Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona

Grand Canyon Caverns Inn, Arizonqa by Kathy Alexander.

Grand Canyon Caverns Inn, Arizona, by Kathy Alexander.

Story by Jim Hinckley

Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona

Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona

Never judge a book by its cover is an old adage easily applied to many places scattered along Route 66. However, there are few places where it is more fitting than Grand Canyon Caverns west of Seligman, Arizona.

As you pull into the dusty parking lot where battered monuments to America’s automotive heritage bask under an Arizona sun, the first impression is that this was once a grand roadside resort, now fallen on hard times. However, time spent on a caverns tour, savoring a slice of homemade pie in the restaurant, playing nine holes of miniature golf in the shadow of towering dinosaurs, or simply lounging in front of the motel will reveal that this initial impression is one part carefully crafted illusion and one part a fact that the passionate owners are working to reverse.

As locals refer to the resort, the caverns are a microcosm of Route 66 evolution from concept inception to renaissance. For example, Route 66 was born of the good roads movement that gave rise to the National Old Trails Highway. Segments of the pioneering highway with original stone infrastructure are located a short distance to the east of the caverns’ natural entrance.

Grand Canyon Caverns

Grand Canyon Caverns

That highway was quite popular during the infancy of the road trip, a truly American pastime that linked a passion for the automobile with the national quest for adventure. In 1914, it served as the course for the last of the great Desert Classic races derisively dubbed the “Cactus Derby” by journalists. That race coursed from Los Angeles, California, to Ash Fork, Arizona, before turning south toward the finish line in Phoenix and featured two of the top names in motorsports at that time, Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield.

This would also be the road followed by Edsel Ford in the summer of 1915 as he and friends journeyed west from Detroit to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco via the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon.

Williams, Arizona, Thursday, July 15, 1915 – Found Cadillac and Stutz crews at Harvey Hotel at Williams waiting for us. All got supplies at the garage. Talked to Ford Agent. Got going about eleven. Had lunch at Ash Fork. Loafed along; found it very hot. Bought some gas and oranges at Seligman. Stutz broke another spring about 15 miles out and returned to Seligman. Cadillac and Ford went on to Kingman, arriving at midnight Brunswick Hotel. Very rough and dusty roads. Wired Los Angeles Branch for axle parts. Day’s run 146 miles.”

Route 66 Postcard Color Book

Route 66 Postcard Color Book, available at Legends General Store.

As an attraction, the caverns date to late 1926, the year of certification for U.S. 66. Legend has it that an itinerant cowboy named Walter Peck was taking a shortcut to a local poker game when he stumbled on and almost into the entrance. After an initial exploration of the cavern, Peck decided to capitalize on his discovery. For ten cents, later a quarter, he would give tourists a lantern and lower them into the cavern by rope using a hand crank winch. Among friends, he dubbed this dope on a rope. A replica of his contraption stands in front of the caverns’ visitor center and restaurant.

Route 66 itself ran a mile or so from “Yampai Cavern” but some innovative marketing and promotion ensured a steady flow of customers. In 1936, utilizing used lumber from the Hoover Dam project northwest of Kingman, a staircase and swinging bridge provided easier access. Following this improvement was developing a trail system and a name change to Coconino Caverns.

Dinosaur at Grand Canyon Caverns by Judy Hinkley.

Dinosaur at Grand Canyon Caverns by Judy Hinkley.

World War II and gas rationing brought tourism traffic to an almost complete standstill. There were bored GI’s at the Kingman Army Airfield some 60 miles west, and the cavern remained an income producer for owners.

The post-war surge in tourism and the golden age of Route 66 in the 1950s gave rise to a dramatic transformation of the cavern complex. Indicative of its prominence as an attraction is the four-lane segment of the highway at the entrance to the property; aside from urban corridors in communities such as Williams and Winslow, this was the only multiple-lane segment of Route 66 between Albuquerque and Los Angeles.

A name change to Dinosaur Caverns and the addition of a motel, service station, and lounge reflected the growing popularity of the caverns. The addition of an elevator salvaged from a demolition project in Phoenix and an emergency exit metal staircase salvaged from a New York City demolition project relegated the old wooden stairs and bridge to attraction on the cavern tour. By 1962, when the name changed to Grand Canyon Caverns, the complex was experiencing a dramatic transition. Soon the complex consisted of two restaurants, a 48-room motel, a service station that never closed, a gift shop, and a storage depot for Civil Defense supplies as the caverns were designated an official fallout shelter. There were also rodeo grounds and an airstrip.

