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Why you should visit the Grand Canyon

Why you should visit the Grand Canyon

Descending from the Colorado plateau into Arizona’s mile-deep, river-hewn chasm is like stepping into a geological time machine; here's why you should visit the Grand Canyon

No matter how many photographs or paintings of the Grand Canyon you have seen, nothing prepares the first-time visitor for its sheer jaw-dropping magnificence. Writers have searched for words to describe the experience.

"Arizona’s 'big ditch' is grand indeed, measuring 277 miles long, 18 miles wide at its broadest point and almost one mile deep"

British author E.M. Forster called it “the most astounding natural object I have ever seen.” Hard-boiled novelist Henry Miller cried on the brink of the enormous gorge. “It’s mad, completely mad,” wrote Miller, “and at the same time so grandiose, so sublime, so illusory that when you come upon it for the first time, you break down and weep with joy.”

Arizona’s “big ditch” is grand indeed, measuring 277 miles long, 18 miles wide at its broadest point and almost one mile deep. A chasm of similar size in Europe would stretch from Paris to Amsterdam. And even if you doubled the height of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, and placed it at the bottom of the canyon, it would still not reach the rim.

Nature’s forces

Why you should visit the Grand Canyon - Road to Marble Canyon during sunsetCredit: Michael Jagla

More than anything else, the Grand Canyon is a testament to how water, wind and gravity—working in concert over millions of years—can bring extreme change to the Earth’s surface and even create an entirely new landscape.

Nearly two billion years ago, the region that now supports the Grand Canyon was a shallow inland sea that gradually filled with silt, sand, mud and volcanic ash. Movements in the Earth’s crust later compressed and uplifted these layers of sediment into a broad plateau subjected to further volcanic activity and other geological forces.

Three hundred million years of steady erosion did the rest, most of it carried out by the snow-fed Colorado River tumbling down from the Rockies’ western flank on its turbulent journey to the Gulf of California.

The geological cross-section exposed by this erosion is one o the world’s most complete. Almost 40 different rock layers span most of the best-known geologic timeframes, from the Late Precambrian to the Mesozoic “Age of Dinosaurs” and the Cenozoic “Age of Mammals”. The oldest rock is the dark grey Vishnu Schist along the banks of Colorado, which was formed 1.75 billion to 1.73 billion years ago. But it’s the orange, ochre and red rocks at higher elevations that leave the greatest impression, especially at sunrise and sunset, when the canyon walls glow like fire.

The chiselled buttes, pyramids and tower that speckle the gorge, even more than its sheer walls, give the Grand Canyon a charisma few other geological wonders can match. During his landmark canyon survey of the 1880s, Clarence Dutton of the US Geological Survey gave them names such as Shiva Temple, Vulcan’s Throne and Tower of Ra, drawn from ancient mythology and exotic faiths, linking the canyon with great civilisations of the past and endowing it with a whole new layer of mystique.

A range of habitats

Owing to its huge size and depth, the Grand Canyon harbours several major ecosystems, including five of the seven life zones found in North America. A descent from rim to river is the ecological equivalent of travelling from Canada to Mexico, a journey from the boreal forest and subalpine grasslands to the stark, almost barren Lower Sonoran Desert. Altitude is the primary force in shaping these diverse ecosystems, but they are also affected by moisture levels: parts of the North Rim routinely receive 3–3.5m of snow each winter, while desert areas in the canyon bottom are lucky to receive 18cm of rain in a year.

Yet life survives, and even thrives, in the canyon. More than 1,700 types of plants are found in the Grand Canyon National Park, ranging from towering ponderosa pines and twisted junipers that pose along the rim to the cacti, mesquite and sagebrush of the desert areas. With a constant water supply, the canyon’s river habitats form rich, oasis-like pockets and "hanging gardens" where willows, aquatic plants and even orchids grow around small ponds, springs and streams.

Animal life is highly diverse and specialised to deal with variations in altitude, terrain and climate. At the top of the food chain are predators like the mountain lion and bobcat, which move in and out of the canyon in pursuit of prey. The largest creatures roaming the park are elk, mule deer and black bear.

"Animal life is highly diverse and specialised to deal with variations in altitude, terrain and climate"

The canyon is also home to javelinas (wild pigs), skunks, porcupines, coyotes and many other mammals. Reptilian life ranges from six rattlesnake species to delicate tree frogs and poisonous Gila monsters. More than 370 bird species have been counted in the skies above and around the canyon, while the Colorado River hosts 17 different types of fish.

Human activity

Although their impact has been insignificant compared to that of mother nature, humans have long been part of the Grand Canyon, too. People have lived in the chasm for more than 11,000 years, going back to the last Ice Age. These ancient people were nomadic hunters and gatherers who left their mark in temporary camps, caves and rock-art galleries below the rim.

Around 3,500 years ago, people experimented with agriculture, growing maise, beans and squash in places with permanent or seasonal water. In the so-called Formative Period (AD 500–1540), small villages were established in and around the canyon. The canyon’s cliff dwellings were created at this time.

Captain Garcia Lopez de Cardenas and a small group of Spanish soldiers were the first Europeans to happen upon the Grand Canyon. Part of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s expedition to find the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, they reached the South Rim in September 1540. It was another 200 years before Europeans saw the canyon again.

By the mid-19th century, Americans explored the canyon region, culminating in Major John Wesley Powell’s epic three-month boat trip down Colorado in the summer of 1869. As word of the massive, multicoloured chasm spread across the globe, visitors flocked to the canyon, among them US President Theodore Roosevelt. An ardent conservationist, he awarded the canyon federal protection after his 1903 visit. By 1919 it was listed as a national park.

Expanded over the years, Grand Canyon National Park is now one of America’s largest, spreading across 4,932km2 of northern Arizona. Over the last century, more than 180 million people have visited the park, making it one of the world’s most popular natural attractions.

Preserving the park

In recent years, park authorities have taken bold steps to return the canyon to a more pristine state. New flight rules limit helicopter and aeroplane traffic in the canyon and restore natural quiet. Private vehicles are banned on some popular rim roads, which are now accessible only on foot or by shuttle bus, many running on relatively clean natural gas. To reduce the park’s reliance on outside energy sources, photovoltaic solar panels have been installed at the new South Rim Visitor Center and elsewhere.

The authorities have also introduced measures to protect the park’s historic structures, especially those in the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village Historic District. Many of these buildings are icons of American national park architecture.

"In recent years, park authorities have taken bold steps to return the canyon to a more pristine state"

Opened in 1905, the El Tovar Hotel is a national historic landmark. The design is an eclectic clash of styles, including elements of Southwest Indian, California Mission, Western pioneer and Swiss Alpine. Pioneering architect Mary Colter designed several of the park’s outstanding structures, including the pueblo-inspired Hopi House (1905), Desert View Watchtower (1932) and Phantom Ranch (1922) at the bottom of the canyon.

Native caretakers

Why you should visit the Grand Canyon - rand Canyon National Park, located in northwestern ArizonaCredit: Michael Jagla

Two Native American tribes—the Hualapai and Havasupai—are also caretakers of the Grand Canyon. Their reservations are along the West Rim and include many spectacular overlooks and side canyons. Most notable of the latter is Havasu Canyon, home to the small village of Supai and several spectacular waterfalls that plunge into turquoise pools.

Farther west, the Hualapai have constructed the spectacular but controversial Skywalk—a U-shaped viewing platform with a glass floor some 1,200m above the Colorado River. Visitors can walk out over the canyon for a bird’s-eye view of this vast chasm, two billion years of history etched into its sheer sides.

Banner credit: jose1983

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