Located in northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon is known throughout the world for its size and colorful landscape. Measuring over 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep, the canyon’s walls contain rock layers that reveal a timeline of Earth’s history. It has been a locale for human use and occupation for millennia, with ruins and artifacts from inhabitants dating back nearly 12,000 years, In the early 1800s, trappers and expeditions sent by the U.S. government began to explore and map the canyon. It was first afforded Federal protection in 1893 as a Forest Reserve and later a National Monument, achieving National Park status in 1919.
Over 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep, the Grand Canyon is known throughout the world for its overwhelming size and its intricate and colorful landscape. Located in northern Arizona, the majestic vista is geologically important because the layers of ancient rocks so beautifully preserved and exposed in the walls of the canyon reveal a timeline of Earth’s history.
In the early 1800s, trappers and expeditions sent by the U.S. government began to explore and map the Southwest, including the canyon. Although first afforded Federal protection in 1893 as a Forest Reserve and later as a National Monument, the Grand Canyon did not achieve National Park status until 1919, three years after the creation of the National Park Service. Today Grand Canyon National Park encompasses more than 1 million acres of land and receives close to 5 million visitors each year.
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The Grand Canyon is one of the most identifiable and remarkable landscapes on earth and the most internationally recognized symbol of nature in North America. But this oversized natural wonder is much more than a sight to behold. It is a cultural landscape that has been lived in, traveled through, feared, marveled at, exploited for profit, utilized for education, and praised as inspiration by a diverse array of people over a very long time.
This unique place has influenced American science, art, environmental values, popular culture, tourism, and leisure. It provided life and salt for Native Americans, thwarted early Spanish explorers, confounded prospectors and evoked poetry from the pens of scientists. From the early travelers to today’s five million annual visitors, everyone reacts differently - but everyone reacts. As these reactions have been captured in oral histories, books, photographs, paintings, poetry, news articles, and movies, the relationship between people and place in this iconic American landscape has grown to shape our nation’s history and values.
One of Earth’s few natural landmarks visible from space, the massive rift carved by the Colorado River begins just south of Utah at Lee’s Ferry and curves with the river through 277 miles of Arizona toward the California border, brushing Nevada along the way. At places, it is 15 miles wide (it averages 10), and its depth reaches a mile, cutting through rock formed two billion years ago. We call it, quite simply, the Grand Canyon, but there is nothing simple about this enormous landscape.
For many people, the phrase “Grand Canyon” immediately conjures a national park. Formally dedicated in 1919, Grand Canyon National Park covers 1,904 square miles (just 50 square miles fewer than Delaware) and encompasses many of the most beautiful vistas of the region, but it does not surround the entire geologic feature known as the Grand Canyon, which actually begins east of the park and continues on for many miles beyond it to the west. In other words, the Grand Canyon contains the park, but the park does not contain the Grand Canyon.
One look into the chasm that is the Grand Canyon and you’ll understand why it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. If you’re planning a Grand Canyon vacation, learn a little about its history so that you can soak in the vision before you go with an understanding and appreciation of the powers and people who shaped this amazing land.
The Grand Canyon has been home to Native Americans for thousands of years. About 10,000 years ago, paleo-hunters were known to have hunted big game throughout the area. More recently, hunter-gathers lived in the area until about 1000 BC. Archaeological findings, such as pottery found in the canyon, have been carbon dated to 4000 years ago.
Ancestral Puebloan people moved in around 500 AD. They cultivated corn, hunted bighorn sheep, rabbits, and deer, and made intricate baskets. Their basket making skills lead archaeologists to call these people “basket makers.”
The park contains nearly 2,000 ancestral Puebloan sites including the impressive Tusayan Pueblo which was built in 1185 AD. By the late 1200s, the early Grand Canyon Native Americans abandoned their homes. Some speculate that an extended drought prompted this mass exodus.
In the 1300s, the Cerbat (ancestors of today’s Havasupai and Hualapai Tribes) people moved in along with the Southern Paiutes. A century later would see the Navajo and the Dine (relatives of the Apache) people settling in and around the canyon. Today, the Navajo’s reservation is located along the eastern section of the Grand Canyon.
In the mid 1800s, an army survey party explored the region led by Lieutenant Joseph Ives. Ives came to the conclusion that the area was “altogether valueless” and a “profitless locality.”
John Wesley Powell became one of the first to raft the Grand Canyon in 1869. He and his party of nine traveled 1,000 miles through the Grand Canyon on wooden boats. Three men were lost during this dangerous expedition through rapids and overwhelming heat. A second journey in 1871 provided a wealth of information about this unexplored part of the U.S. Powell is also known for founding the U.S. Geological Society. Lake Powell is named after John Wesley Powell.
“The Mountain Lying Down” was a term once used by the Paiutes to describe the area. John Wesley Powell later began using and publishing the term “Grand Canyon” in the 1870s and the name has stuck.
The 1870s and 1880s yielded the discovery of lead, zinc, asbestos, and copper which prompted many to stake mining claims. However, actually mining the canyon proved difficult and treacherous. Instead of getting dollars through mining, many miners turned to a more profitable venture: tourism. Buildings, railroads, lodging, and new trails along with fabulous photos and paintings depicting the canyon and eventual National Park status in 1919, beckoned tourists from all over the world with promises of a sight unlike any other in the world. They were right.
Today there are three major rims of the Grand Canyon that attract tourists and vacationers. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the most popular and most accessible enjoying over 5 million visitors each year. About 90% of the tourists that visit the Grand Canyon, go to the South Rim which is only 60 miles from Williams, Arizona, home to the Grand Canyon Railway. It is also only about 80 miles northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona, the hub of Northern Arizona. And the red rock country of Sedona is just about 20 miles south of Flagstaff on SR 89A.
The Grand Canyon North Rim is very remote with few services. It is more ideal for the adventurous visitor. Although the North Rim of the Canyon can be seen from the South Rim and is only 10-15 miles away as an eagle flies, it is about a 5 hour drive to get to the other side. Although more remote, many visitors believe the views are more incredible versus the South Rim. The North Rim is most accessible from southern Utah.
Unlike the South and North Rim, the West Rim of the Grand Canyon is not administered by the National Park Service. The West Rim is owned and operated by The Hualapai Indian Tribe. The Tribe is enlarging its amenities and services to attract a greater number of tourists. It is the home of the "SkyWalk" where tourists can walk out over the canyon with a see-through surface beneath them. It is an amazing experience. The West Rim is closer to Las Vegas than the other two rims and as such enjoys a great number of tours from the Las Vegas area.
Today, a Grand Canyon vacation involves more than peeking over the Canyon’s rim. Tours, river rafting expeditions, hiking, mule rides, and camping are just a sampling of the delights that various rims of the canyon offers.