I had seen the cave from I-40 several times as I passed over the bridge and glanced down in the bottom of Canyon Diablo (Spanish for the “Devil’s Cave”) and never really thought anything of it although I made a note in my head to explore it someday. When that day came we made our way down into the canyon which is rather tricky to say the least and to the magnificent cave at the bottom. It was well worth the trek down into the canyon and a memory I will always cherish.
Canyon Diablo is just east of Flagstaff, Arizona on I-40 and according to Navajo legend the area is cursed by the dead and anyone who tries to reside there risks upsetting the angry spirits who long ago met a terrible fate in the cave at the bottom of the canyon. But the story told by the Navajo elders has more to say about the place and the cave than just a curse because they tell a story of how a lost band of Apaches were in the area in 1878 conducting raids on Navajo encampments. In one of those raids the Apache killed the inhabitants of a Navajo camp including men, women, and children and only three girls managed to somehow survive the bloody raid. Those three girls were taken by the Apaches and the village was ransacked.
The Navajo leaders discovered the massacre and organized a party to exact revenge on the Apache raiders. They dispatched about 24 of their best warriors to track the Apaches down and as they were doing this news reach the Navajo elders that the Apache had conducted yet another raid on another Navajo settlement! That second raid had taken place near Canyon Diablo and the elders dispatched a search party to the area to find the marauding Apaches.
The Navajo warrior search party went out but could not find the Apaches and they were about to give up the search. That is when the search party came across something bizarre! A blast of very hot air suddenly shot up through the ground, the elders say, which of course startled the warriors and their horses. When they took a closer look the Navajo warriors discovered that the Apaches were held up in a huge underground cave so big that it could hold 42 men and their horses! The blast of very hot air they had felt was coming from the fires lit by the Apaches in the underground cave which had made the ground very warm. Thus, the Apache fires had given them away to the Navajo warriors!
The Navajo warriors knew they had to stop the Apache marauders so they devised a plan to rid themselves of them and it was a diabolical plan to say the least. Some of the warriors ambushed and killed the Apache lookout and other warriors gathered as much brush as they could find along with some driftwood and piled it all in front of the cave entrance. They then lit it on fire with the Apaches and their horses STILL inside the cave!! Smoke began to billow from the cave and began to choke the Apaches inside.
Some of the Apaches made it to the cave entrance and began throwing water they had with them on the blaze. In a panic they slit the throats of their horses in a futile effort to preserve what oxygen remained in the smoke filled cave. They ran out of water trying to put out the blaze so they began throwing blood from their horses on the flames but to no avail. The Apaches were trapped inside the cave and they knew it! And even if they did make it out several Navajo warriors were waiting outside ready to kill them as they came out!
One of the Apache somehow made it through the blaze and came out of the cave. The Apache, say the Navajo elders, begged and pleaded with the Navajo warriors for his life and the life of his men inside and he even offered to return all of the goods he and his Apache compadres had stolen from the Navajo. The Navajo were agreeable to this until one of the warriors asked the Apache about the three Navajo girls they’d taken. The Apache told them that he and his men had raped them and killed them and this so enraged the Navajo warriors that they grabbed a hold of the Apache and threw him back into the fire at the mouth of the cave while other warriors added more brush to the blaze!
The fire intensified and so did the smoke and screams began to echo from the underground cave as the smoke and flames began to consume the Apaches inside. Once the Navajo warriors determined the Apaches were dead they cleared the ashes from the mouth of the cave and inside they found a very gruesome sight! A wall of charred horses and Apaches were piled up inside and behind the wall of burnt human and horse meat lied the bodies of some of the Apache men. There were 42 Apaches and they had all suffocated in the cave at the hands of the Navajo warriors.
Afterwards neither the Apache people nor the Navajo would have anything else to do with the cave again and the Apache never bothered to raid any more of the Navajo settlements in the area either. Both the Navajo and Apache came to believe that due to the way the men and horses died inside the cave that it was now cursed! And so was the land!!
As we explored the cave and surrounding area I felt something eerie throughout. Maybe it was the curse. Maybe it was just knowing that those 42 Apaches had died there in a very gruesome way. Maybe it was because we could still see the charred remains on the cave walls!!
When the White pioneers came into the area the Navajo shared this story with them and they warned them to stay away from the area. But, as could be expected, the white pioneers didn’t take heed believing instead that the Navajo story was nothing but a “tale filled with superstition.” The pioneers built a village in the area and it wasn’t long after that the towns residence began to complain of seeing ghosts and hearing the screams of dying men and horses! And those sounds, according to the residents, came right from the mouth of the cave!!
The pioneers started to believe that the “tale” told to them by the Navajo elders just might be real and some believing the curse was real fled the town. Those who stayed, ironically, saw their homes and other buildings mysteriously destroyed by fires or were murdered and their killers never to be found. Most likely it was the Navajo trying to get the pioneers to leave their land and never come back!
The town slowly died and was abandoned until one fine day a man got the idea of turning the area into a tourist spot right along the Route 66 highway which is today I-40! He called it “Two Guns” which has also been the name of the town and he used some of the bones of the now fried Apache warriors as tourist attractions! Wild animals, the story goes, attacked this man on not one but TWO occasions! The remaining townspeople had enough of his ideas and they ran him out of town eventually.
Years later another man had to same idea and he built a tourist spot in the same location along with a curios store which also offered food and gas. This tourist spot lasted for awhile until one night the whole site caught fire and burned to the ground, literally! Seems the “curse” got Two Guns too! I went there not long after the fire and the only thing still standing was a few pieces of very charred timber and charred rock walls. The fire had obviously been VERY intense!
The Apache death cave is still there and you can still go into it but people in the area warn against it especially at night. Well I’ve never been there at night but perhaps it will be on a third trip to the area 🙂
BTW there are ruins of another settlement about 12 miles NW of Meteor Crater of a pioneer town that was called “Canyon Diablo.” It was established in 1882 during construction of a railroad bridge across the canyon. From what I understand this was the Tombstone of Northern Arizona complete with wild women, gun-slinging hombres, and outlaws! In fact, the outlaw John Shaw died in a shootout there back in 1905. See wiki link below for more on this.