The Grand Canyon (Hopi: Ongtupqa; Yavapai: Wi:kaʼi:la) is a steep-sided canyon carved by the Colorado River in the United States in the state of Arizona. It is contained within and managed by Grand Canyon National Park, the Hualapai Tribal Nation, and the Havasupai Tribe. President Theodore Roosevelt was a major proponent of preservation of the Grand Canyon area, and visited it on numerous occasions to hunt and enjoy the scenery.
The Grand Canyon is 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile (6,000 feet or 1,800 meters). Nearly two billion years of Earth’s geological history have been exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted. While the specific geologic processes and timing that formed the Grand Canyon are the subject of debate by geologists, recent evidence suggests that the Colorado River established its course through the canyon at least 17 million years ago. Since that time, the Colorado River continued to erode and form the canyon to its present-day configuration.
For thousands of years, the area has been continuously inhabited by Native Americans who built settlements within the canyon and its many caves. The Pueblo people considered the Grand Canyon (“Ongtupqa” in Hopi language) a holy site and made pilgrimages to it. The first European known to have viewed the Grand Canyon was García López de Cárdenas from Spain, who arrived in 1540.
The Grand Canyon is a big fissure in the Colorado Plateau that exposes uplifted Proterozoic and Paleozoic strata, and is also one of the 19 distinct physiographic sections of the Colorado Plateau province. It is not the deepest canyon in the world (Kali Gandaki Gorge in Nepal is far deeper), however, the Grand Canyon is known for its visually overwhelming size and its intricate and colorful landscape. Geologically it is significant because of the thick sequence of ancient rocks that are beautifully preserved and exposed in the walls of the canyon. These rock layers record much of the early geologic history of the North American continent.
Uplift associated with mountain formation later moved these sediments thousands of feet upward and created the Colorado Plateau. The higher elevation has also resulted in greater precipitation in the Colorado River drainage area, but not enough to change the Grand Canyon area from being semi-arid. The uplift of the Colorado Plateau is uneven, and the Kaibab Plateau that Grand Canyon bisects is over a thousand feet higher at the North Rim (about 1,000 ft or 300 m) than at the South Rim. Almost all runoff from the North Rim (which also gets more rain and snow) flows toward the Grand Canyon, while much of the runoff on the plateau behind the South Rim flows away from the canyon (following the general tilt). The result is deeper and longer tributary washes and canyons on the north side and shorter and steeper side canyons on the south side.
Temperatures on the North Rim are generally lower than those on the South Rim because of the greater elevation (averaging 8,000 ft/2,438 m above sea level). Heavy rains are common on both rims during the summer months. Access to the North Rim via the primary route leading to the canyon (State Route 67) is limited during the winter season due to road closures.
The Grand Canyon is part of the Colorado River basin which has developed over the past 40 million years. A recent study places the origins of the canyon beginning about 17M years ago. Previous estimates had placed the age of the canyon at 5–6 million years. The study, which was published in the journal Science in 2008, used uranium-lead dating to analyze calcite deposits found on the walls of nine caves throughout the canyon. There is a substantial amount of controversy because this research suggests such a substantial departure from prior widely supported scientific consensus. In December 2012, a study published in the journal Science claimed new tests had suggested the Grand Canyon could be as old as 70M years. However, this study has been criticized as an attempt to push the interpretation of their new data to their limits without consideration of the whole range of other geologic data sets.”
The canyon is the result of erosion which creates one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet.
The major geologic exposures in the Grand Canyon range in age from the 2-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Inner Gorge to the 230M-year-old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim. There is a gap of about a billion years between the 500M-year-old stratum and the level below it, which dates to about 1.5 billion years ago. This large unconformity indicates a period of erosion between two periods of deposition.
Many of the formations were deposited in warm shallow seas, near-shore environments (such as beaches), and swamps as the seashore repeatedly advanced and retreated over the edge of a proto-North America. Major exceptions include the Permian Coconino Sandstone, which contains abundant geological evidence of aeolian sand dune deposition. Several parts of the Supai Group also were deposited in non–marine environments.
