Prologue: Today's continuing tour of the big ditch of northern Arizona gets a bit heavy given the theoretical explanation of how this chasm came to be a chasm. (Part 1'st diary can be found here: http://www.dailykos.com/...) As always, I will find a way to make the information more discernible without having to dumb things down, that is, in what the Buddha called spoon feeding to the sangha (community). Besides, I'm writing these diaries to one of the most overall erudite audiences on the planet; and somewhat akin to the folks I have had the pleasure to work with over many years, most of whom came on tours I conducted to learn something behind the scenery. Hence, not the usual tourist types desiring less talk and more sightseeing. Then again, why not do both at the same time, n'est-ce pas?
The Classic ‘Fairytale’ Version: Most people visiting the Grand Canyon see the Colorado River winding its way from the northeast to the southwest and assume this great chasm was cut and carved by this very body of water. However, the association of this assiduous river and the canyon is a common myth. As previously mentioned, the more involved story tells us otherwise. The most held theory, however, is that the Colorado did indeed make the first breach into the upper crust of the Colorado Plateau, then gradually incised its way downward into the sedimentary terrain. In time, erosion and faulting fabricated the exposed rock formations viewed today. So, in a way the Colorado River did initially breach the plateau in this region. Then again, the rest of the story unfolded through gradual uplifting, downcutting and erosion over time. To envision the regional landscape before this erosion and fabrication began, think of a huge slab of sedimentary material. If it's an uneven and bumpy sample, so much the better. Now expand the dimensions to nearly 2,000 square miles. You soon get an idea of what this region once looked like––a rather bland depiction long before the chasm and nexus of smaller canyons were created. When the waters of, what would one day become, the Colorado River first trickled down from the Rockies, then gradually turned into a more potent stream, its invigorated gnawing eventually flowed out of today’s Colorado territory, then wandered into the desert terrain beyond. No one can pinpoint when the river first arrived in the Four Corners vicinity. Neither can it be stated with any certainty what this body of water was doing for millions of years. About the only thing geologists can figure is the approximate time when the Colorado finally migrated toward the Echo and Vermilion Cliffs region, relatively close to today’s Page (Arizona). From there, it meandered and incised its way across a virgin territory now named the Marble Platform. Remember that the river, like all rivers and streams throughout the territory, could not inscribe its path so deeply without the great uplift of the Colorado Plateau (URL's for this trinity of diaries posted in yesterday's diary). In short, without uplift of the terrain, there could be no downcutting by rivers or streams into the pavement foundation.
Note: All photos posted in this and the following diary are my own or contributed by former Grand Canyon Field Institute or Northern Arizona University students (unless otherwise specified.)With the fairly recent sculpting of the Grand Canyon, it's safe to say the Colorado River was knocking at the future Grand Canyon's front doors sometime close to the ten-million-year mark. There it went up against the towering Kaibab Upwarp (the eastern sector of today’s GCNP). This gigantic fold in the earth’s crust had raised the region to about 8,900 feet in elevation. We're still talking about the fairytale version, so let it be said (and pretend is a better way to say it) that the Colorado River finally managed to break through the flank of rock, then continue its heading south-southwest toward the western sector of the Kaibab Plateau (which, itself, eventually fragmented into several estates of smaller plateaus). In short, the river's bite into the Kaibab Plateau turf got deeper over time, which denotes a generalized benchmark. Its grooved channel easily cut through many geologic and environmental changes the deeper the river excavated. That hold on the sedimentary formations eventually netted the seven aforementioned distinct plateaus, and of course the Grand Canyon domain comprises all these downsized plateau estates. (Namely, and starting from the east, the Kaibito Plateau extending down to the Marble Platform just east of the Grand Canyon; then the future creation of the Kaibab, Kanab, Uinkaret and Shivwits plateaus on the North Rim, and the Coconino and Hualapai plateaus on the South Rim.) This carving of the original Kaibab Plateau also describes how the much larger Colorado Plateau fractured: one plateau after another, each at varying elevations. In time, erosion chiseled these larger parcels of land into varying smaller segments (plateaus become mesas, mesas become buttes, and so on to the smaller hoodoos, spirals and fins of rock). So, from that mundane-looking limestone sample came all the rest. It just takes creative imagination to envision the process that entails the then and now appearance of this region's landscape. Now you have an idea of the fairytale version of the Grand Canyon’s initial cutting and consequent fabrication process.
