SW National Parks Trip: Grand Canyon History


I know that everybody knows what the Grand Canyon is. But have you ever thought about the history of the park and how it came to be?

Grand Canyon National Park consists of 1,217,262 acres in Arizona, that protects a gorge that the Colorado River runs through. It was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979, and is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Estimates vary widely, but a recent study places canyon’s beginnings at about 17 million years ago. Another study concluded that the canyon could be as old as 70 million years. Older studies typically placed the age of the canyon at between 5 and 6 million years old.

What is known is that the oldest layer of the Grand Canyon’s stones is approximately 2 billion years old. The most recent stone is the Kaibab Limestone on the rim of the Canyon, which dates to about 230 million years old. When many of the layers were being deposited, the area was covered by warm shallow seas.

After millions of years of deposits, the Colorado River began cutting through the area and creating a deeper and wider canyon over the years. The Grand Canyon currently averages about a mile deep, and the maximum depth of the canyon varies from 7,000 feet at the South Rim to 8,100 feet on the North Rim. The width varies from its most narrow point of 600 yards at Marble Canyon to 18 miles at its widest point.

Native Americans began living in and near the Grand Canyon beginning about 500 CE. Cultures that are known to have lived there are the Cohonina, the Sinagua and the Puebloan people. The Puebloan people built granaries in the walls of the canyon, and thousands of artifacts have been found in and near the canyon.  When you consider that archaeologists have only studied about 5% of the total area that is encompassed by the park, that is pretty amazing how many artifacts have been found.

Spanish explorers arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1540, along with Hopi guides; they went into the canyon but didn’t go all the way to the canyon floor because they didn’t have enough water. There is speculation that the Hopi guides must not have wanted to led them to the canyon floor and the river, because they must have known routes to the bottom of the canyon. After that, it was another 200 years before the next Europeans saw the canyon in 1776.

In the 1850s, the first formal explorations by Americans began to occur. An 1857 exploration surveyed a wagon road, and another 1857 expedition attempted to determine whether it was feasible to navigate up the Colorado River. The name Grand Canyon was coined during John Wesley Powell’s 10 month expedition from Green River, Wyoming, through the confluence of the Green River and the Colorado River in Moab, Utah, and through the Grand Canyon. Powell first called it the Grand Canyon in 1871 – it had previously been known as Big Canyon.

The weather in the Grand Canyon varies quite a bit from the North Rim to the South Rim. The South Rim averages 16 inches of rain per year and 60 inches of snow. The North Rim, with its higher elevation, receives an average of 27 inches of rain, and 144 inches of snow each year.  Phantom Ranch, in the bottom of the canyon with an elevation of only 2,500 feet, receives only 8 inches of rain annually and snow is very rare.

It is interesting to think how different the climates are in areas that are so close to one another. Temperatures on the South Rim vary from a record high of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, to a record low of -20 degrees.

Despite its awesomeness, the Grand Canyon didn’t have an easy time making it to National Park status. The first bill to create Grand Canyon National Park was proposed by Benjamin Harrison in 1882, but it didn’t pass. He reintroduced the bill between 1883 and 1886 but it didn’t pass then either. Finally Harrison designated it a Grand Canyon National Forest Preserve in 1893.

A view of one of the Grand Canyon’s Cinder Cones from the Watchtower

A view of one of the Grand Canyon’s Cinder Cones from the Watchtower

Theodore Roosevelt continued the protection of the area by making it the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906 and changing it to Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. But even that didn’t pave the way for National Park status. Bills were introduced in the Senate in 1910 and 1911 and were defeated. It finally passed in 1919 and Grand Canyon National Park was signed into being on February 26, 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson. Even though it had a relatively long road to get to National Park status, once it made it, it really took off from there. In 2011, 4,298,178 people visited the Grand Canyon!

In upcoming posts, I’ll tell you all about what we saw and did on our trip to the Grand Canyon!

Note: I apologize for having only one photo – the internet is not cooperating tonight.  I hope to get some more posted soon!

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3 thoughts on “SW National Parks Trip: Grand Canyon History

    • I’m not sure, but it sounds like part of the issue was over development. There was a contingent that wanted to dam the Colorado in the middle of the park, and there was talk of another dam further up the river in the Marble Canyon area. It was a section that was added to the park later on.

  1. Pingback: SW National Parks Trip: Hiking into the Grand Canyon | Wine and History Visited

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