The great depth of the Grand Canyon and especially the height of its strata (most of which formed below sea level) can be attributed to 5–10 thousand feet (1,500 to 3,000 m) of uplift of the Colorado Plateau, starting about 65M years ago (during the Laramide Orogeny). This uplift has steepened the stream gradient of the Colorado River and its tributaries, which in turn has increased their speed and thus their ability to cut through rock (see the elevation summary of the Colorado River for present conditions).
Weather conditions during the ice ages also increased the amount of water in the Colorado River drainage system. The ancestral Colorado River responded by cutting its channel faster and deeper.
The base level and course of the Colorado River (or its ancestral equivalent) changed 5.3M years ago when the Gulf of California opened and lowered the river’s base level (its lowest point). This increased the rate of erosion and cut nearly all of the Grand Canyon’s current depth by 1.2M years ago. The terraced walls of the canyon were created by differential erosion.
Between 100,000 and 3M years ago, volcanic activity deposited ash and lava over the area which at times completely obstructed the river. These volcanic rocks are the youngest in the canyon.
The Ancient Pueblo People were a Native American culture centered on the present-day Four Corners area of the United States. The Ancient Puebloans were the first people known to live in the Grand Canyon area. The cultural group has often been referred to in archaeology as the Anasazi, although the term is not preferred by the modern Puebloan peoples. The word “Anasazi” is Navajo for “Ancient Ones” or “Ancient Enemy”.
Archaeologists still debate when this distinct culture emerged. The current consensus, based on terminology defined by the Pecos Classification, suggests their emergence around 1200 BCE during the Basketmaker II Era. Beginning with the earliest explorations and excavations, researchers have believed that the Ancient Puebloans are ancestors of the modern Pueblo peoples.
In addition to the Ancestral Puebloans, a number of distinct cultures have inhabited the Grand Canyon area. The Cohonina lived to the west of the Grand Canyon, between 500 and 1200 CE. The Cohonina were ancestors of the Yuman, Havasupai, and Walapai peoples who inhabit the area today.
The Sinagua were a cultural group occupying an area to the southeast of the Grand Canyon, between the Little Colorado River and the Salt River, between approximately 500 and 1425 CE. The Sinagua may have been ancestors of several Hopi clans.
By the time of the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, newer cultures had evolved. The Hualapai inhabit a 100-mile (160 km) stretch along the pine-clad southern side of the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai have been living in the area near Cataract Canyon since the beginning of the 13th century, occupying an area the size of Delaware. The Southern Paiutes live in what is now southern Utah and northern Arizona. The Navajo, or Diné, live in a wide area stretching from the San Francisco Peaks eastwards towards the Four Corners. Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests the Navajo descended from the Athabaskan people near Great Slave Lake, Canada, who migrated after the 11th century.
European arrival and settlement
In September 1540, under orders from the conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado to search for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, along with Hopi guides and a small group of Spanish soldiers, traveled to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon between Desert View and Moran Point. Pablo de Melgrossa, Juan Galeras, and a third soldier descended some one third of the way into the Canyon until they were forced to return because of lack of water. In their report, they noted that some of the rocks in the Canyon were “bigger than the great tower of Seville.” It is speculated that their Hopi guides must have been reluctant to lead them to the river, since they must have known routes to the canyon floor. Afterwards, no Europeans visited the Canyon for over two hundred years.
Fathers Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante were two Spanish priests who, with a group of Spanish soldiers, explored southern Utah and traveled along the North Rim of the Canyon in Glen and Marble Canyons in search of a route from Santa Fe to California in 1776. They eventually found a crossing, formerly known as the “Crossing of the Fathers,” that today lies under Lake Powell.
Also in 1776, Fray Francisco Garces, a Franciscan missionary, spent a week near Havasupai, unsuccessfully attempting to convert a band of Native Americans to Christianity. He described the Canyon as “profound”.
James Ohio Pattie, along with a group of American trappers and mountain men, may have been the next European to reach the Canyon in 1826.
Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon missionary, was sent by Brigham Young in the 1850s to locate easy river crossing sites in the Canyon. Building good relations with local Native Americans Hualapai Nation and white settlers, he discovered the Crossing of the Fathers, Lee’s Ferry in 1858 and Pierce Ferry (later operated by, and named for, Harrison Pierce) – the latter two the only two sites suitable for ferry operation. He also acted as an advisor to John Wesley Powell before his second expedition to the Grand Canyon, serving as a diplomat between Powell and the local native tribes to ensure the safety of his party.