Today’s View And Summary: The Colorado River's flow starts in the northeast and meanders to the southwest, steadily dropping in elevation from its origins over two miles high in the Rockies. Even at the South Rim's average of 7,000 feet above sea level, the Colorado originally started its chiseling task at a higher elevation to the northeast of the Colorado Plateau. (Some 15,000 feet of materials marks the average thickness of the Colorado Plateau and the river had quite a depth to cut and carve once it reached this province.) Presently, the Colorado River working its way through the central corridor has chiseled down to 2,400 feet. This figure denotes the mean elevation in this quadrant. If this news isn't noteworthy at first glance, consider how the river initially started cutting into the Kaibab Plateau when regional materials ranged from 4,000 to 8,000 feet thicker (meaning higher) than today's elevation of 7,000 feet on the South Rim. However, this added accumulation was quickly stripped away, because the rock material was mostly the relatively softer mudstone and sandstone. Meanwhile, the Grand Canyon's walls below the hard-capped limestone rim will continually erode for another thirty to forty-million years, or so geologists claim. Eventually, this stupendous landmark is destined to become a wide spot in the rocky road of time. This principle architect that began the canyon's process (by all else followed in successive steps) originated from the northeast (the direction of the Rocky Mountains). Originally headed south-southwest across the Marble Platform, the river had downcut into varying formations. In time, its gnawing into the formations would yield to one of Nature’s most sublime spectacles, abetted by erosion, faulting and gravity. The combination accomplished what the river took to create this masterpiece. Thus the Grand Canyon's creation is utterly simplified by this proposed fairytale scenario. For the most part, the process so described is accurate.
Bonus Details: Of course, the truth of the matter is far more complicated. Suffice it to say how the crafting of the Colorado Plateau actually originated from a combination of events. Notably, a process called headward erosion (a body of water working its way from the southwest to the northeast) and stream capture (a/k/a/ "stream piracy"). This more complex scenario thus entailed two regional bodies of water, then something called drainage reversal that came later in the process. It's just the mechanics of this unfolding creation story that requires a fuller understanding. That elaborate story is found in the Supplement mentioned above.
Human History: The Grand Canyon was occupied anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 years. More recently (after the Common Era began), aboriginal people from the Middle Archaic Period occupied various sectors of the canyon, mostly on the North Rim. There's also evidence prehistoric people were in this region and living on either side of the canyon, on the rim, as long ago as 12,000 years ago. This large span of habitation says something about their reception to the setting. Sound evidence of earlier occupation comes from a fairly recent discovery of a Clovis point projectile found near Desert View. (These characteristically fluted points are associated with the North American Clovis culture, a Paleo-Indian period from around 13,000 to 13,500 years ago.)
Note: For more background on the Colorado Plateau's human history, previous diaries in this serious (mentioned in Part 1) will provide all the salient facts.What did the Spaniards think about the Grand Canyon province? Coronado, who was the first Spaniard to visit the Southwest, came here in 1540 mainly to search for gold. These conquistadors neither found what they were looking for, nor appreciated the Southwest desert and canyon landscape, much less the native people who were systematically converted to Catholicism. (These converts also served as a ready-made force in case precious ore was found). Disgusted with the New World and its mythical treasures, including the Grand Canyon setting that proved no value to their conquest, the conquistadors left. One might even say they did so in disgust. Afterward, there were no more of these Old World conquerors for about two centuries.
