These exposed ancient rocks from the Proterzoic and Paleozoic eras
beautifully present the early geological and biological history of
the North American continent. This is one of the most complete
exposed geologic columns on the planet. While recent theories
present different timeframes for the creation of the Grand Canyon,
prevailing thought is that the Colorado River established its course
about 17 million years ago and created the vast canyon we see today.
The Grand Canyon exposes a slice of the earth's history ranging from the two billion year old Vishnu schists at the bottom of the Inner Gorge up to the 230 million year old Kaibab Limestone layer, which comprises the Canyon's rim. Many of these rock formations are the result of warm shallow seas, beach environments, and swampland that existed in this area in the ever-changing environment of proto-North America.
Before Europeans first arrived, the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon were inhabited by Native Americans who built structures and settlements around the rim as well as in the Grand Canyon itself. The first European known to have viewed the Grand Canyon was Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in 1540, under the orders of conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, who was searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. Led by Hopi guides, Lopez and his small band of Spanish soldiers first saw the Grand Canyon on the South Rim, between Desert View and Moran Point. After this visit, no Europeans are known to have travelled to the Grand Canyon for over two hundred years.
In the 1800s, there were intermittent visits to the Canyon by trappers, military officers, and religious missionaries, but due to the ruggedness of the area, it was all but impassable and considered a wasteland. On maps of the time, the area of the Grand Canyon was blank and labeled as "unexplored," and indeed as mysterious and inaccessible as Atlantis, until Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell and his part embarked on the last great exploration of the American West in 1869. Setting off in wooden rowboats from Green River Station, Wyoming, Powell and his companions explored the river and canyons through Wyoming, Utah, and the Grand Canyon in an epic adventure that claimed the lives of four of the original ten-man expedition. In 1875, Powell published his account of the adventure under the title of "The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons," which introduced the country and the world to the wonders of the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon National Park attracts an average of five million visitors a year. While most go simply to view it from the rim, there are many other options to have a truly memorable Grand Canyon experience. Hiking in the Canyon is one of the best ways to see it, but for the more adventurous there are river outfitters who offer raft river trips down the Colorado. There are also companies who provide airborne tours via helicopters and airplanes, although they are no longer permitted to fly down into the Canyon.
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