In 1857, Edward Fitzgerald Beale was superintendent of an expedition to survey a wagon road along the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance, Arizona to the Colorado River. He led a small party of men in search of water on the Coconino Plateau near the Canyon’s South Rim. On September 19, near present day National Canyon, they came upon what May Humphreys Stacey described in his journal as “…a wonderful canyon four thousand feet deep. Everyone (in the party) admitted that he never before saw anything to match or equal this astonishing natural curiosity.”
Also in 1857, the U.S. War Department asked Lieutenant Joseph Ives to lead an expedition to assess the feasibility of an up-river navigation from the Gulf of California. Also in a stern wheeler steamboat “Explorer”, after two months and 350 miles (560 km) of difficult navigation, his party reached Black Canyon some two months after George Johnson. The “Explorer” struck a rock and was abandoned. Ives led his party east into the Canyon — they may have been the first Europeans to travel the Diamond Creek drainage and traveled eastwards along the South Rim. In his “Colorado River of the West” report to the Senate in 1861 he states that “One or two trappers profess to have seen the canon.”
According to the San Francisco Herald, in a series of articles run in 1853, they give this honor to Captain Joseph R. Walker, who in January 1851 with his nephew James T. Walker and six men, traveled up the Colorado River to a point where it joined the Virgin River and continued east into Arizona, traveling along the Grand Canyon and making short exploratory side trips along the way.
Walker said he wanted to visit the Moqui Indians, as the Hopi were then called by whites. He had met these people briefly in previous years, thought them exceptionally interesting and wanted to become better acquainted. The Herald reporter took it from there, writing: “We believe that Capt. Joe Walker is the only white man in this country that has ever visited this strange people.”
In 1858, John Strong Newberry became probably the first geologist to visit the Grand Canyon.
In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell led the first expedition down the Canyon. Powell set out to explore the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Gathering nine men, four boats and food for 10 months, he set out from Green River, Wyoming on May 24. Passing through dangerous rapids, the group passed down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado River, near present-day Moab, Utah and completed the journey with many hardships through the Grand Canyon on August 13, 1869. In 1871 Powell first used the term “Grand Canyon”; previously it had been called the “Big Canyon”.
In 1889, Frank M. Brown wanted to build a railroad along the Colorado River to carry coal. He, his chief engineer Robert Brewster Stanton, and 14 others started to explore the Grand Canyon in poorly designed cedar wood boats, with no life preservers. Brown drowned in an accident near Marble Canyon: Stanton made new boats and proceeded to explore the Colorado all of the way to the Gulf of California.
In 1908, the Grand Canyon became an official national monument and became a national park in 1919.
Settlers in and near the canyon
- Miners: “Captain” John Hance, William W. Bass, Louis Boucher “The Hermit”, Seth Tanner, Charles Spencer, D. W. “James” Mooney
- Lees Ferry: John Doyle Lee, Emma Lee French (17th of John Lee’s 19 wives), J. S. Emmett, Charles Spencer
- Phantom Ranch: David Rust, Mary Colter
- Grand Canyon Village: Ralph H. Cameron, Emery & Ellsworth Kolb
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon in 1903. An avid outdoorsman and staunch conservationist, he established the Grand Canyon Game Preserve on November 28, 1906. Livestock grazing was reduced, but predators such as mountain lions, eagles, and wolves were eradicated. Roosevelt added adjacent national forest lands and redesignated the preserve a U.S. National Monument on January 11, 1908. Opponents such as land and mining claim holders blocked efforts to reclassify the monument as a U.S. National Park for 11 years. Grand Canyon National Park was finally established as the 17th U.S. National Park by an Act of Congress signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1919.
The federal government administrators who manage park resources face many challenges. These include issues related to the recent reintroduction into the wild of the highly endangered California condor, air tour overflight noise levels, water rights disputes with various tribal reservations that border the park, and forest fire management. The Grand Canyon National Park superintendent is Steve Martin. Martin was named superintendent on February 5, 2007, to replace retiring superintendent Joe Alston. Martin was previously the National Park Service Deputy Director and superintendent of several other national parks, including Denali and Grand Teton. Federal officials started a flood in the Grand Canyon in hopes of restoring its ecosystem on March 5, 2008. The canyon’s ecosystem was permanently changed after the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963.
