Most people think of spectacular scenery when they consider Grand Canyon National Park. As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, there’s no doubt that you’ll take in some of the most awe-inspiring panoramas you’ve ever seen within this almost 300-mile-long canyon in Arizona. The Grand Canyon is up to eighteen miles wide and over one mile deep in some places, so you’d better believe this colorful geological marvel dazzles at every turn. Yet there’s much more than extraordinary rock formations to behold at this beloved American treasure. There are, in fact, many threads of rich history woven into the fabric of this great site. Man has left his mark in wondrous ways and in his wake, cultures and traditions have been created that are very much a part of the Grand Canyon experience of today.
OK, we do first have to start with a bit of the geological history of the Grand Canyon. It is after all some two billion years old! Rock readers are skilled at determining the history of the Canyon and its many facets. Every aspect of the Canyon tells the story of the transformation that occurred here–and continues to occur–as the Colorado River and its tributaries wended their way through layers of rock over the course of 277 miles. It’s these ancient rock formations, steep canyon walls and amazing pillars, plateaus and outcroppings that make the Grand Canyon such a visual feast for the eyes. You can learn much about the geological makeup of the Canyon at any one of the many visitor centers located within the Grand Canyon National Park, including Information Plaza and Yavapai Geology Museum. Some of the best views can be appreciated from Desert View Watch Tower and Phantom Ranch. (The latter, which is located at the base of the Canyon, offers a from-the-bottom-up perspective that’s pretty cool.)
Native Americans have always inhabited the Canyon and certain findings have determined that they lived within and around the area as early as 1200 BC. Known as the Anasazi (meaning ancient ones), these Ancestral Puebloan people are believed to have first settled here during the second Basketmaker Era. Archeological digs have unearthed significant findings about how these people lived. You can also learn about them at the sites mentioned above. Know, too, that there are lots of fascinating books about the culture and traditions of the Canyon’s first inhabitants for sale in gift shops within the Park. If you’re lucky enough to take a tour of the Canyon–by land or water–you will also likely have the opportunity to see some of the rock art that these peoples did on the Canyon walls. In truth, they probably didn’t consider it as art but rather more like a news publication similar to today’s newspapers or books. My, how times have changed!
European explorers first started finding their way to the Grand Canyon during the sixteenth century. Much of the emphasis was on finding a way to cross the mighty river that spliced the Canyon. A Mormon missionary had decent luck with that in 1850, establishing two sites suitable for ferry crossings. Certainly the best known explorer, however, of the Canyon is the American soldier and geologist John Wesley Powell. He’s famous for the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition, a three-month-long river trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers that often involved harrowing adventures. It was the first government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon and fortunately, despite all odds, it was a success. To relive this up close and personal, go see the Grand Canyon IMAX Movie at the National Geographic Visitor Center Grand Canyon just outside of the Park. It’s a must!
The rest–as they say–is history. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon in1903 and as an outdoorsman and conservationist, took measures to protect it. It wasn’t until 1919 though that it became Grand Canyon National Park.
By the 1920s, it became one of the biggest attractions in America and soon after, word spread throughout the world. Lodges, restaurants, shops, studios, visitor centers and a variety of other dwellings were constructed to properly welcome faraway travelers. Today many of those structures are classified National Historic buildings and it is as important to visit them as to gaze out at the transcending vistas of the Canyon. Most are located along the South Rim of the Canyon. Built in 1905, the El Tovar Hotel ranks as the standout here. Walk inside and take in its handsome rustic architecture replete with a cornucopia of Native American décor features including paintings, weavings, baskets, pottery and other forms of arts and crafts. Their gift shop showcases souvenir items of the highest quality. Across the way at Hopi House, you can shop for many beautiful Native American crafts such as kachinas, jewelry, pottery, fetishes and more made by the Hopis, Navajos, Zunis and other tribes from the American Southwest. The Natives have been trading here for well over a century. The old adobe building itself is worth the visit even if you’re not into shopping.
There are many other historic buildings throughout the park, including Buckey O’Neill Cabin, Kolb and Lookout Studios. In addition to appealing to outdoor enthusiasts, the Canyon has always served as inspiration for artists, writers and creative people of all sorts.
The Grand Canyon Railway Depot, a rustic log-cabin structure, also boasts great historical significance. You can best experience it when you take the Grand Canyon Railway in from Williams, Arizona!
Bright Angel Lodge, a log and stone structure designed by renowned Grand Canyon architect Mary Coulter, was built in 1935 by the Fred Harvey Company, owners of the Harvey House chain of hotels, restaurants and shops that were originally built to cater to the burgeoning number of train travelers from that era. Thank goodness that this–as well as so many other wonderful remnants from the past–are still flourishing today.