Arizona: Grand Canyon

This National Park protects most of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a spectacular example of erosion that reveals the geological history of the Colorado Plateau. The human history surrounding the canyon reflects both nineteenth century expansionism and the more recent politics of preservation.

Site Office

Grand Canyon National Park

P.O. Box 129

Grand Canyon, AZ 86023

ph.: (520) 638-7888; TDD: (520) 638-7805

Web sites:; www.thecanyon .com/nps/

Grand Canyon National Park preserves 178 miles of the world-famous Grand Canyon of the Colorado. This enormous canyon is one of the most spectacular examples of erosion in the world, laying bare a geological record that spans perhaps half the age of planet Earth. Since 1540 the Grand Canyon has been discovered, ignored, explored, exploited, developed, and preserved. Since the late nineteenth century, the canyon has been prominent in the history of American conservation. Known for its magnificent views, Grand Canyon National Park annually attracts about five million visitors.

Early History

Geologists estimate that the Grand Canyon has been eroded by the Colorado River over a period of two to six million years. During that time the Colorado Plateau, of which the Grand Canyon is a part, has been rising. The result is a spectacular canyon 277 miles long, averaging about 10 miles wide, and over 1 mile deep. The rock strata, through which the canyon has been cut, is far older than the canyon itself. The canyon walls contain distinct layers. The ancient igneous and metamorphic rock of the Inner Gorge is nearly 2 billion years old. It is covered by sedimentary and volcanic layers, the oldest and deepest of which are more than 1 billion years old. At the canyon’s rim, the most recent layers date back about 250 million years.

There is evidence of human habitation in and around the Grand Canyon dating back about five thousand years. The early residents hunted large and small animals and gathered native plant foods in season. About two thousand years ago, they adopted maize and squash farming. In the Grand Canyon region these earliest farmers are called Anasazi from a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones.” The early Anasazi are also known as Basketmakers for their very sophisticated and beautifully decorated grass baskets. Later Anasazi were known as Pueblo Indians after the communal structures in which they lived. The region’s Pueblo Indians made pottery, grew cotton, traded over large distances, and practiced elaborate ceremonies. More than five hundred Pueblo ruins have been found in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon, but none is of the size or complexity of better-known ruins like those at Mesa Verde. The Pueblo Indians abandoned the Grand Canyon about 1200. Since then the canyon has been frequented by the Hopi, who are descended from the Pueblo Indians, and occupied by the Havasupai and Hualipai south of the river and the Paiute to the north. The most recent arrivals on the scene were the Navajo. In the twentieth century, Indian lands in and around the Grand Canyon have been reduced to designated reservations.


European discovery of the Grand Canyon took place in 1540 when Garcúa López de Cárdenas and his Hopi guides arrived at the South Rim. The Cárdenas group was part of the larger Coronado Expedition of Spanish conquistadors out of Mexico exploring to the north. Having discovered the Grand Canyon, the Spanish ignored it for two hundred years until the arrival of missionary priests in the 1770’s. The last major Spanish explorations took place in 1776 and included one by Francisco Tomás Garcés, a priest who visited the Havasupai settlement on the South Rim and gave the Colorado River its name.

The Grand Canyon region became part of the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. American mountain men may have visited in the preceding quarter century, but their experiences seem to have died with them. By the 1850’s, the War Department was interested in mapping the new Arizona Territory, and it dispatched Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives to determine the navigability of the Colorado River by steamboat. Proceeding upstream, Ives got to Black Canyon before wrecking his boat. Continuing overland, his party was the first to bring back sketches and geological observations of the Grand Canyon.

Major John Wesley Powell, scientist and Civil War veteran, first traveled through the Grand Canyon by boat in 1869. His expedition studied and mapped the canyon, and his 1875 Report on the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries introduced the canyon to the American public and popularized use of the name “Grand Canyon.” The Powell Expedition left Green River on May 24, 1869, on a journey made perilous by terrible rapids. By August 15, the expedition had reached the mouth of Bright Angel Creek in the heart of what is now Grand Canyon National Park. Two weeks later they had completed their journey. Powell continued his explorations in and around the Grand Canyon in the early 1870’s, accompanied for a time by the artist, Thomas Moran, whose sketches and paintings of the canyon excited the American imagination. Powell’s protégé, Clarence Edward Dutton of the United States Geological Survey, visited the canyon in 1880 and 1881. His report, The Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District, with Atlas (1882), was the first important book on the canyon’s geology.