Wind the clock forward a few more hundred years and meet one of the legendary explorers, Major John Wesley Powell. He and his men embarked in wooden boats and explored the major canyons carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers, starting in Green River, Wyoming. The first expedition was in 1869, which was later reprised in 1871. On the first venture Major Powell was indeed in his element. He was impressed with the so-called Great Unknown, which back then was the common epithet for the Grand Canyon. However, toward the end of that nearly one-hundred-day odyssey his men did not share such enthusiasm. They were mostly a disgruntled lot. However, on the second and longer expedition (1871 to 1872) the crew was at least more receptive to the terrain they navigated through. Some of the men even seemed to appreciate the geology and sights along the way. Although three of Powell’s men mysteriously vanished toward the end of the first expedition (amounting to the greatest human history mystery of the Grand Canyon), there were no fatalities or major mishaps during the second run through the canyon corridors of the Green and Colorado rivers.
Note: There is a 10-part series on Major John Wesley Powell's expeditions previously posted in this diary series, starting with this URL:Over a hundred years later the gold and silver seekers came to the Grand Canyon. These were the plucky prospectors who arrived sometime during the late-19th Century, possibly starting in 1889. In their eyes, the chasm was a tempting terrain that, at first sight, harbored a promising mother load of precious ore and minerals. These men took on the canyon shovel-by-shovel, along with pick axes and their assiduous burros. However, they discovered only the other and less profitable minerals for their efforts. Namely, asbestos, copper and lead. To some degree, they somehow profited from the hard labor. That’s because for a time mining the lesser valuable minerals paid off. Still, the lithology (the science of rocks) wasn't conducive to what these men really wanted. In time, each gave up and got rid of the tools of their trade, including most of the burros. Some, however, decided to stay and create their individual tourist camps––the fabled Captain John Hance being the most popular. When the Santa Fe Railroad laid tracks to the South Rim in 1901, the tourists soon arrived in hoards. That’s also when the prospectors found the real gold––essentially mining tourist pockets. Obviously, most of the miner-turned-tourist camp operators loved the canyon and the new work as tour guides and hosts. President Teddy Roosevelt was another famous figure ecstatic about the canyon, who met and admired the famous John Hance (a known humorist and prevaricator). The President felt this way since arriving in the early days of the 20th Century. Eventually, his dream of protecting the canyon led to its designation as a national park, though not under his administration.
Not The First Tourist Locale: Established in 1901, this central corridor of the Grand Canyon became prominent when the Santa Fe Railroad spur reached the rim. However, Grand Canyon Village of today is really the third tourist mecca, not the first. The claim of being the first tourist operation goes to the Peach Springs region, which is also the site of the last transcontinental railroad crossing (the 35th parallel) on the Hualapai Indian Reservation (between Seligman and Kingman, Arizona). In 1883, a makeshift tourist facility was established near the bottom of the Grand Canyon (on the Diamond Creek Road) by Julius and Cecelia Farley. The site was about 1 mile from the sandy banks of the Colorado.
The Farley enterprise lasted into the 1890s when the second tourist operation and makeshift facilities, at the Grandview Trail, were established by resident miners-turned-tour operators. Eventually, civilization hallmarked by modern hotels and restaurants and other conveniences replaced the more primitive destinations.
Today’s Grand Canyon Village is indeed the last of the tourist facilities on this side of the river. It’s more like a small town network spread out over a few miles, where some 25,000 full-time and part-time people work, including a large staff of park rangers and associated scientists with the Department of the Interior. Thousands of these people also live in housing inside the park’s boundaries. These workers and park staff are here for the millions of annual visitors drawn to this chasm and its rainbow-like colored features.
Prominent South Rim Landmarks: The Bucky O'Neill Cabin, built during the 1890s by William Owen “Bucky” O'Neill, who was also a famous sheriff in Prescott, is the longest continually standing structure on the South Rim. Currently, the cabin in used as a guest house for tourists (rented through the park’s concessionaire, Xanterra). The nearby Kolb Studio on the side of the rim was built in 1904 by the famous photographers and brothers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb. Its relic structure was later expanded in two phases. There's an ongoing and changing art display in the auditorium below the bookstore managed by the Grand Canyon Association. The neighboring Lookout Studio was built in 1914, whose unique design was created by the legendary Mary Jane Colter (originally hired as an architect by the Fred Harvey Company, the park’s first concessionaire, and now under the name of Xanterra). Other than the bookstore located on the premises, Lookout Studio is noteworthy for an exceptional view of the Bright Angel Trail, especially when seen below the studio where a walkway and vista was built as an observation lookout. Thus the namesake of the Colter’s design. Nearby Bright Angel Lodge was constructed out of logs and stone in 1935. Colter also designed the building (for Fred Harvey). This enterprising company she worked for around the turn of the century was far-seeing in many ways, particularly hiring a women for the design and layout of it structures. Located in the so-called history room is a unique fireplace entirely made of stone from the South Rim. These telltale and different rocks are also layered in the same sequence as the canyon's formations (the oldest rocks at the bottom).
