The Grand Canyon: A Geological Phenomenon

The Colorado River carves its way through a mile-deep chasm in northwestern Arizona. Its erosive action has exposed 40 different sedimentary layers, including rocks that are a mind-bending 1.8 billion years old. Gazing upon this natural marvel as the purple shadows of twilight descend and a fiery sun melts into a starry night is nothing short of spectacular.

Native American houses of the Hualapai tribe in the Grand Canyon

Early Occupation and Exploration

The Grand Canyon is steeped in colorful human history. Humans have inhabited the region for more than 12,000 years. Spear points found from prehistoric people who settled here during the last Ice Age are the remnants of tools used to hunt megafauna such as mammoths, ground sloths and ancient bison. Artifacts from Ancestral Puebloan, Basketmaker, Archaic, Paleo-Indian, Cohonina, Cerbat, Pai, Southern Paiute, Zuni, Hopi and Navajo groups have been found in and around the Grand Canyon. In addition, more than 6,000 archeological remnants have been recorded in Kaibab National Forest, which extends from both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon. These remnants include stone dwellings, food storage areas, garden sites, fire pits, tools, potsherds and rock art.

Hopi guides led Spanish explorers to the Grand Canyon in the 1540s. More than 300 years passed before botanist Joseph Christmas Ives and geologist John Newberry entered the Grand Canyon on a mapping expedition of the Colorado River in 1858. In 1869, naturalist John Wesley Powell led a group of men down the rapids of the Colorado River through the entirety of the Grand Canyon—from this journey, he was able to produce more detailed descriptions of the Colorado River’s route. The first pioneers settled around the rim of the Grand Canyon in the 1880s. They sought to mine copper but soon realized tourism was a more profitable endeavor.

Two people sitting near the edge watching sunset at Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, USA. Grand Canyon National Park is one of the world's natural wonders.

The Creation of a National Park

President Benjamin Harrison first granted federal protection to the Grand Canyon in 1893 as a forest reserve. Tourism increased in 1901 as the Santa Fe Railroad’s steam-powered train began running from Flagstaff, Arizona to Grand Canyon Village, a starting point to the scenic South Rim. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to the region and was struck by his encounter with this geological phenomenon, proclaiming,

“The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wild world…Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness.”

Considered by many to be the “Conservationist President,” Roosevelt established the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906 and made the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908, declaring,

“Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”

The Grand Canyon was officially designated a national park in 1919, three years after President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. This action further protected the more than 373 bird, 89 mammal, 47 reptile, 17 fish and 9 amphibian species living within the boundary.

Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon, Arizona

Tourism Today

Today, the Grand Canyon is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is among the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. It covers an area the size of Delaware and is America’s second-most visited national park after the Great Smoky Mountains, with close to 5 million visitors each year.

There are 11 current tribes with historic connections to the Grand Canyon. This includes the Havasupai people, who have claimed the South Rim as their ancestral home, having lived in the canyon for the past 800 years. Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters.” Much of the tribe’s income today comes from tourism, as each year, visitors hike and horseback ride to Havasu Falls, its cerulean waters striking against the red rocks. The tribe continues their traditional agricultural practices along riparian banks deep in the canyon, growing corn, beans, squash, fields of sunflowers and orchards of peaches. The oral histories of the Havasupai, along with tribes such as the Hualapai, Navajo and Hopi, are rich with creation stories of the great chasm and rushing river.

Travelers on our adventure to the Canyons of the American Southwest will venture into the heart of one of America’s most iconic national parks. Our lodge sits directly on the rim in the historic Grand Canyon Village area, and our expert naturalists will guide us to the best trails and viewpoints for a more secluded encounter. During our stay, we’ll be regaled by tales of those who have lived in harmony with the canyon and challenged its heights and depths as well. While in the region, we’ll stop at the historic Cameron Trading Post in the Navajo Nation to admire the craftsmanship of Native American weavers, potters, and silversmiths, with an opportunity to support the local community with our purchases. Experience the Grand Canyon’s storied history and stand in awe of one of Earth’s most extraordinary landscapes with Natural Habitat Adventures.