September 24, 2012

The Big Canyon

In National Lampoon’s Vacation, Clark Griswold calls the Grand Canyon the “biggest God-damn hole in the world.” He’s only half right. At 277 miles long, it is big. Grand Canyon National Park itself covers approximately one million acres and contains several major ecosystems, including five life zones. But, he’s wrong about the “hole” part. The Grand Canyon isn’t a big hole in the ground.

The canyon is actually a huge fissure in the Colorado Plateau that exposes uplifted Proterozoic and Paleozoic strata. Major 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 230 million-year-old Kaibab limestone at the rim. In other words, more than a billion years of history can be seen in a glance.

Over time, two mountain ranges formed here and eroded. An inland sea then covered the area and primitive shellfish fossilized at its bottom, eventually hardening into shale. When the sea disappeared, the region rose again as a high plateau. The Colorado River then went to work, first cutting into the upper layers about 6 million years ago. Inch by inch, it carved through the layered rock until it reached the oldest rocks nearly a mile below the surface.

People have called the canyon home for centuries. The Ancient Peubloans (formerly known as Anasazi) populated the area first, followed by the Cohonina, the ancestors of Havasupai and Walapai peoples that inhabit the area today. Southern Paiutes, Hopi, Navajo and other Native Americans all have connections to the Grand Canyon and its surrounding areas.

Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, under orders of Conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, led the first Europeans to the canyon’s rim in 1540. More than 200 years later, Spanish soldiers and priests explored the area in multiple expeditions, followed by American trappers and mountain men, who began visiting the canyon in the 1800s. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, superintendent of an expedition surveying a wagon road along the 35th parallel, and his party saw the canyon in 1857. The following year John Strong Newberry became the first known geologist to set foot in the area.

Major John Wesley Powell led the first expedition down the canyon in 1869. Setting out with nine men, he traveled from Green River, Wyoming through the canyon, which until that time was known as “The Big Canyon.” Powell coined the term “Grand Canyon.”

In 1908, the Grand Canyon became an official national monument, and in 1919, it became a national park. More than 5 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park every year to view the spectacular scenery and enjoy its recreational activities. One of the most popular ways to experience it is to hike into the canyon, at least part way. You need to plan to spend the night in the canyon if you plan to hike to the bottom—the National Park Service strongly urges you not to attempt to hike down and back in one day.

You can experience the park from its rim, by car or bicycle (bikes are available for rent), at various viewing points. Or, you can take a mule into the canyon, either part way or to the bottom. You can also raft through the canyon. Tour companies offer trips ranging from half-day to 14-day excursions. Other options include flights over the canyon.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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