The oldest hotel along the South Rim is the El Tovar. Built in 1905. It was once considered the finest hotel west of the Mississippi River and remains today a masterpiece of design. The Hopi House across from the El Tovar, also built and designed by Mary Colter in that same year, is based on structures similar to the Hopi settlement, Old Oraibi (on Third Mesa). As a special note of interest Old Oraibi is also the oldest continuously inhabited village in the United States (constructed before 1100). Hopi House is one of the best shopping places for Indian curios and all manners of Indian craft and artwork. Below the promenade where the main hotels and shops stand, is the Grand Canyon Railway Depot. Built in 1909 its sturdy structure is one of only three log-cabin-style train stations currently standing in America.
Strolling east of the village a couple miles is Yavapai Point. Formerly known as Yavapai Observation Station, this is possibly one of the most tourist-visited facilities on the South Rim, which also houses the Grand Canyon Association's geologic museum (a must-see attraction). From there, it’s an easy walk to the usually ultra busy Mather Point vista, which also accommodates the most visitors coming to the South Rim. Yavapai Point, however, provides, what many visitors claim, the best panorama on this part of the South Rim. It’s also the most northerly view, offering glimpses of the Inner Canyon Gorge and the Colorado River some ten miles below (by trail). Bright Angel Campground, just south of the Phantom Ranch tourist haven on the north side of the river, is also visible. (However, the popular ranch setting cannot be seen from any vantage along the South Rim.) At the far end of the park’s eastern entrance is the Desert View sector (27 miles). Here stands the most famous structure of its kind along the South Rim: the Desert View Watchtower. Built in 1932, this handsome structure is perhaps Mary Jane Colter's best-known design.
From this 7,400-foot-high promontory, this landmark provides excellent views of the eastern sector of the canyon, as well as overlooks the Palisades of the Desert (a/k/a/ the Painted Desert country). The younger Mesozoic Era landscape is far below the elevated plateau at this highest point of the South Rim. The opposing elevation of the North Rim is even higher: 8,900 feet. Looking to the east from Desert View is a view of the Little Colorado Gorge, a spectacular crack in the upper pavement headed south-southeast. This, the second most popular tourist haven on the South Rim, is a mini Grand Canyon Village. The high tower is easily the most visited structure in this sector. It was designed to mimic an Anasazi watchtower, but of course Colter’s design is much larger. Headed back the other way, and west of Grand Canyon Village, there is another famous Colter site: Hermit's Rest. Located at the end of the Hermit Road (about 7 miles), this rustic rock structure was built in 1914 and now houses a book store. There’s also an attached snack bar and gift shop. Hermit’s Rest was built for this reason: a rest area for tourists on coaches operated by the Fred Harvey Company on the way to Hermit Camp below the rim. The various stops along the way, from Grand Canyon Village to Hermit’s rest, provide excellent vistas overlooking the canyon. Hopi Point is arguably considered the best in the series, especially for its view of the Colorado River far below the rim.
