PEACH SPRINGS, Ariz. — As the elevator rumbled down to its only stop, John Riffle wondered if the next several hours would be worth the price he paid.
The answer rode along the beam of an LED flashlight piercing the utter blackness of an encapsulated world 200 feet removed from civilization.
He played the beam over the craggy limestone walls of Grand Canyon Caverns, imagining he’d stepped back eons in time. Well, except for the concrete walkway and the fact that a few minutes ago, he and his wife were stretched out on the couch in front of a 32-inch high-definition TV.
Yes, he thought, it was worth every one of the 1,000 license plates he traded for a night in the state’s deepest, darkest, quietest hotel room.
“An amazing experience,” said Riffle, who lives 50 miles away in Ash Fork. “Unlike anywhere we've ever stayed."
Riffle and his wife Bev are among the 1,300 people over six years who have spent a night in this geologic air pocket between Seligman and Peach Springs. Riffle, who owned a pawn shop at the time and didn't have the cash for the $600, now $800, a night tab, offered the plates in trade, which he said one of the hotel owners happily accepted.
The Cavern Suite is assembled atop a wooden platform in the middle of the cave’s largest room, where tour groups pass by every 30 minutes during the day. The windowless room where the air is deathly still may be Arizona’s most unusual place to spend the night.
It comes with two queen beds, a coffeemaker and a 70-foot-high, vaulted cavern ceiling, as well as access to the looping, mile-long trail through Grand Canyon Caverns. Once the last tour is gone, usually around 6:30 p.m., guests have the cave to themselves to do whatever they like, as long as they stick to the concrete path. Off-roading is strictly prohibited, given the drop-offs scattered about.
The $800-per-night rate also includes a suite attendant, stationed topside throughout the night should guests need anything. Sleeping on a roll-out bed not far from the elevator, the attendant can arrange and deliver meals and, when guests check out, doubles as the maid.
The room is booked about a third of the year, mostly for special occasions, lead tour guide Levi Goldsmith said. And each stay begins with, of course, a tour.
A unique world
Goldsmith slides open the double doors of the elevator, wedged between the gift shop and the restaurant in the sprawling building atop the cave.
Almost a century ago, tourists would pay 25 cents to be lowered down a narrow shaft, a process guides affectionately called “Dope on a Rope.” The fee included a kerosene lamp and as much time in the cavern as they’d like, keeping in mind the patience of the rope-minder.
Dopes on ropes were lowered for nine years until 1936, when operators installed ladders and a swinging bridge to deliver visitors safely.
The elevator, a three-year project (two to blast through tons of rock, another to install), opened in 1962, opening the cavern to the less-adventurous masses.
After a minute-long descent in the rattling metal cage, Goldsmith throws open the doors and leads visitors through a narrow hall cut through solid stone. Thirty feet in, walls burst upward and outward as the yawning, rocky dome of the Chapel of the Ages swallows visitors.
Unknowing visitors will wonder what sort of unearthly wind swept up someone’s living room and planted it in an underground room named for the several weddings it’s hosted.
The astute will notice the handful of bouquets tucked along ledges of the far wall, greenery apparent on one in a testament to the preserving nature of the dry conditions.
Goldsmith heads up the short wooden stairway and into the suite, where guests might first take note of how a lack of walls impede privacy.
Goldsmith points out the amenities, like the 32-inch HDTV. There is no cable but plenty of movies, including The Descent, in which four adventurous spelunkers encounter mutant cave-dwellers — wait, what was that noise?
There's a selection of full-size candy bars in the “Yum Basket,” and a few bags of microwave popcorn next to the mini-fridge.
He lifted the lid off a cabinet to reveal a turntable and an 8-track tape player, not explaining how the technological refugee from the 1970s wound up here. Nor does he know why the only two tapes are Boston Pops Orchestra, in bad shape, and Nashville Nel, though he’s confident the dulcet tones contained on their magnetic tapes have never enjoyed the wonderful acoustics of the cavern.
“You can have two people stand at opposite ends of the room, and they can hear one another easily while speaking in normal conversational tones,” Goldsmith says. “It’s pretty incredible.”
That explains the stage just behind the room, complete with several rows of seats. While the cavern has yet to host an intimate concert, Goldsmith promises that when it happens, “It'll be awesome.”
Tucked behind the entertainment center, its shelves filled with antique issues of National Geographic donated by an early benefactor, is the bathroom. Saloon doors swing open to reveal the room, which comes with a warning.
