The History of the Grand Canyon

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Podcast Transcript

Cutting across the state of Arizona is one of the wonders of the natural world: The Grand Canyon. 

The Grand Canyon draws attention not only for its overwhelming size and intricate, colorful landscape but also for the deep and exposed layers of Earth’s history that are visible in its walls. 

The history of the Grand Canyon is not only one of geology but also its history of human use.

Learn more about the Grand Canyon on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


The Grand Canyon is one of the most awe-inspiring things you will ever see.

I say this as someone who has traveled all over the world and has seen a great many things. The Grand Canyon is simply one of the most incredible things you can experience. 

Whether you go whitewater rafting down the Colorado River, sit at either of the rims of the canyon or even see it from an airplane, it is one of the most spectacular sights on planet Earth. 

The canyon’s total volume is 4.17 trillion cubic meters or 147 trillion cubic feet, making it the largest canyon in the world by volume. 

The generally accepted dimensions of the canyon are that it is 277 miles or 446 kilometers long, as much as 18 miles or 29 kilometers wide, and has a maximum depth of 6,093 feet or 1,857 meters.

The Grand Canyon is larger than both the state of Rhode Island and the state of Delaware. 

The Great Pyramid of Giza could fit inside the canyon 1.5 million times. 

So, the first question most people have, and by far the biggest question regarding the Grand Canyon, is how it was made. 

There is a generally accepted simple answer to the question and a more complicated version that is still hotly debated. 

To understand how the canyon was made, we first have to understand its location. The Grand Canyon is located on the Colorado Plateau. 

The Colorado Plateau is an expansive geological feature located primarily in the southwestern United States, covering approximately 130,000 square miles across northern Arizona, southern Utah, northwestern New Mexico, and western Colorado.

The landscape of the Colorado Plateau is that of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.  The Colorado Plateau is home to the largest concentration of national parks in the United States, including Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and many others. 

It is a high desert landscape with flat-topped mesas, deep canyons, vast sandstone buttes, and rugged mountains, which are the result of millions of years of sedimentation, uplift, and erosion.

Uplift is the key to understanding the formation of the Grand Canyon. 

The entire Colorado Plateau began being subject to uplift about 5 to 6 million years ago. As the land of the plateau began to move upward, the Colorado River began to cut through the rock in order to flow down to the sea. 

That is the short, simple version of why the Grand Canyon exists. The ground lifted up, and the river cut through it. 

However, there is more to it than that. 

Once you begin zooming in closer, you will find disagreement among geologists about the specifics of the canyon’s creation.

One theory has to do with the flow of the river. Some geologists hold that the reason why the Grand Canyon is so big is because the river never meandered or changed course. It just kept plowing through the same channel, getting deeper and deeper. 

Another theory holds that there was one or more major lakes that were created during the uplift of the plateau. These lakes then catastrophically broke with water gushing out carving much of the Grand Canyon in a relatively brief amount of time.

These lakes may have been caused by volcanic activity in the area. The uplift from the volcanoes might have been enough to cause the water to pool up. 

There are also some other opinions regarding the age of the canyon. Most geologists date the canyon at 4 to 5 million years, as I previously mentioned, but some put the date as far back as 20 million years, and one paper claims that the western parts of the canyon might have been carved as long as 70 million years ago.

None of the alternate theories really deny the general principle that uplift caused the creation of the Grand Canyon. Rather, they differ in how exactly that process happened. 

For most geologists, the really interesting thing about the canyon isn’t the erosion that created the canyon but rather what all of the erosion exposes. 

Along the walls of the canyon, you can see billions of years of rock sediment. There are forty major layers of rock sediment that can be seen in the Grand Canyon, the youngest of which, near the top, is about 40 million years old, and at the bottom is close to two billion years old. 

Within those forty major layers of rock sediment and many more minor layers within those major layers. The entire geologic history of Northern Arizona can be seen in the walls of the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River exposed much of the Earth’s geologic history. There are geologists who have spent their entire careers studying the Grand Canyon and the many layers of sediment, so it is beyond the scope of this podcast to go into the details of all the layers. Suffice it to say that the geology found at the Grand Canyon is some of the most fascinating in the world. 

As interesting as the Grand Canyon’s geology is, it isn’t the only significant thing about it. The canyon also has a big impact on humans. 

Humans have inhabited the Grand Canyon area for thousands of years, with the earliest evidence of human occupation dating back nearly 12,000 years.

Many of the native people who lived in the area had the Grand Canyon as a central place in their legends and mythology. 

The Hopi people, whose ancestral lands include the area surrounding the Grand Canyon, believe the Grand Canyon is a sipapu, or place of emergence, where their ancestors emerged from the previous world into this one. 