Development and Preservation

The number of prospectors, miners, and settlers in the Grand Canyon area increased rapidly in the 1870’s. North of the canyon, Mormon settlers grazed cattle and sheep and cut timber in the Kaibab Forest. Entrepreneurs established river ferries across the Colorado upstream of the Grand Canyon. The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was constructed across northern Arizona, and by the 1880’s tourists were visiting the canyon. Despite a minor “copper rush” in 1890, mining was rarely successful. Nevertheless, miners and prospectors left their legacy. In order to provide themselves with a supply of pack animals, prospectors released burros in the canyon, where they multiplied, wreaking environmental havoc. Miners and prospectors also pioneered the hospitality industry at the canyon, building trails, hiring out as guides, and providing bed, board, and transportation. Their era ended with the arrival of the railroad at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim in September, 1901. By 1905, the El Tovar Hotel had been opened, and the Fred Harvey Company was engaged in a lucrative tourist trade. The railroad era lasted until 1925; thereafter the dominant mode of transportation was the automobile.

The Grand Canyon and its environs were proclaimed a Forest Reserve by President Benjamin Harrison in 1893. Ten years later, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the canyon and declared, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” In 1906, Roosevelt proclaimed the Grand Canyon Game Reserve, which protected deer but encouraged the slaughter of predators, whose important ecological role was not yet understood. Two years later he established a Grand Canyon National Monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Interest in establishing a National Park increased after 1912, when Arizona achieved statehood. An Act of Congress establishing Grand Canyon National Park was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1919, but the National Park Service did not commence management until August 15.

Under management by the National Park Service, roads and trails were built or improved, a number of private facilities within the National Park removed, and others built. With Park Service approval, the Fred Harvey Company built Phantom Ranch in 1922 to serve as an overnight stop for riders on mule trips down Bright Angel Trail. On the North Rim an alliance with the Union Pacific Railroad facilitated park development. The park’s first ranger-naturalist was hired in 1925. Seven years later the Grand Canyon Natural History Association was founded to further visitor education. The park was expanded dramatically in 1975 and named a World Heritage Site in 1979. At the end of the twentieth century, 94 percent of the park’s 1.2 million acres was managed as wilderness.

Since its establishment as a National Park, Grand Canyon has been a natural and historic site of international importance. Its management has occasioned controversies involving wildlife, air quality, water, and visitors. Early in the park’s history, predator control led to an explosion of the deer population on the North Rim followed by mass starvation. More recently, the Park Service has worked to save endangered native species while eliminating exotics such as the wild burros left over from prospector days. In the 1970’s, air quality became an issue in the Grand Canyon as pollution from cities, smelters, and a coal-fired electrical generating plant reduced visibility and impaired the experience of park visitors. The problem persists. In the last half of the twentieth century, dams were built above and below the park, taming the free-flowing Colorado and creating major changes in canyon ecology. In 1995, the Interior Department executed a massive discharge of water through the canyon in an attempt to restore its ecological balance. A year later the interior secretary issued new rules to govern discharges from the Glen Canyon Dam just upstream from the park. Perhaps most intractable have been the issues of visitor management. The Park Service has begun replacing private automobile use on the crowded South Rim with various forms of mass transit. River running and canyon hiking are heavily regulated to preserve the canyon. River runners wait many years for a permit. Aircraft noise from tourist overflights became a significant intrusion on the wilderness experience of canyon visitors. Assisted by a 1987 law and a 1996 executive order, the National Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have sought to restore quiet to the canyon through a series of overflight restrictions.

Places to Visit

Most park visitors experience the Grand Canyon by automobile from overlooks along the South Rim. Eighty miles northwest of Flagstaff, the South Rim, with its visitor center and museum, is the most accessible part of the park and is open all year. The North Rim is one thousand feet higher, closed by snow from October to May, and less frequently visited. More adventurous visitors hike into the canyon’s depths, ride a mule down the Bright Angel Trail, retrace Powell’s river journey through the canyon, or fly over it by airplane or helicopter. The popularity of these activities is so great that many require reservations months in advance.

For Further Information

  • Anderson, Michael F. Living at the Edge: Explorers, Exploiters, and Settlers of the Grand Canyon Region. Grand Canyon, Ariz.: Grand Canyon Association, 1998. Almost two hundred historic photographs and accompanying text describe the pioneer history of the Grand Canyon region prior to establishment of the park.
  • Beus, Stanley S., and Michael Morales, eds. Grand Canyon Geology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Twenty chapters by various scientists explore the geological history of the prominent strata, formations, and features of the park.
  • Fishbein, Seymour L. Grand Canyon Country: Its Majesty and Its Lore. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1991. This introduction to Grand Canyon National Park and the surrounding lands contains about one hundred photographs of exceptional quality accompanied by an engaging text.
  • “Grand Canyon National Park: Official Park Information.” This is the park’s expanded Web site and the place to start for anyone planning to visit.
  • Hughes, J. Donald. In the House of Stone and Light: A Human History of the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon, Ariz.: Grand Canyon Association, 1978. This illustrated volume chronicles the prehistory and early history of Grand Canyon National Park.
  • Morehouse, Barbara J. A Place Called the Grand Canyon: Contested Geographies. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996. This history of the greater Grand Canyon region emphasizes the competition for control of the land and its resources.
  • Powell, John Wesley. Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. This is a reprint of Powell’s original Report on the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries. Contains an introduction by Powell biographer Wallace Stegner.