History and Nature in the Grand Canyon

Below, a river crashes around boulders carving its way not over but through mountains of rock millions of years old. On the ledge above stands a group of men, spears in their hands, surveying their prey, a herd of Bison, and planning the hunt. Overhead, a bald eagle cries. The bull’s head shoots up. He sounds the alarm and the herd pounds away. Spears become fishing tools and the group descends to take advantage of the abundance of the Colorado River instead.

Modern History: Six million years young, the Grand Canyon’s history is exciting and rich telling stories of giants, of ice, of raging waters and of early ancestors which, at one time or another, all created, relied on and lived in the Grand Canyon. New wonders are found every day as the rocks reveal what was and tell an exciting and sometimes unexpected story.

The first Americans to see The Grand Canyon were a beaver trapper, Ewing Young, and his party of Mormons arriving in 1826. They and others after them found the canyon so difficult to navigate, the whole area was declared valueless; hard to imagine considering the revenue the Hoover Dam and tourism create today. But a one-armed schoolteacher named John Wesley Powell became fixed on the idea of navigating this unexplored, new territory and in 1848 he and the surviving members of his party became the first Americans to successfully navigate the Colorado through the canyon.

President Roosevelt led the march toward preserving the area but it was Woodrow Wilson who, in 1919, signed the bill that established the Grand Canyon as a protected National Park.

Colorado River

looking into the horseshoe bend

The Colorado River looks drastically different today than it did five million years ago. Looking at it now, often a peaceful, winding ribbon of blue, only white water sections can help us to imagine the torrential, cascading water that sliced through rock like a knife through butter. Beginning as two rivers that became one, the Colorado eventually joined, carving it’s way through hard rock and earth to create the majestic and unique landscape of the Grand Canyon.


Tusayan Museum Talk

The first humans to populate the Grand Canyon settled around 12,000 years ago. Very little is known about them other than what the canyon caves have revealed; spear tips, small, split twig figures, and bones. They were replaced by Puebloans who thrived there for over a thousand years until some as yet unknown catalyst pushed them to leave. Thousands of Puebloans migrated and became Hopis, Zunis and Navajos, but no one knows just why. It remains an unsolved mystery in this ancient and amazing place.


Grand Canyon After Glow

When talking rock, the Grand Canyon was formed at lightning speed in less than six million years. The force of the Colorado River has carved its way through eleven layers of prehistoric rock, giving the modern visitor a view that reaches back 1.5 billion years. The demarcations in the rock of the canyon are clear to the naked eye and have provided geologists with a big picture view rarely found above ground and in plain sight. The rock tells secrets every day showing archeologists and anthropologists who was here first, how they lived, what they ate and, farther back, what plants creatures preceded them.


California Condor at Grand Canyon National Park

Can you imagine a sloth seven feet tall? How about a bird with wings twelve feet wide? Or a herd of camels roving an American desert? Well try. They were all there, indigenous to the Grand Canyon and the diverse habitats found there during the last Ice Age almost 15,000 years ago. Today, the Grand Canyon is home to several unique and protected animals, the California Condor and Bald Eagle among them. It houses Big Horn Sheep, Mountain Lions, Rattle Snakes, and seventeen varieties of fish.


grand canyon

Forests become cacti and moss becomes scrub. Hikers who begin at the North Rim can walk through subalpine grassland into boreal forest where firs, spruce, lichen and moss thrive in the cold, wet climate. Below them the trees thin and shorten to juniper and pinyon pine which seem to shorten yet again into desert scrub and cacti. Finally at the river’s edge, Coyote willows reach out for a drink extending branches like hands and stream orchids take advantage of the ample water, sun and silt.

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