The Navajo regard it as a sacred place where supernatural beings or deities reside. The canyon’s various formations are seen as the homes of these beings, with specific landmarks associated with particular stories of creation and moral teachings. 

The Hualapai, Navajo, and Havasupai people all believe that the canyon’s origins stem from a great flood. 

The first Europeans to encounter the Grand Canyon were the Spanish. In September 1540, the explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was searching for the Seven Cities of Gold from Aztec lore. 

While in Arizona, he sent a team north with Hopi Indian guides that reached the South Rim of the canyon. Three Spaniards, Pablo de Melgrossa, Juan Galeras, and another unnamed person, managed to hike about a third of the way down the canyon before heading back due to a lack of water.

No Europeans would visit the canyon for another 200 years. 

In 1776, two Spanish priests looking for a route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to California came across the canyon from the North Rim.

A group of mountain men and trappers may have reached the canyon in 1826, 50 years later. 

Despite the growth and spread of Europeans across North America, this region of north Arizona received almost no attention. 

It wasn’t until the 1850s that organized parties were sent out to try to find a crossing in the Colorado River.

The Army sent a team in 1858 to see if it was possible to sail up the Colorado River from its mouth. The team took a steam wheel ship up to a point where it was impossible to go further. 

It wasn’t until 1869 that John Wesley Powell led a team on an expedition down the Colorado River. They began in Wyoming on the Green River and then slowly worked their way through the Grand Canyon. The expedition consisted of ten men, four boats, and food for ten months,

In 1871, Powell became the first person to use the term “Grand Canyon.” Prior to this point, it had simply been referred to as the “Big Canyon.”

Throughout the 19th century, there were visitors to the canyon, but they were few and far between. Expeditions photographed, sketched and studied the canyon, but its remote location made it otherwise hard to visit.

The thing that changed the fortunes of the Grand Canyon took place in 1903. United States President Theodore Roosevelt paid a visit. A lover of the outdoors, the president was deeply impressed with the Grand Canyon and, on November 28, 1906, established the Grand Canyon Game Preserve. 

This period saw the creation of the Grand Canyon Village, the Grand Canyon Railway, and a host of other iconic structures.

With the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906 it allowed greater presidential autonomy to establish national monuments from federally held land. 

Using the powers of the Antiquities Act, on January 11, 1908, Roosevelt took additional forest land and created Grand Canyon National Monument. 

The protected land angered mining interests, but it was to no avail as on February 26, 1919. Congress passed legislation creating Grand Canyon National Park.

With the establishment of the national park, visitation to the park grew as did the infrastructure to bring in and house visitors. The 1920s and 30s saw an expansion of the Grand Canyon Village and the construction of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim.

In 1956, the Grand Canyon was the location of the worst aviation disaster in history at that time. Two planes that took off from Los Angeles within three minutes of each other collided in mid-air above the canyon, killing 128 people on both flights.  The disaster resulted in the establishment of the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Perhaps the biggest change to the canyon and to the Colorado River was the opening of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. 

The Glen Canyon Dam is located upriver from the Grand Canyon and dramatically changed the river’s flow. 

With the creation of Lake Powell, the dam drastically altered the natural hydrology and sediment transport of the Colorado River.

The river’s regulated flow and reduced amount of sediment resulted in colder, clearer, and more stable river conditions, which disrupted native fish populations and altered riparian habitats.

It also eliminated seasonal flooding, which, coupled with the lack of sediment, has destroyed sandbars in the canyon. 

In 1975, The Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act was passed, almost doubling the park’s size. 

In 1979, the Grand Canyon was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Today, the Grand Canyon is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Prior to the pandemic, the park received 5,9 million visitors in 2019. 

Given the fact that you can’t easily cross the canyon, there are effectively two different parks on the North and South Rim. The North Rim is the less visited of the two sides and is closer to Las Vegas. The South Rim is more accessible from Phoenix. 

The North Rim has an average elevation of 8000 feet, which is 1000 feet higher than the South Rim. Temperatures on the North Rim are often quite different as a result, usually much cooler.

One of the latest additions to the Grand Canyon is actually located just outside of the national park, the Grand Canyon Skywalk.

The Skywalk, built on the land of the Hualapai Tribe and opened in 2007, is a giant cantilever horseshoe with a glass floor that extends over the canyon. The vertical drop below it is 800 feet or 240 meters. The skywalk gets over a million visitors per year. 

There are many sites that are called “wonders of the world,” but the Grand Canyon truly deserves the title.  It is one of the most awe-inspiring sights you will ever see, and I highly recommend for everyone to experience it at least once in their life. 


The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Benji Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today, I have several short reviews that were left on Apple Podcasts. 

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Excellent

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Complete

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BRAVO! 

Excellent daily podcast… BRAVO!

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