evaporating water began to deposit calcium carbonate and to create the varied, beautiful formations you can see today.
6 million years is not a very long time in the age of caverns. Yet, that is all the longer water was in the Grand Canyon Caverns, leaving them dry for the last several million years. 97% of the world’s caverns are wet. They still have water seeping in them. They still have growing formations. The Grand Canyon Caverns are dry, meaning no more formations are being formed. Only 3 out of every 100 caverns in the world are dry which makes these Caverns very rare and unique!
In 1927, a young woodcutter, Walter Peck, was on his way to play poker with his friends. Before reaching the game, he stumbled and nearly fell into a rather large, funnel-shaped hole. Since he didn’t have the proper equipment to explore the hole, he continued on to the poker game. Once there he started telling the boys about a new, big hole in the middle of his trail. The next morning Walter gathered some friends. With ropes and lanterns, they went to explore his new hole. A rope was tied around the waist of a local cowboy. He was lowered into the hole. By the time his feet touched the floor of the hole, 150 feet of rope had been let out. He found himself in a very large, dark cavern. Using the coal oil lantern, he began exploring. However, the only thing that excited him was the thought he had found a very rich vein of gold. As he’d cast the light from this lantern across the cavern it picked up some sparkles in the rock. He quickly gathered up a sack full of samples. He gave his signal, three tugs on the rope. Walter and the other men started pulling him back up out to the hole. Upon reaching the surface he excitedly showed the samples to Walter. Then he told his friends that, on a ledge at the 50-foot level, he’d seen the remains of two human skeletons and remnants of a horse saddle. By the time the newspapers had finished with the story, these had become the remains of a prehistoric caveman with no mention of the horse saddle. The story caused a great stir among people. Soon, scientists had come from the east to pick up and study the bones. While all of this was going on, Walter purchased the property and the Caverns in preparation for mining gold!
However, when the assay report came back, Walter was a mightily disappointed man. No gold was found — only lots of iron oxide or rust! Walter had spent his money on an empty, funnel-shaped hole — and a rust factory. But, being a very enterprising young man, he soon came up with a brilliant idea. He would charge 25 cents to enter the Caverns and to see where the “caveman” had been found. He built a very primitive elevator. Visitors were tied to one end of a rope and lowered down by a hand-operated winch. These early tourists were expected to provide their own light source, usually a kerosene lantern. Upon reaching the floor of the Caverns, it would be unwise to untie the rope and stray away. For, if the light source were dropped or otherwise lost, the pioneering spelunkers would find themselves in absolute darkness.
In late 1935, during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), set up work camps to employ the many people out of work. The C.C.C. made a deal with Walter. If he would furnish all the materials, they would build a new entrance to the Caverns. When finished, this improved access included several components. The first 30 feet into the Caverns was a wooden staircase. Then came three ladders (15 feet each). The last 60-foot stretch was a beautiful swinging (suspension) bridge. This new entrance entailed 15 stories of walking in and 15 stories of walking out. After this phase of construction was completed, the price was increased to 50 cents a person. Now more than one person could enter the Caverns at a time! This was the only way in and out of the Caverns until 1962. Then, a new shaft was blasted 210 feet deep and a modern elevator was installed. At that time, the natural entrance was sealed off forever.
Finally, brought to light was just how the two skeletons and saddle ended up on the ledge at the 50-foot level. During the winter of 1917-1918 a group of Hualapai Indians were out cutting firewood up on the Caverns hilltop. Two brothers became ill and died from a flu epidemic. Before the group could start back to Peach Springs, a snow storm trapped them on the hilltop for three days. Finally, the storm was over, but now, they could not dig a grave. The ground was frozen and more than three feet of snow had fallen. The Hualapais needed to get the rest of their men home, but they were scared. If they took the dead bodies back, would they risk spreading the flu to the whole tribe? What could they do with the two dead bodies? They remembered a small, well-concealed hole on the hilltop, so they used that 50-foot deep hole to bury the two brothers. As far as they knew, it was only a 50-foot deep hole. They never knew the bottom of their hole was a big rock that had fallen thousands of years ago sealing off the small 100-foot channel that led into the Caverns. Because the hole had been used to bury these two people, the Hualapais considered this area sacred. When the elevator was operational in 1962, the Natural Entrance was then sealed off forever as requested by our neighbors, the Hualapais.
Near the natural entrance, we found enough skeletal remains of a Glossotherium Harlani, an extinct giant ground sloth. This animal lived and died during the Age of Mammals when the Woolly Mammoth and the Saber-Tooth Tiger walked the earth. They’ve all been extinct for at least 11,000 years. There was enough of the skeleton found to determine the height and weight of the model that stands near the area where the skeletal remains were found. “Gertie” as we call her, stands 15 feet, 4 inches and would have weighed at least 2,000 pounds. Her living relatives are the anteater, the modern-day tree sloth, and the armadillo!
Today, the only way to enter the Caverns is with a guide and through the use of an elevator that takes you 210 feet below the earth’s surface, a 21 story building!