Between 2003 and 2011, 2,215 mining claims have been requested that are adjacent to the Canyon, including claims for uranium mines. Mining has been suspended since 2009, when U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar temporarily withdrew 1 million acres (4,000 km2) from the permitting process, pending assessment of the environmental impact of mining. Critics of the mines are concerned that, once mined, the uranium will leach into the water of the Colorado River and contaminate the water supply for up to 18 million people.
Grand Canyon Tourism
Grand Canyon National Park is one of the world’s premier natural attractions, attracting about five million visitors per year. Overall, 83% were from the United States: California (12.2%), Arizona (8.9%), Texas (4.8%), Florida (3.4%) and New York (3.2%) represented the top domestic visitors. Seventeen percent of visitors were from outside the United States; the most prominently represented nations were the United Kingdom (3.8%), Canada (3.5%), Japan (2.1%), Germany (1.9%) and The Netherlands (1.2%). The South Rim is open all year round weather permitting. The North Rim is generally open mid-May to mid-October.
Aside from casual sightseeing from the South Rim (averaging 7,000 feet [2,100 m] above sea level), rafting, hiking, running and helicopter tours are popular. The Grand Canyon Ultra Marathon is a 78-mile (126 km) race over 24 hours. The floor of the valley is accessible by foot, muleback, or by boat or raft from upriver. Hiking down to the river and back up to the rim in one day is discouraged by park officials because of the distance, steep and rocky trails, change in elevation, and danger of heat exhaustion from the much higher temperatures at the bottom. Rescues are required annually of unsuccessful rim-to-river-to-rim travelers. Nevertheless, hundreds of fit and experienced hikers complete the trip every year.
Camping on the North and South Rims is generally restricted to established campgrounds and reservations are highly recommended, especially at the busier South Rim. There is at large camping available along many parts of the North Rim managed by Kaibab National Forest. North Rim campsites are only open seasonally due to road closures from weather and winter snowpack. All overnight camping below the rim requires a backcountry permit from the Backcountry Office (BCO). Each year Grand Canyon National Park receives approximately 30,000 requests for backcountry permits. The park issues 13,000 permits, and close to 40,000 people camp overnight. The earliest a permit application is accepted is the first of the month, four months before the proposed start month.
Tourists wishing for a more vertical perspective can board helicopters and small airplanes in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Grand Canyon National Park Airport (seven miles from the South Rim) for canyon flyovers. Scenic flights are no longer allowed to fly within 1500 feet of the rim within the national park because of a late 1990s crash. The last aerial video footage from below the rim was filmed in 1984. However, some helicopter flights land on the Havasupai and Hualapai Indian Reservations within Grand Canyon (outside of the park boundaries). Recently, the Hualapai Tribe opened the glass-bottomed Grand Canyon Skywalk on their property, Grand Canyon West. The Skywalk has seen mixed reviews since the site is only accessible by driving down a 10-mile (16 km) dirt road, costs a minimum of $85 in total for reservation fees, a tour package and admission to the Skywalk itself and the fact that cameras or other personal equipment are not permitted on the Skywalk at any time due to the hazard of damaging the glass if dropped. The Skywalk is about 250 miles (400 km) by road from Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim.
Viewing the canyon
Lipan Point is a promontory located on the South Rim. This point is located to the east of the Grand Canyon Village along the Desert View Drive. There is a parking lot for visitors who care to drive along with the Canyon’s bus service that routinely stops at the point. The trailhead to the Tanner Trail is located just before the parking lot. The view from Lipan Point shows a wide array of rock strata and the Unkar Creek area in the inner canyon.
The canyon can be seen from the Toroweap (or Tuweep) Overlook situated 3000 vertical feet above the Colorado River, about 50 miles downriver from the South Rim and 70 upriver from the Grand Canyon Skywalk. This region — “one of the most remote in the United States” according to the National Park Service — is reached only by one of three lengthy dirt tracks beginning in from St. George, Utah, Colorado City or near Pipe Spring National Monument (both in Arizona). Each road traverses wild, uninhabited land for 97, 62 and 64 miles respectively. The Park Service manages the area for primitive value with minimal improvements and services.