Today on Museum Bites we’re diving into the depths of the Grand Canyon. Located within the Colorado Plateau in Arizona, this vast, multicolored chasm is stunning, breathtaking, humbling. The Grand Canyon has withstood the ravages of time and tourists, and its colorful walls hold the secrets to our past. Join me for a plunge into the great, wide deep. We begin by rolling back the clock 6 million years…
Leave it [the Grand Canyon] as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.
~Theodore Roosevelt, Grand Canyon, Arizona, May 6, 1903
Geologic Goldmine: The Grand Canyon is not only beautiful it is a trip through time. Approximately 6 million years ago, the hard-driving Colorado River carved a path through the Colorado Plateau and played a significant role in sculpting the Grand Canyon. At 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and more than a mile deep, the colorful layers of rock lining the canyon walls are a geologic goldmine. Each of the nearly 40 layers of compressed rock represents a specific time period in Earth’s history. From the 2.5 billion-year-old granite and schist at the base, all the way up to the 270 million-year-old limestone at the top, a billion years of earth’s history has been encapsulated within the canyon walls. Unfortunately, the Grand Canyon is not a complete time capsule. Approximately 950 million years are missing. Despite this extensive gap, scientists continue to unearth the canyon’s trove of ancient treasures.
Fun Grand Fact: The deepest canyon is the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon in Tibet, measuring almost 300 miles long and 3.7 miles deep.
Fun Grand Fact: The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 8,200 feet above sea level and 1,200 feet higher than the South Rim.
Home on the Range: For centuries, the Grand Canyon has been home to a plethora of plants and animals. Fossils of ancient marine life, as well as reptiles and mammals, have been preserved within the canyon. But surprisingly, there are no dinosaur bones here. Rock strata from the Mesozoic Era (250-65 million years ago, aka Age of the Dinosaurs), are just some of the 950 million years missing from the canyon’s walls.
The earliest evidence of humans residing inside the Grand Canyon dates back 12,000 years to Paleo-Indians who lived during the late Ice Age. Remnants from twelve ancient tribes have been discovered throughout the canyon, including Basketmaker, Southern Paiute, Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo. Today the Grand Canyon is home to the Havasupai tribe. It also boasts not one but five ecosystems ranging from the conifer forests high atop the North Rim to the desert scrub near the base the Grand Canyon.
Fun Grand Fact: Supai, Arizona, population 208, lies inside the Grand Canyon and is home to the Havasupai. There are no roads to this tiny village and it can only be accessed by foot, mule or helicopter. The US Postal Service delivers mail by pack mule.
Thrill Seekers: The Grand Canyon has also seen its fair share of adventurers, scientists, and tourists. During a failed quest for gold in the 1540s, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (1510-1554) and his fellow conquistadors were the first Europeans to set eyes on the colorful chasm. In the 1850s, John Strong Newberry (1822-1892) was the first scientist to descend into the Grand Canyon. Commissioned by the US federal government to take a series of surveying trips, Newberry took the opportunity to study the distinct layers of the canyon walls. He concluded the Grand Canyon had been formed by the Colorado River, a radical idea at the time.
A decade later, geologist, ethnologist, Civil War veteran and amputee, Major John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) was the first to lead an expedition to the Grand Canyon via the Colorado River. To his dismay, the trip was a fiasco. Two boats sank, half the supplies were lost, and three men quit the expedition despite reaching the Grand Canyon. Powell later learned they had been executed by the Shivwit tribe in a tragic case of mistaken identity. Two years later, Powell’s second expedition was a huge success. With backing from the US Congress, he brought two photographers and a fair number of fellow scientists to study and map the Grand Canyon. Powell also spent time visiting and learning from the native people living in and around the canyon. After his trip, Newberry toured the nation, sharing his Grand Canyon exploits and raising money for another expedition. Word spread and soon the Grand Canyon became a bucket list destination. In 1901, the first passengers on the Grand Canyon Railway disembarked at the South Rim. The following year, wealthy tourists rolled up in their new-fangled motorcars. And in 1919, the Grand Canyon National Park was established and hosted 45,000 visitors in its first year.
And so it continues. Today, millions of tourists flock to the Grand Canyon in trains, planes, automobiles, helicopters and tour buses. They hike its steep trails, ride mules to the base, raft through it via the Colorado River, and if they’re like me, stand at the edge (behind a sturdy fence, I checked!) and soak in its breathtaking beauty. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you put this truly Grand Canyon on your bucket list.
Fun Grand Fact: Efforts to preserve the Grand Canyon began in 1893 when President Benjamin Harrison established the Grand Canyon Forest Preserve. Theodore Roosevelt furthered the cause by establishing a Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. The U.S. Congress designated the Grand Canyon and its surrounding lands a National Park in 1919 and in 1975, the park was expanded and now encompasses 1,902 square miles. In 1979, UNESCO deemed the Grand Canyon a World Heritage Site.
That concludes our voyage through the grandest of canyons. I’m heading out on another adventure so next week we’ll dig into the archives with a reboot of my trip to China. Until then, have a wonderful week!
Britannica: Grand Canyon National Park
Google Arts & Culture: Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon Expedition Company
National Geographic: Grand Canyon
National Park Service: Geology of the Grand Canyon
National Park Service: Grand Canyon Ecosystems
National Park Service: Grand Canyon History & Culture
National Park Service: Grand Canyon Geologic Formations
National Park Service: Grand Canyon Natural Features & Ecosystems
PBS: New Perspectives on the West
Smithsonian Magazine: Below the Rim
Smithsonian Magazine: Dinosaurs Probably Never Saw the Grand Canyon
Smithsonian Magazine: How the Grand Canyon Was Formed
Smithsonian Magazine: Tour the Grand Canyon form Your Computer with Google Street View