The Grand Canyon has been about 17 million years in the making, and during that time the waters of the Colorado River have eroded a mild-deep chasm that is 18 miles wide and 277 miles long. The first people to see this wonder were the Ancestral Puebloans, a group of Native Americans that migrated into northern Arizona during the 13th century BC. The present-day Navajo people of the region refer to the Puebloans as the Anasazi or “Ancient Ones”. There were additional migrations into the region between the 6th and 16th centuries AD, and the first Europeans encountered four Native American cultures, the Paiute, the Halupai, the Havasupai and the Navajo nations.
The first Europeans to encounter the aboriginal inhabitants were from the forces of Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. They reached the Grand Canyon around 1450, looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. Some of the rocks in the canyon were “bigger than the great tower of Seville”, but there were neither cities nor gold, so they returned to Mexico. The next European visitors were Spanish missionary priests in 1776, who also stayed for a short time and attempted without success to convert the natives to Christianity. American mountain men and fur trappers reached the area in 1826, and Mormon explorers came to scout for routes across the mountains in 1850. American explorers and geologists visited the area several times over the next decade, and Major John Wesley Powell of the U.S.
Geological Survey led expeditions in 1869 and 1871 that mapped the Colorado River and gave the great chasm the name it has today, “grand canyon”. Periodic attempts were made in the 1880s and 1890s to raise cattle and sheep, mine the area and log the forests, but it was just too expensive and difficult to farm or extract resources. Tourism gradually became the main industry, and visitors could take a bone-rattling two- day buggy or stage coach journey to the canyon. A railroad spur was built from Williams in 1901 so tourists could take a train direct to the canyon. Increasing competition between hotel operators, railroads and tour companies led to lawsuits, violence and increasingly disorderly development on the canyon rim, and because of growing concern about this, parts of the area were declared a Forest Reserve in 1893.
President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a famous explorer and frontiersman, visited the reserve in 1903 and made it a Game Preserve in 1906. Roosevelt was able to declare the area a National Monument in 1908, but it took until 1919 to get Congress to pass an act making the canyon the 17th U.S. National Park. Some 44,000 people visited the Grand Canyon that first year, but the number of visitors soon began to climb toward the present total of about 5 million visitors annually.
In addition to the steadily rising tide of visitors, the canyon has been affected during the 20th Century by the increasing need to harness and use the water of the Colorado River because of the doubling of the populations of Arizona and Southern California. The Glen Canyon Dam, built between 1956 and 1966, permanently changed the canyon, and there has been continued controversy between the park and adjoining tribal reservations about water allocation and use. A series of forest fires, some of them unprecedentedly large, have also affected the park’s ecosystem in recent years. In order to restore as much of the canyon’s ecosystem as possible and to speed the recovery from forest fires, a large area of the canyon was flooded in 2008.
Getting to the Grand Canyon
Most Grand Canyon visitors come by air, and fly into Las Vegas, Phoenix or Flagstaff. There is limited service from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon Airport, 10 miles south of the canyon, and private planes can land there. Three airlines and three helicopter companies offer flights over the canyon from Grand Canyon Airport, and airplane and helicopter tours are also available from the Las Vegas, Phoenix and Flagstaff airports.
Train travel is still possible to the park on the national rail passenger system, Amtrak: the train stops at Flagstaff, Arizona and bus service is available to the Grand Canyon. The private Grand Canyon Railway now operates the Santa Fe branch line from Williams that opened in 1901, and uses the original concrete depot in Williams and free-standing log station at the canyon. Diesel locomotives are generally used to pull vintage dining and observation cars, but on occasion one of the historical steam locomotives is used. Train and hotel packages, at the Railway Hotel in Williams and the Maswick Lodge at the canyon, recreate the railroad excursion experience and also have accommodation’s for pets.
Most visitors come by car, and 90 per cent visit the South Rim, which has a full range of services and is open all year. This is 90 minutes from Flagstaff, Williams and Interstate 64, and a 4-hour drive from Phoenix. There is also bus service from Phoenix to Flagstaff, and shuttle service from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Village. A shuttle operates once daily between the South and North Rims, and takes about 4 hours. Only about 10 per cent of visitors go to the more remote North Rim, which is open from May to October.
There is parking at the South Rim but it may be difficult to find in the summer; many visitors park in the gateway community of Tusayan. Four free shuttle routes operate between the parking areas and the canyon’s Visitor Center, and are themselves good ways for visitors with limited time to see the canyon.
