Each piece begins with a bird’s-eye view of the history and impact of a unique American site, then zooms in to reveal the experience on the ground.
35,000 feet: the global view
Looking at the Grand Canyon in Arizona from a lookout, one begins to understand the time scale present in the multicolored bands of rock that line the canyon walls. The first layers formed about two billion years ago.
Over several millennia, from what geologists now call the “subsoil,” layers of sand, rock and soil spread upward to create a vast plateau that obscured the colored streaks below. .
Then, six million years ago, the erosion of a series of rivers, including what is now known as the Colorado River, began its downward thrust, slowly eating away at the beds of sedimentary rock, dividing the plateau in two and digging a mile deep chasm which, to this day, continues to evolve.
Today, erosion still shapes the canyon, favored in recent years by climate change. It not only increased and intensified the forest fire season on the edge, but also caused considerably high and low water levels in the rivers and streams at the bottom of the canyon. The Colorado River, which runs 277 miles through Grand Canyon National Park, can be unpredictable. Flash floods can force the rapid evacuation of not only hikers and boaters, but also native residents who have lived in the canyon since prehistoric times.
5000 feet: Humans in the frame
A single spear point carved into the rock and unearthed by archaeologists is evidence that ancient people hunted in the canyon around 12,000 years ago. The deer they were able to feast on are represented on pictograms painted in red ocher. Still visible on the canyon walls, the pictograms are up to 4000 years old.
The early inhabitants of the canyon depended on the river for drinking water, so they built houses and hearths along its banks. Granaries have been dug into the rock walls of the canyon. Shards of pottery continue to be discovered; the first pots were fired around 1500 BCE. Pottery, wooden figurines, hunting weapons and other relics are interpreted in various museums in the park.
Eleven indigenous tribes are traditionally associated with the Grand Canyon. “It is [still] their home, ”said park spokesperson Joelle Baird. “It’s not a place they used to live.
Tribal people first saw white Americans in the mid-19th century. Members of an army-led expedition from 1856-1857 viewed the Grand Canyon as a “worthless” hole in the ground.
“It looks like the gates of hell,” wrote Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives, who led the expedition. “Ours was the first, and will undoubtedly be the last, group of white people to visit the locality. “
President Theodore Roosevelt turned this notion upside down. In 1908, after several visits to the region, he declared the Grand Canyon a national monument. In 1919 it became a national park. During its centenary in 2019, the park welcomed nearly 6 million visitors, a record.
In the field: The lived experience
Looking into the vast canyon, it becomes clear why Ives found it intimidating and why Roosevelt was in awe. At a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide, the canyon is a formidable barrier amid the region’s otherwise flat landscape. Only about five percent of park visitors descend below the rim of the inner canyon, whether for a short hike or an expansive adventure. On foot or astride mules with stable hooves, intrepid guests can make the 21-mile journey from the South Rim to the North Rim; otherwise it’s a 137 mile drive.
Ninety percent of tourists only see the South Rim, which is easily accessible from Interstate 40, about an hour away. Some visit for as little as an hour or two. Others experience greatness for longer, spending the night in hotels or campgrounds in the park and in nearby towns.
Visitors inevitably pass through Grand Canyon Village, a true community with its own grocery store and school system. Its 2,500 inhabitants include park workers and their families as well as members of the Havasupai tribe who have opted for the comforts of the South Rim over Supai, the tribe’s traditional home in often difficult conditions deep in the canyon. About 200 natives continue to reside in Supai, which is home to the tribe’s headquarters and a modest lodge for tourists. Nearby are the spectacular Havasu Falls, where the water drops approximately 100 feet into a turquoise-colored pool.
The varied vistas of the north shore – farther out and about 1,000 feet higher than the south shore – are visited by about 500,000 people a year, or only a tenth of total park attendance. At an elevation of 8,000 feet, it has a subalpine climate that supports balsam fir, douglas fir, and aspen. The weather here changes dramatically. Summer can mean big swings in temperature, early morning fog and, on occasion, dangerous lightning. During long winters, heavy snow forces roads and park facilities to close between October 15 and May 15.
The National Park Service and the 11 local tribes strive to better interpret ancient and modern cultures. An intertribal cultural heritage center has been under development since 2013, with construction of a facility near the eastern entrance to the South Rim scheduled to begin in 2022.
“We don’t want to contain it in a building. It is truly a landscape, a people and a voice, ”says Jan Balsom, the park’s head of communications, partnerships and external affairs.
Balsom, who began working at the Grand Canyon in 1984 as an archaeologist, encourages people to use more than just their eyes when visiting one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
“Natural sound is one of the protected resources here at the Grand Canyon,” she explains. “Natural calm is not silence; these are the natural sounds of the place.
“The Southern Paiutes refer to it as a ‘songscape’,” Balsom continues. “This is where their elders came to learn the songs of their cultures while listening to the sound of the wind through the trees. [and] listen to the birds. In some places in the canyon you can hear the river.
Buses that transport customers to the many scenic spots on the South Rim are no longer allowed to idle at their stops. Parking has also been moved further away from the lookouts.
“Most people don’t think about it because they’re so caught up in city life that they don’t know what natural calm is,” Balsom adds.
Beyond noise pollution, trampling of plants and illegal feeding of wildlife are other examples of the impact of millions of annual visitors to the earth.
“There’s this balance that we all walk in terms of stewardship, preservation, education and visitor access,” Balsom says. “It’s always an interesting dilemma for us.