Explore Arizona's Apache Death Cave
Along Old Route 66 in the tiny ghost town of Two Guns, Arizona, twenty minutes west of Winslow and a stone's throw from Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, rests one one of Arizona's more legendary roadside attractions, the Apache Death Cave. If you've not heard of it before, it has a pretty gnarly story.
It goes, in 1878, a group of Apache raiders attacked two Navajo camps near the Little Colorado River, killing everyone but three Navajo girls who were subsequently kidnapped. Upon learning of the attack, Navajo leaders sent a group of men to avenge the fallen camp, but were initially unsuccessful as the Apache seemed to have vanished into thin air after the attack. While searching along the edge of Canyon Diablo the Navajo noticed voices and warm air rising up from a fissure in the ground. Upon further investigation they discovered the voices and warm air were coming from the Apache raiders hiding in a cavern beneath them. After finding the mouth of the cave they scavenged up sagebrush, lit it all on fire, and threw it into the cave intending to smoke out the Apache and rescue the girls. Those who tried to escape were killed and when it was found that the Navajo girls were already dead, it was decided that all of the Apache remaining in the cave were to be killed. After the trapped Apache had used up all of their water attempting to extinguish the fire, they cut the throats of their horses, used the blood to douse out the flames, and piled up the corpses near the cave entrance to hold off the Navajo. The Navajo showed no mercy, continuing to fuel the fire by throwing more sagebrush into the fissure. After the fire burned out and the smoke cleared, the Navajo broke through the barrier of charred horse corpses, stripped the forty-two dead Apache of their valuables, and left their bodies behind.
From that point on, it's said that no Apache has used that cave for any reason. Local tribes later warned would-be pioneers about the cave, saying that the land around it was cursed, but settlers often passed off the stories as superstition. A year after the massacre, Billy The Kid and his outlaw gang took refuge in the ruins of a stone house and corral on the far edge of Canyon Diablo and in the decades to come, pioneers living near the Apache Death Cave reported hearing groans and ghostly footsteps outside their cabins. Or so the story goes. Years later, Two Guns was settled by a man named Ed Randolph who built a store next to the Death Cave and over the course of the next several decades Two Guns became a popular tourist stop along Route 66. The story of the Apache Death Cave was told and tours were given to folks travelling along the historic route. Two Guns began to decline in the early 1970's and all that remains today is an abandoned gas station, an abandoned KOA campground, ruins of former structures including a really cool multi seat latrine, trading post, stone cottages, and the legendary Apache Death Cave.
Getting to the cave is super easy. Google Maps has it as a waypoint so just use that as your destination. Once you're there you'll want to look for the structure in the photo below. It's to the right of the abandoned, graffiti covered gas station and easy to spot. Canyon Diablo can be seen behind the ruins above the cave entrance. There's not much to explore in the ruins above the cave entrance, but it's still pretty neat to check out.
There's a rickety old ramp that you need to walk down to get into the cave. It's seen better days, but is still in decent enough shape to get down to the opening of the cave. The entrance to the cave is below the ramp. Shortly after you enter the cave is where the Navajo must have thrown in lit sagebrush to smoke out the Apache as it's the only area of the cave where light reaches the bottom. Here, you'll find a small opening to the right that leads into a tiny secondary room. If you decide to enter this room you'll have to crawl in.
The main room of the Apache Death Cave is just outside of this small opening, past the area where sunlight reaches the floor. In the photo below, my old man and I are looking at where you enter the main room.
The main room of the cave is pitch black, like hold your hand in front of your face and not see it pitch black, so bring a headlamp or use your phone's flashlight. The walk down into it is very rocky and easy to lose your footing if you're not careful.
The photo below is at the opposite end of the main room. There's a lot of graffiti in it, but it's still pretty interesting to explore given the cave's history.
Make sure to shine your light on the ceiling as you enter the main room. It's pretty common to see small bats in there. We counted four, but there were likely many more that we didn't see.
There's another small room after the main room and after that the cave narrows considerably. In less than 100' it'll be too narrow to squeeze through unless you're a supermodel and even that's a stretch. I could see another room maybe 75-100' past where I'm standing in the photo below, but couldn't get much farther than this.
And that's pretty much the extent of the Apache Death Cave. It's super cool if you're into the story it's definitely a place to check out.
If you're interested in exploring the other ruins in Two Guns you'll want to hop back in your car and park closer to the old Canyon Diablo Bridge, which is also a Google Maps waypoint.
It's only a quarter mile away and the road is pretty rough, so you can walk if you don't want the bumpy ride. Once at the bridge, cross over on foot and walk down the dirt road a short distance to reach the ruins. If you're a history nerd like me you'll probably find them to be pretty cool. There aren't any signs for what you're looking at, but they're still interesting. Just past the bridge on the left you'll find an old stone house that was once used as a trading post for travelers, prospectors, cowboys, and Indians.
A larger ruin is located a few hundred feet after this on the left. I believe this was once used as a hotel for cowboys back in the early 1900's.
Near the back of the ruins you'll find an old stone store.
In between the store and the hotel is an old four seat outhouse. It still has its wooden bench with circular holes cut in it and a deep pit below where people used to drop deuces. Still kicking myself for not taking a couple pictures of it. It was actually pretty cool looking. The stone store above marks the end of the ruins in the immediate area, so when done just head back to your vehicle. It's interesting to know that in the winter of 1879-80, Billy The Kid and his outlaw gang hid in the ruins of a stone house and corral on the other side of the canyon from the ruins above. Those ruins are no longer standing, but it's still cool to know.
If you're looking for more to do in the area, Meteor Crater Natural Landmark is ten minutes east of the Apache Death Cave and Two Guns ruins, and absolutely worth the stop. Give yourself about two hours here to watch the informational video, check out the museum and exhibits, and check out the crater.
The staff are all very friendly and eager to share the crazy history of the crater and surrounding area with visitors. Make sure to ask someone about the Basket Meteorite as well as the stone ruins along US-40 near the park's entrance. They're both super cool stories.
Winslow, Arizona is only fifteen away from the Apache Death Cave and if you're a fan of the band Eagles you'll know why we mention it. If that's the case you have to stop and see the girl in the flatbed Ford on the corner of 2nd and N Kinsley! Use Standin' on The Corner Foundation as your destination in your GPS and it'll take you to the corner in the photo below.
If you're interested in a great road trip through Arizona be sure to check out our Eight Unforgettable Days in Arizona & New Mexico for a bunch of great outdoor destinations.