Getting Into the Grand Canyon
The South Rim is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A vehicle permit is $30, entry costs $25 on a motorcycle and an individual pass for visitors over 15 who enter by Grand Canyon Railway, raft, bicycle, shuttle bus or on foot is $15; a pass is good for 7 days. Permits can be bought at the entrance stations or in Flagstaff, Williams and the adjacent communities of Valle and Tusayan. A Grand Canyon Annual Pass is $60, and the “America the Beautiful” Pass to all National Parks costs $80 a year. These are $10 for those over 62 and free to military personnel and their families.
Citizens or permanent residents who are disabled or volunteer 250 hours a year at parks and natural resources also get in free. Entrance is free to everyone on Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Weekend, the opening weekend of National Park Week in April, the birthday of the National Park Service (August 25), National Public Lands Day (September 26) and Veterans Day (November 11). Additional permits are needed for backcountry hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, overnight camping or Colorado River rafting.
What to Do in the Grand Canyon
Visitors with only a few hours to spend can see the canyon easily and quickly by riding the Hermit Road on the Kaibab shuttle bus. Driving along the Hermit Road, which follows the rim of the canyon for 7 miles west from the South Rim, is another easy way to see the canyon but is only open to private vehicles in the winter, and walking, bicycling or taking the shuttle bus or a commercial bus tour are necessary the rest of the year.
Desert View Drive travels for 25 miles to the east, is open to private vehicles and has gas stations, places selling food and other services. The Visitor Center has extensive historical exhibits, including the preserved Historic District where the early settlers started businesses and the Santa Fe Railroad built facilities to serve original visitors to the canyon. The Yavapai Museum of Geology is devoted to the story of how the river carved the canyon and the Greenway Trail provides a safe route for bicyclists and walkers.
The Desert View settlement 25 miles away looks out spectacularly on the canyon’s Painted Desert and over the northward turn of the river at the top of the canyon, and visibility on a clear day there can be over 100 miles. The Desert View Watchtower was built in 1932 and renovated in 2010, and evokes the towers built by the Anasazi. About 3.5 miles to the west is the 800-year old Tusayan ruin, and next to it the Tusayan Museum devoted to ancient pueblo life.
The first way to see the canyon more than a century ago was on the back of a mule descending slowly from the rim and laboriously making its way back up. These rides are still in operation from the South Rim, and take about 3 hours. There are also overnight rides, with a stay in the Phantom Ranch on the floor of the canyon. The Rim Trail from Grand Canyon Village provides an invigorating level walk with much fine sightseeing, and more challenging day hiking and overnight backpacking is available on trails that definitely are not. Bicycles can be brought in or rented for rides or guided trips.
There are visitor centers at both rims with interactive exhibits, and famously friendly park rangers offer programs throughout the day. Whitewater rafting trips of 3 to 21 days are available, and the park lodges offer smooth water raft trips from Glen Canyon Dam to the pioneer settlement of Lees Ferry.
Eating, Drinking and Lodging at the Grand Canyon
The first hotels on the canyon rim were fairly rudimentary, but the El Tovar Hotel, built by the railroad and the Fred Harvey Company in 1905, has been for over a hundred year’s one of the historic luxury hotels of America and is now a National Historical Landmark itself. Celebrities from Albert Einstein to Sir Paul McCartney, and presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, have stayed there. There are six hotels and motor lodges on the South Rim, and the Phantom Ranch is on the floor of the canyon and accessible only by mule, hike or raft. There are two campgrounds and an RV facility on the South Rim as well as opportunities for backcountry camping.
There are 15 restaurants in nearby Tusayan, and each hotel and lodge has one or more restaurants and offers an outdoor cookout with entertainment. There are also stores and snack facilities in the Market District at Grand Canyon Village, on the Desert View and Hermit Ridge roads on the South Rim.
The south rim of the canyon is a good place to begin your acquaintance with this great natural spectacle. Although it is farther from Las Vegas and a long drive from Phoenix, you can get there any time during the year that you happen to be in the vicinity, and there are always accommodation’s and services open. There is also a wider range of eating and lodging available there than on the other sides of the canyon’s edge.
The man who more than any other created today’s canyon, President Teddy Roosevelt said in 1908 that “every American should see the Grand Canyon”, and visitors from around the world have since that time taken him at his word in ever-increasing number. It is now possible to get there easily, stay quite comfortably and explore this great natural wonder in detail or at your leisure.