Dinosaurs at Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona by Kathy Alexander.

Dinosaurs at Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona, by Kathy Alexander.

Next to the Grand Canyon itself, this was the most visited attraction in the state of Arizona. Still, business plummeted with the completion of I-40 and the bypass of Route 66 between Seligman and Kingman in 1978. The caverns remained open, but one by one, components closed; first one restaurant and then the lounge. The service station and garage followed. Upkeep and maintenance became a hit-and-miss proposition, and the motel manifested this.

Dinosaurs at Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona by Kathy Alexander.

Route 66 between Seligman and Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona, by Kathy Alexander.

Fast forward a few years. The resurgent interest in Route 66 sparked an international renaissance. Once again, traffic began to flow along Route 66. The caverns resort complex, however, languished. There was a question if the renewed interest in Route 66 and its roadside gems came too late.

Enter John McEnulty, a Los Angles printer passionate about hiking into Supai and the Grand Canyon. The ideally located Grand Canyon Caverns Inn served as his base camp for these adventures. With each visit, he witnessed the growing toll inflicted by indifferent owners and years of neglect.

Grand Canyon Caverns Inn, Arizona

Grand Canyon Caverns Inn, Arizona, by Kathy Alexander.

His attachment to the resort and fond memories of childhood vacations that included stops at places like this initially sparked the desire to own the complex. The ever-growing popularity of Route 66 and the history of the complex associations with that highway fueled thoughts that a new lease on life for the resort might be possible.

With an infectious smile, investors, a passionate zeal, and the help of his son Sean, McEnulty began turning back the hands of time while commuting to Los Angles to fulfill the obligations of the regular job. As renovations commenced, John set his sites on 1964, the year he selected to freeze the resort in time.

Every week John commutes to the caverns. Every week a renovation turns back the hands of time. Each week the addition of a metal sculpture, a well-worn old car that fosters the illusion of this being a timeworn roadside relic, an addition to the eclectic museum, or a change in the menu reflects his unleashed imagination and unbridled enthusiasm for the old resort. It breathes new life into the caverns complex. All of this, however, is only the beginning of a new chapter at Grand Canyon Caverns.

Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona Sign and old truck, by Kathy Alexander.

Grand Canyon Caverns, Arizona Sign and an old truck, by Kathy Alexander.

The recent discovery of new levels in the caverns and plans to open them for tours is but one of many exciting new developments. Trail rides, wagon rides, a disc golf course, ghost walk tours in search of Walter Peck, and the quirky but challenging miniature golf course among the towering dinosaurs and the golf cart graveyard are others. Likewise, with the fully updated and renovated RV park that recently garnered accolades from Good Sam or the Caverns Suite, the world’s deepest hotel room.

The ever-increasing popularity of Route 66 and McEnulty’s visionary stewardship ensure that the Grand Canyon Caverns will become a destination for a new generation of enthusiasts. That includes the bicyclists taking advantage of Adventure Cyclist’s recent designation of the double six as a bicycle-friendly highway or the electric vehicle owners who stop to charge batteries while touring the caverns as they venture toward Kingman, home of the world’s first electric vehicle museum.

Grand Canyon Caverns today is a delightful time capsule where the past, present, and future of Route 66 flow together seamlessly. It is also a refreshing little oasis at the heart of a vacation paradise and a wonderful place for beginning an adventure along the 160 miles of smiles that is Route 66 in western Arizona, the longest uninterrupted segment of that storied highway flows to the Colorado River.

So, the next time you motor west and choose the best highway, add a stop at the caverns to your itinerary. And, if the schedule allows, check into the Caverns Inn, get your key, and step back to 1964 as you settle into a clean, comfortable, pleasant little time capsule for a restful night’s sleep.

Route 66 continues westward about 13 miles to Peach Springs, Arizona

Jim Hinkley

©Jim Hinckley-Legends Of America, updated January 2023.

Also See:

Grand Canyon

Route 66 Main Page

Arizona Route 66

Arizona Route 66 Photo Gallery

About the AuthorJim Hinckley is an award-winning author, photographer, and official contributor to Legends Of America through a partnership developed in October 2012. Hinckley is a former Associate Editor of Cars and Parts Magazine and author of multiple books, including several on Route 66. His latest, “The Route 66 Encyclopedia,” is available with autograph via Jim Hinckley’s America.