The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is one of the most remarkable natural wonders in the world. Located in the state of Arizona, USA, it is one of the deepest gorges on Earth with an average depth of one mile (1.6km) and an average width of ten miles (16km). The canyon was carved over the past 6 million years by the action of the Colorado River as it drops over 2,200 feet (670m) along the 277-mile (446 km) length of the gorge.

Seven Quick Facts
Average Depth: 1 mile (1.6km)
Length: 277 miles (446km)
Average Width: 10 miles (16km)
Discovered: The ancient Anasazi people moved into the area around 1200 BC. The first European visited the canyon in 1540 A.D..
Location: Arizona, USA
Formed By: The Colorado River as it cut through the Colorado Plateau.
Other: About 5 million people visit the Canyon each year.

The canyon isn't just a single gorge, however, but also includes numerous side canyons created by erosion. Because many layers of rock were exposed during this process, the walls of the canyon are countless shades of brown, yellow, red and gray. As the sun moves across the sky the light changes making the vista transform dramatically over the course of the day. The rock levels represent a cross-section of the geological history of the earth with the stone near the river being some of the oldest on the planet with an age of nearly two billion years.


The Colorado Plateau, through which the canyon is cut, was once the bottom of a shallow sea. Along the rim visitors can still find fossilized snails, corals and shell fish. Around 20 million years ago the land was pushed upwards and the sea retreated. Around six million years ago the Colorado River changed its course and started cutting its way across the Plateau. The uplift also added new tributaries to the river, increasing the river's flow and adding many of the side canyons. Water let loose from the glaciers of the ice ages also increased the amount of water that was moving down the river and giving it more power to erode the stone. Within two million years the river had sliced a path into the rock that was only 500 feet higher than the bottom of the canyon is today.

The Powell expedition runs a set of rapids in 1869.


The first European that saw the Grand Canyon was García López de Cárdenas from Spain, who visited the location in 1540 during a search for the fabled Seven "Gold" Cities of Cibola. However, Native Americans had already been familiar with the canyon for thousands of years. The ancient Anasazi people are the first thought to inhabit the area starting about 1200 B.C.. For the last 800 years or so the Havasupai people have lived in a part of the gorge known as Cataract Canyon.

In 1869 John Wesley Powell led the first known boat expedition down the Colorado River and through the canyon. Starting from Green River, Wyoming on May 24, Powell and nine men in four wooden boats with food for 10 months traveled down the Green River to where it joined the Colorado. The group then crossed through Glen Canyon and into the Grand Canyon where the boats had to navigate more than 200 rapids. The trip became so difficult that one man quit the expedition after the first month, and another three left the group at Separation Canyon two months later. The three attempted to climb out of the canyon but were never heard from again. Powell finished his journey on August 13, 1869. Two years later Powell would retrace the voyage, this time taking photographs and making detailed, accurate maps.

The Grand Canyon as seen from orbit (NASA)


By the beginning of the 20th century the canyon, made famous by the accounts of various scientists, explorers and the paintings of artist Thomas Moran, had become a tourist attraction. In 1903 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon. Roosevelt, seeing its unique value, established the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906. He then designated the preserve a U.S. National Monument in 1908. Roosevelt would have liked to have made the canyon into a National Park, but opponents with interests in land and mining rights blocked the effort for 11 years.

In 1919 the canyon was finally made a national park by an act of Congress. It currently receives about five million visitors per year. While many tourists limit themselves to looking at the canyon from the rim, others chose to hike trails down into the gorge. A trip to the bottom and back generally takes two days. For those not inclined to hike, mules are available to ride to the bottom. Located near the Colorado River in the deepest part of the gorge is the Phantom Ranch which provides visitors with lodging.

Modern visitors raft down the Grand Canyon using rubber rafts. The Canyon's rim is rarely visible from a boat on the river. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2011).

Another way to explore the Canyon is by rafting down it following the path first used by John Wesley Powell. Modern rafts, however, are made of flexible rubber instead of wood, making the trip safer, but still exciting.

Of the two main rims of the canyon, the southern rim, is more accessible and popular with visitors. There are a number of lodges located on the South rim at Grand Canyon Village operated under contract with the park service. The average altitude of the South rim is about 7,000 feet (2133m) above sea level which can be a concern for people who are not acclimated to that height. The North rim is less accessible than the South and has fewer facilities for visitors. It is also another 1000 feet higher in altitude than the South rim.

Because of its size and splendor, the canyon is a matchless natural wonder. For this reason it is often considered as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Kolb Studio on the south rim.(Copyright Lee Krystek, 2011)

Copyright 2011 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.