Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon is unmatched throughout the world in the incomparable vistas it offers to visitors. While not the deepest canyon, the Grand Canyon is known throughout the world for its overwhelming size and intricate, colorful landscape.
The history of the Grand Canyon is a long and important one to the Native tribes who live around the canyon walls. The Havasupai tribe moved up and down the layers of the canyon throughout the year. In the winter, they lived on the Colorado Plateau to hunt and gather. In the warmer seasons they farmed squash, beans, corn, melon, and pumpkins on the Tonto Platform. The first European visitors who noticed the sophisticated agriculture techniques and lush crops brought about by the tribes called the Tonto Platform the Indian Garden. Other tribes who lived in the area included the Hopi, Hualapai (whose mythology owes their existence to the Grand Canyon), Navajo, Paiute, White Mountain Apache, Yavapai Apache, and Zuni.
One of the most stunning experiences to have in the Grand Canyon can happen only at night. The Grand Canyon is one of the rare locations in the United States with little enough light pollution to see the Milky Way with incredible clarity. For most of our lives, we experience a night sky that is drastically different from the one seen and honored by first people in America. Light pollution knocks out enough of our ability to see the stars that the Milky Way is never visible. The Grand Canyon offers one of the last preserved places to look up and see clearly elements of the milky way that were a common sight to ancient people: the Cygnus Dark Rift, Interstellar Medium, the Scutum Star Cloud, Prancing Horse, and the Saggitarius Star Cloud.
Geologically it is significant because of the thick sequence of ancient rocks that are beautifully preserved and exposed in the walls of the canyon. These rock layers record much of the early geological history of the North American continent. It is one of the most spectacular examples of erosion in the world. Grand Canyon became a national park in order to protect it and preserve its breathtaking scenery for future generations.
“If we want to feel huge, significant, exalted,
we go to the last of the few remaining
wild mountaintops in this country
and let the high winds press against us.
But if we dare to realize who and what we are,
the tininess of our myths,
we can descend into the lower places.
We can pass beneath cathedrals
of sun-shafted old-growth forests
and descend even deeper,
into temples of geology and time,
the greatest of which in this country
is the Grand Canyon.”
- Rick Bass, National Geographic Traveler, 10/99
1. How big is it?
That depends on how you look at it. The park includes over a million acres of land - 1,218,375.54 acres / 493,077 hectares or 1,904 square miles / 4931 square km. Most people measure the canyon in river miles. It is 277 miles / 446 km along the course of the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. It begins at Lees Ferry (mile 0) and ends at the Grand Wash Cliffs (mile 277 / km 446). The total length of the Colorado River is longer; 1450 miles / 2333 km from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Width and depth of the Canyon vary from place to place. At the South Rim, near Grand Canyon Village, it’s a vertical mile (about 5,000 feet / 1524 m) from rim to river (7 miles / 11.3 km by trail, if you’re walking). At its deepest, it is 6000 vertical feet / 1829 km from rim to river. The width of the canyon at Grand Canyon Village is 10 miles / 16 km (rim to rim), though in places it is as much as 18 miles / 29 km wide. Another way to measure up the size of the Canyon is if you take a trip to the bottom of the Canyon and back (on foot or by mule) it is a two-day journey. Rim-to-rim hikers generally take three days one-way to get from the North Rim to the South Rim. A trip through Grand Canyon by raft can take two weeks or longer, and experienced backpackers have spent weeks in the more remote areas of the Canyon.
2. Are there dams in Grand Canyon?
No, although several dams bordering the park have a profound effect on Grand Canyon. At the upper end of the Canyon, 15 river miles / 24 km above Lees Ferry, is Lake Powell, formed by the waters behind Glen Canyon Dam. At the lower end of the canyon is Lake Mead, formed by the waters behind Hoover Dam. The controlled release of water from Glen Canyon Dam at the upstream end affects the water that flows through Grand Canyon. Waters from Lake Mead flood the lower 40 miles / 64 km of Grand Canyon when the lake is full. Hoover Dam was completed in 1936. Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963.
3. How old is the Canyon?
That’s a tricky question. Although rocks exposed in the walls of the canyon are geologically quite old, the Canyon itself is a fairly young feature. The oldest rocks at the canyon bottom are close to 2000 million years-old. The Canyon itself - an erosional feature - has formed only in the past five or six million years. Geologically speaking, Grand Canyon is very young.
4. Are the oldest rocks in the world exposed at Grand Canyon?
No. Although the oldest rocks at Grand Canyon (2000 million years old) are fairly old by any standard, the oldest rocks in the world are closer to 4000 million years-old. The oldest exposed rocks in North America, which are among the oldest rocks in the world, are in northern Canada.
5. How do visitors view the Grand Canyon?
Nearly five million people see Grand Canyon each year. Most of them see it from their car at overlooks along the South Rim (this includes Grand Canyon Village, Hermits Rest, and Desert View). The South Rim - 60 miles / 97 km north of Williams and 80 miles / 97 km northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona - is the most accessible part of the park and is open all year. A much smaller number of people see the Canyon from the North Rim, which lies just 10 miles / 16 km (as the raven flies) directly across the Canyon from the South Rim. The North Rim rises a thousand feet higher than the South Rim, and is much less accessible. Heavy snows close the road to the North Rim from late October to mid-May of each year. Even in good weather it’s harder to get to: it’s 220 miles / 354 km by car from the South Rim, or 21 miles /34 km by foot across the Canyon by way of the North and South Kaibab Trails. The inner canyon is seen mainly by hikers, mule riders, or river runners. There are many opportunities here for adventurous and hardy persons who want to backpack, ride a mule to Phantom Ranch, or take a few days to a three week river trip through the Canyon on the Colorado River (there are no one-day river trips through Grand Canyon).
6. How do people get across the Canyon?
If you’re walking, the South Kaibab Trail crosses the Colorado River on a narrow foot bridge 70 feet / 21 m above the water. There is only one way to cross by automobile, and that is via Navajo Bridge. It’s just a few miles downstream from Lees Ferry, where the Canyon is still only 400 feet / 122 m wide.
7. When is the best time to visit the Grand Canyon?
Expect heavy crowds during spring, summer, and fall months. You will find fewer crowds in the early spring or late fall. The South Rim is open year round, but heavy snows close the road to the North Rim from late October to mid-May of each year.
8. Can I bring my dog along with me if I hike into the Canyon?
Pets must be physically restrained at all times. Leashed pets are allowed on the rim trails throughout the developed areas in the park but not below the rim. The only exception is certified service dogs. Persons wishing to take a service dog below the rim must check in first at the Backcountry Information Center. There is a kennel on the South Rim but not on the North Rim.
9. How hard is it to hike into the Grand Canyon?
Unlike hiking in mountainous terrain, Grand Canyon trails involve a downhill trip followed by a strenuous uphill climb. Hiking in the Grand Canyon is so demanding that even people in excellent condition often emerge sore and fatigued. Yet small children, senior citizens, and people with physical disabilities have hiked it. The day hiker out for just a few hours, and the overnight backpacker must be equally prepared. Particularly in the summer, mental attitude and adequate water consumption are the two most important factors in the success of any hike into the Grand Canyon. Backcountry rangers recommend that hikers make their first overnight trip into the inner canyon on the park’s “Corridor” trails. The Corridor is the area including and immediately adjacent to the Bright Angel and North and South Kaibab trails. This area includes three campgrounds: Indian Garden, Bright Angel, and Cottonwood.
10. Do I need a permit to hike into the Grand Canyon?
Permits are not required for day hikes below the rim, but you must obtain a backcountry permit if you plan on camping overnight below the rim.
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