Prominent North Rim Landmarks: Unlike the South Rim, which has many prominent buildings, the North Rim can boast just one, which is also one of the best lodges in the entire National Park System repertoire―Grand Canyon Lodge. However, people venturing to the north side of the canyon mostly come for the awesome views. Tourist facilities are also far less compared to the South Rim country. The prominent view on this side of the canyon is Point Imperial, which is also the highest point on the North Rim (8,803 feet), overlooking Mt. Hayden. Like Cape Royal, another vista on the North Rim, Point Imperial is situated toward the eastern sector of the canyon. Point Sublime, however, which is the western most viewpoint, requires four-wheel drive to get there, as is Toroweap Overlook, even more remote and requiring about a three hour ride on a rough washboard road. Still, the sheer 3,000 foot drop from the point to the Colorado River is, perhaps, the most favored of all vistas for many tourists. Closer to the lodge is Bright Angel Point, the most visited vista on the North Rim.
More Bonus Details: The Grand Canyon is considered the most sublime canyon in the world. It's also one of the deepest. Visually, it’s the most spectacular. However, the deepest canyon may be the Yarlung Zangbo or “Tsangpo”),which is along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet. It’s also slightly longer than the Grand Canyon. There are other rivals that may get the nod for lowest elevation or highest ridges, namely in the Himalaya Mountains. Then again, due to the inaccessibility of some major canyons tucked away in the Himalayas, these deep gnashes in the earth’s crust are generally not regarded as candidates. For example, the Kali Gandaki Gorge or Andha Galchi, where the Gandaki River rushes through towering granitic walls. This impressive gorge area separates the major peaks of Dhaulagiri (26,795 feet to the west and Annapurna (mountain) (26,545 feet) to the east. The difference between river elevation and the peak elevation is also greater here than anywhere else in the world. The surging river of mostly whitewater fangs flows at elevations lower than the peaks between 4,300 to 8,500 feet and 18,000 to 22,300 feet. Do the math! Apart from the depth factor, the Grand Canyon is also not the widest canyon. That record goes to Capertee Valley in New South Wales, Australia, about 0.6 miles wider and longer than the Grand Canyon. About 2.5 hours drive from Sydney, Capertee Valley is certainly no rival to the Grand Canyon regarding spectacular scenery and geology. There's also another rival, Mexico’s Copper Canyon, actually six distinct canyons in the Sierra Tarahumara in the southwestern part of the State of Chihuahua. It is claimed that part of Copper Canyon has a nexus which is 1,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Although some of these record-breaking locales probably do rival the deepest and biggest canyons in the world, what sets the Grand Canyon apart is the way it has been fashioned, like a series of mini canyons with drainages, all within the greater context of a mother canyon. Certainly, with its near naked walls and the multihued bands––the formations––creating a stunning visual backdrop, the Grand Canyon is the best layered formation of geology on the planet. Bar none!
Directions: From Flagstaff take I-40 west to Williams, then Hwy. 64 north to the park entrance (63 miles); or take Hwy. 180 from Flagstaff (the so-called “mountain road’) to Valle, then Hwy. 64 to the park entrance; or Hwy. 89 to Cameron, then left at Hwy. 64 heading east to Desert View's park entrance. All these routes are between 80 and 90 miles. The eastern drive from Flagstaff to Desert View adds about twenty miles of distance, but it has great Painted Desert scenery around Cameron. Desert View to Grand Canyon Village is about 25 miles. However, if returning to Flagstaff, the best recommendation is to take either the western route to the South Rim, but return via 64 east (toward Desert View), then Hwy. 89 at Cameron toward Flagstaff, making a scenic loop tour.
To the North Rim from the South Rim, take Hwy. 64 to Desert View, then to Cameron (Hwy. 89) and turn left toward Page/ Lake Powell. At the cutoff where Hwy. 89 and 89A form, turn left on 89A and drive north to Marble Canyon. Skirt along the Vermilion Cliffs and head toward Jacob Lake (up the Kaibab Upwarp switchbacks), then turn left (south) at SR 67 to the visitor center. The North Rim drive is about 215 miles from the eastern park entrance at Desert View.
Contact Information: Grand Canyon National Park, P. O. Box 129, Grand Canyon AZ 86023. Phone (visitor information) 928-7888. Fax 638-7797. Email embedded in NPS site’s URL (click on “Email Us”)
And so, DKos community, we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour. There will be other scenic places to tour and more supplemental topics to read and think about, so stay tuned for a continuation in this series.
As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.
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