Water is limited, so the toilet is only good for five to six flushes. That means that at some point guests have to ask themselves: Was that five or six flushes? Do they feel lucky? Well, do they?
Most don’t, Goldsmith says, which is why the No. 1 reason for coming topside is for No. 2.
“When I hear the elevator, it’s mostly because someone’s coming up to use the restrooms,” Goldsmith says. He will take a break from the portable TV, or rise from the roll-away bed if it's late, and make sure all needs are met.
Eventually Goldsmith shows guests how to turn off the lights, allowing them to experience the cave in its natural, eeriest state. He tells guests they won’t be able to see their hands in front of their faces, often flicking on his flashlight to see everyone waving their hands in front of their faces.
And then he’ll tell guests to remain still and enjoy something rarely found topside — silence, saved for the low hum of the water heater and mini-fridge.
Room with no view
The Cavern Suite was built in 2010 when owners had this question: Would people spend hundreds of dollars for a suite that only Fred Flintstone might find luxurious?
But it's never been about luxury. It is all about the real-estate maxim “Location, location, location.” It's not the world’s first in-cave room, but the fact that it was erected 200 feet below the surface places it in rarefied, and very dry, air.
Hotel officials estimate it’s reserved roughly 100 days a year, from romantic couples to adventurous families, in which there's far more in the former category. They come mainly for special occasions, and attendants may add a special touch or two. A couple celebrating an anniversary might find flowers, and there could be a bottle of champagne to toast a birthday.
Guests are warned that tours come through about every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,with the occasional 6 p.m. ghost tour. Still, those passing through have seen formations they probably won't forget.
“Every now and then you see someone naked,” Goldsmith says. “I’ve also caught a few having sex. It’s rare, but it happens and you have to be ready to keep folks moving along.”
The addition of the suite is not the first time the cavern has been repurposed. In 1962, as the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis fell across the land, the Grand Canyon Caverns was designated a civil defense fallout shelter. Still stacked below, and pointed out along the tour, are hundreds of tins of crackers and hard candy, as well as water in barrels and plastic bottles.
The designation remains in effect today, though no one is sure how to choose the handful of survivors allowed to use the suite from among the 2,000 people the shelter is designed to accommodate.
That 'last person on Earth' feeling
Of all the amenities that come with living underground, the greatest might be solitude.
Attendants never intrude until checkout time, so once the last tour departs, guests are truly alone. There are no cameras, no intercoms, and the only phone — beige with rotary dial — hasn’t worked for months. The only connection with topside is via the elevator.
The secluded nature of the cavern may bring out an amorous nature. Once tours stop for the day and the elevator doors slide shut, those staying in the suite are the only living things around for at least 200 feet. That includes the bobcat and a giant ground sloth; the former is mummified and the latter is a life-size model of an animal extinct 11,000 years.
Guests are encouraged to explore with supplied flashlights, and attendants have few doubts couples have taken the term “explore” to its limits.
As general manager Jenna Jones says, “There’s been a lot of baby-making down there over the years.” You think every inch of the cave has at one time, you know …? “Yes,” she says. “Twice.”
Former guest John Riffle was far too much of a gentleman to talk about such things when it came to his stay in the suite a few years ago, which happened to be on Valentine’s Day. He let a smile suffice.
After he and Bev strolled, he said, they enjoyed dinner, watched a bit of TV, and then it was lights out. One light remained on due to the discomforting nature of absolute darkness. The next morning the attendant arrived with breakfast. They checked out before the first tour arrived, leaving the attendant to cart the towels and linens to the topside motel a mile away.
They didn’t give much thought to the traces left behind, from the waste cans to the bathroom (what flows down does not flow up, requiring attendants to carry out wastewater).
Within a couple of hours, the room was ready for the next guest, and the Riffles were back home in Ash Fork.
They usually return to Grand Canyon Caverns at least once a year with visitors in tow. The cave is among their favorite destinations in Arizona, but they’ve crossed the suite off their bucket list.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially at the price,” Riffle said.
Still, the night was worth its weight in license plates.
IF YOU GO
What: A one-of-a-kind hotel room 200 feet below ground. Price includes tour and complete access to established paths through the caverns. Flashlights included.
Where: Grand Canyon Caverns, Peach Springs, Ariz.
Price: $800 per night for up to four people; $100 per additional person.
Details: 928-923-6664, gccaverns.com.