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A Brief History of the Grand Canyon

View of the Grand Canyon

“Something about the place curiously inclines one’s thoughts toward the scientific, and yet simultaneously, toward the theological, which may be a pretty good definition for “magic.”” - Hampton Sides, The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim

This “magic” of the Grand Canyon is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. But to observe it with a knowledge of the ghosts of those who called it home, those who explored it, those who studied it, those who protected it, those who revered it, even those who exploited it, is to open a dialogue between past and present that can only enhance our appreciation and understanding of this mighty and mysterious giant.

A “Brief” History

Providing a history of the Grand Canyon is a task much like the canyon itself: extensive, overwhelming, sometimes even harsh and unbelievable. So keeping that history “brief” is a bit like inviting you to an all-you-can-eat buffet but only allowing you to nibble on a few dishes. We’ll do our best to give you a proper feast of details while acknowledging the limitations of the format.

Grand Canyon Facts

  • the Grand Canyon measures 18 miles wide, over 1 mile deep, and 277 miles along the river

  • it became a National Game Reserve in 1893, a National Monument in 1908, and a National Park in 1919

  • it is the second most popular National Park in the country (second only to Great Smokey Mountains National Park)

  • elevations range from 2,000 feet to over 8,000

  • there are an estimated 1,000 caves in the canyon, and only 335 of them have been recorded

Rocks and River: The True Stars of the Grand Canyon Show

Much of the geologic history of the canyon is written on its walls in layers of rock and sediment stacked over time. Rather like an organic growth chart, Mother Nature has marked the progress of her land. But unlike the charts our mothers kept on the doorjamb of the pantry, this one works in reverse with the oldest layers at the bottom, the youngest on top.

View of the Grand Canyon

Pinpointing ages of these rock formations is more difficult than you might think, as various sources, even reputable ones, differ on the numbers. This is where the interpretive plaques along the Rim Trail and the Yavapai Museum of Geology located at the canyon would come in handy. But here’s the gist.

Oldest rocks in the canyon: 1.8 billion years old, Vishnu Schist layer on the canyon floor

Youngest rocks in the canyon: 270 million years old, Kaibab limestone layer at the rim

50-70 million years ago

Shifting plate tectonics resulted in what’s called “uplift,” and these many rock layers were pushed up high and relatively level, forming what we know as the Colorado Plateau.

5-6 million years ago

The Colorado River began running its course through the area. Debris carried by the flowing river acts like sandpaper, slowly carving a distinct path along and through the relatively soft sedimentary rock (aka downcutting). Rainfall, snowfall, and freezing and thawing also contributed to erosion and led to the canyon’s shape as we know it. These forces are still at work, slowly deepening and widening the canyon year after year.

The River of Law

The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and ends at the Gulf of California aka the Sea of Cortez. At least it used to. As of about two decades ago, the river dried up about 100 miles shy of the ocean. For 6 million years it ran to the sea, but our use of it as a water source for millions has stopped it short in the desert. Nicknamed the “River of Law,” its flow is one of the most controlled and legally disputed in the world.

People of the Canyon

We often like to think of “grand” things in terms of firsts: the first to see this, the first to do that. And there are plenty of great stories of formative canyon firsts. But sadly, when it comes to the Grand Canyon and so many other world landscapes, the narrative is predominately European and Euro-American.

The true first explorers and caretakers of the Grand Canyon were, of course, indigenous peoples. These native cultures lived on, cultivated, and held sacred the land that many westerners sought to develop and capitalize on. While we take pride in the historical efforts of our nation to preserve and protect the wild, it has often come at a great price to the Native American tribes that originally inhabited these areas.

Native Cultures

Archaeological evidence dates human use of and presence in the Grand Canyon back at least 13,000 years to the last Ice Age when Paleo-Indians hunted mammoths and giant sloths, then eventually deer and sheep as they adapted to weather shifts. Twig figurines and pictographs on canyon walls have been dated back to the Archaic people, and Puebloan people such as the Anasazi built dwellings and have left evidence of their resourceful societies.

Native Ruins in the Grand Canyon

Nankoweap Granaries

Today 11 tribes in the surrounding area are historically connected to the canyon in one way or another. We’ll touch on a few.


Havasu Falls

Havasu Falls

The “People of the Blue-Green Waters,” (named for the mineral-rich falls and pools in their leg of the canyon) have perhaps the most intimate connection as they have been known to inhabit the space for over 800 years. Their reservation, established in 1880, exists primarily at the bottom of the canyon itself. Hikes to the reservation and to the famous Havasu Falls are run through the Havasupai Tribe, not the National Park Service. The rock formations of the canyon play unique roles in their legends and oral tradition.


Grand Canyon Skywalk

Grand Canyon West Skywalk

The “People of the Tall Pines” occupy a reservation along 108 miles of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. They run Grand Canyon West with the famous Skywalk, river rafting and helicopter tours and share their cultural heritage through exhibits, performances, and arts and crafts at the village at Eagle Point. For the Hualapai, “the Canyon and the Colorado River are living entities infused with conscious spirit.”


The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the United States, but the Navajo people were relative newcomers to the area compared to surrounding Puebloan tribes such as the Hopi. Their connection to the canyon and the land of the Colorado Plateau greatly influences their arts and crafts and traditional narrative.

Common Challenges

What do these tribes have in common? All have a deep love for and spiritual relationship with the canyon and want to protect it. But they all, in one way or another, rely on the tourism industry to survive, an industry that is often at odds with protecting the wild they hold so sacred.

Explorers of the Canyon

“They’re a perfect example of the peculiar kind of ambition the Grand Canyon inspires, a perfect example of the way it leads certain intrepid individuals in the direction of superlatives. Go big or go home, the canyon seems to tell us.”

– Hampton Sides, The Grand Canyon: Between River and Rim

In 1540 soldiers led by García López de Cárdenas under the orders of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado made their way to the canyon. Treacherous landscape combined with Hopi guides who may have misled the men to discourage future exploration led the Spanish explorers to abandon the territory as unnavigable.

1857 and 1858 survey expeditions were led by Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives of the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. He was the first Euro-American known to reach the river within the canyon, and he concluded that the land was valueless despite his admiration for the landscape, describing in his report: “Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed."

On May 24, 1869 Major John Wesley Powell and 9 others launched an expedition starting in the Green River, Wyoming Territory, and on through the Colorado River and the canyon. Referred to by Wallace Stegner as “the greatest student of the west,” Powell was a one-armed Civil War veteran who put a plan in motion with what little support and resources he could garner to tackle a giant adventure that not all of his team would survive. “And the purpose of this shoestring expedition? Only to discover. To find out. To observe, analyze, map, comprehend, know… Intellectual curiosity was the prime motive. They went down the river for the same reason the bear went over the mountain.” (Wallace Stegner, Introduction to The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell)

In 1871 US Army Captain George M. Wheeler led a Colorado River expedition and created the first map charting the river’s course.

Hiking the Grand Canyon

In 1977 Kenton Grua became the first recorded person to walk the entire length of the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs--roughly 750 miles, for the majority of which there is no trail.

In the summer of 1983, Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek and Steve Reynolds took advantage of a historic flood to propel them in their wooden boat along the Colorado River at unprecedented speed. Their record was 36 hours, 38 minutes, and 29 seconds, a record that has only been broken three times since.

Following in Grua’s footsteps, in 2015 Pete McBride, a photographer and film maker, and Kevin Fedarko, a writer and former river guide, became the first journalists (National Geographic) to walk the 750-mile length of the entire Grand Canyon over the course of a year.

Entrepreneurs of the Canyon

The Grand Canyon territory was acquired by the United States at the end of the Mexican American War as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The diverse landscape and resources in and outside of the canyon lured many the entrepreneur, attracting loggers, miners, ranchers, photographers, guides and salesmen to the space. Roads and railways were built to accommodate these ventures as well as to bring tourists to the canyon.

Captain John Hance arrived as a miner but became a legendary tour guide known for his storytelling.

John Verkamp opened Verkamp’s Curios in 1906 selling souvenirs and Native American jewelry, pottery and textiles. The shop closed in 2008, but the building remains today as the Verkamp’s Visitor Center.

Desert View Watchtower in the Grand Canyon

Desert View Watchtower designed by Colter

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was the architect for 6 buildings on the South Rim from 1902-1948 including the famous Desert View Watchtower. Her use of natural materials informed a design aesthetic that would be applied to development on protected lands across the country.

Emery and Ellsworth Kolb became household names in the canyon from 1901-1976 as they documented the canyon in photographs and video and embarked on their own expeditions. Their studio and residence still sit on the South Rim and can be toured daily.

Extraction Efforts

Gold, silver, copper, uranium and even bat guano have been mined for in the canyon, some more successfully than others. Efforts to extract natural resources have not always been in direct opposition to preservationist concern. But determining regulations and environmental impact is no small task, and Native cultures, the National Park Service and extraction companies are often at odds. Just as guests to the canyon are asked not to take with them rocks, plants, or artifacts, many wonder how much should be taken in the form of natural resources.

“Leave It As It Is”

A portrait of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, often referred to as the Conservationist President, visited the canyon in 1903, and in 1908 he declared it a National Monument. Upon seeing the canyon for the first time his impression was clear: “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the loneliness and beauty of the canyon… Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve upon it; not a bit.”

Threats to the Canyon

We’ve certainly not “[left] it as it is,” but many of the developments in and around the canyon have been instrumental in educating and bringing the area’s natural beauty to a wider audience in a positive manner. That said, current threats remind us of Roosevelt’s hope and our responsibility to choose to protect.

Contamination from uranium mining, proposed real estate development projects inside and outside of the canyon, and growing tourist air traffic at the West Rim are a few of the current threats to the landscape, along with the strain on the Colorado River as a water source. The fragility of the canyon’s ecosystem, wildlife, Native cultures and pristine wilderness is a stark reminder that protection is not a guarantee. We must find a balance between the human experience and the needs of the canyon, and there's no easy answer.

Your Turn

Knowledge is power, but it starts as potential: potential for change, for compromise, and

for humility. Before, during and after your visit to the Grand Canyon, educate yourself on its extensive history, allowing the stories, the images, and its spirit to inform and enlighten your own experience of the remarkable place. Respect it, protect it, visit it responsibly. And, of course, enjoy the magic.

Sitting on the rim of the Grand Canyon

“The canyon is a ruthless cathedral, and like all holy places, invites people to think, reflect, and I think above all, to move towards and embrace an element of humility. It invites us to reframe our perspective of where we stand…”

- Kevin Fedarko, Into the Grand Canyon 2019 documentary

Shameless Plug

Here at Backland we have a deep love and respect for our neighbor the Grand Canyon. If you’re visiting and need a place to stay, we invite you to consider our eco glamping resort committed to ecotourism practices in alignment with the spirit of preserving wild spaces like the canyon. We offer an unforgettable stay as well as private tours of the canyon and other Northern Arizona attractions. We hope you'll come see us!



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