Above/featured: West-northwest from Mohave Point – 15 October 2018 (HL).
The Grand Canyon National Park has very different timescales: over 100 years of human inscription as a national park, but over 1 billion years of geologic history.
European colonizers and settlers recognized protection was required for the big dramatic landscape. On 26 February 1919, U.S. Congress passed legislation “An Act to Establish the Grand Canyon National Park in the State of Arizona” which was signed by President Woodrow Wilson. With official designation, the national park encompassed over 1-million acres (almost 405-thousand hectares) and several thousand years of history of habitation in the area by indigenous peoples, including the Havasupai, Hualapai, Hopi, Navajo, Paiute, and the Zuni, who consider the Grand Canyon as their ancestral birthplace. UNESCO inscribed the Grand Canyon National Park as World Heritage Site in 1979.
The geology at the Grand Canyon, however, is far older than 100 years. By geologic standards, the Grand Canyon itself is relatively “young” with the Colorado River carving into the rock about 5 to 6 million years ago. However, the Vishnu basement rock in the Grand Canyon is over 1.7 billion years old; “only” 38 percent as old as Earth’s oldest rocks at 4.5 billion years old.
We spent three days in October 2018 exploring parts of the Grand Canyon National Park. After our drive from Flagstaff to Vermilion Cliffs, we pushed forward to the North Rim and the winding scenic drive took us to Point Imperial and Cape Royal in time for the day’s final illumination. With a night spent at the beautifully serene Cliff Dwellers Lodge, we retraced our drive back to Cameron, then turning west to Desert View and parts of the eastern end of the South Rim. With our new ‘base’ established in Flagstaff, we drove the following day to the main entrance of the Grand Canyon National Park (via Valle and Tusayan), and we spent the day in the western and central parts of the South Rim. The 1126 km (700 mi)# we covered over the three days was 22 percent of the entire 5049 km (3138 mi) we accumulated through parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
- North Rim: Point Imperial, Cape Royal
- South Rim: Desert View
- South Rim: Navajo Point, Lipan Point
- South Rim: Hermit’s Rest, Mohave Point
- South Rim: Village along Rim Trail
Four of Mary Colter’s buildings on the South Rim (Desert View Watchtower, Hermit’s Rest, Hopi House, and Lookout Studio) have been inscribed as U.S. National Historic Landmark properties in the National Register of Historic Places since 1987 (reference no. 87001436).
North Rim: Point Imperial, Cape Royal
Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon National Park every year, but only ten percent of all visitors journey to the North Rim, which is why we had to come here first, before various facilities closed for the season.
Continuing our day’s drive from Flagstaff beyond Vermilion Cliffs, we head west along the Fredonia-Vermillion Cliffs Scenic Road (US-89A), followed by a distinct change of greenery scenery on the Kaibab Plateau-North Rim National Scenic Byway (AZ 67), south towards the North Rim.
At an elevation of 2683 metres (8803 feet), Point Imperial is the highest overlook not only at the North Rim, but also for the entire national park. The following two images were our first-ever sight of the Grand Canyon.
We rushed south to Cape Royal (2397 m / 7865 ft) in time for sunset. After parking the car, I’d forgotten about and underestimated the remaining hike from the parking lot to Cape Royal proper. The already overcast conditions seemed to get worse, but we arrived in time to see the final orange light of the day strike the rippled steepled face of Vishnu Temple. When the sun finally dipped below the horizon, the brewing thunderstorm to the west, dark ominous clouds collecting overhead, and past experiences as visiting astronomer to mountain-observatories in winter storms* meant a hasty retreat to the car and return to Marble Canyon.
South Rim: Desert View
The following day we awoke to clear brilliant blue skies in the Vermilion Cliffs and Marble Canyon area. We headed south to Cameron, then west to the Desert View. Desert View was our first-ever sight of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim.
Desert View Watchtower was designed and built by Mary Colter for the Fred Harvey Company in 1932 as a viewpoint and rest area for visitors. She wanted the tower as acknowledgement to other similar towers in the American Southwest. The foundation connected the building with the cliffs, the colour and texture of the exterior rocks matched the terrain.
South Rim: Navajo Point, Lipan Point
Visible from Lipan Point is the Unkar Delta where archaeologists have uncovered remnants of past Puebloan habitation from over one thousand years ago; many local indigenous people consider the Grand Canyon their ancestral home. Also visible are rocks of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, tilted by over 10 degrees because of tectonic forces fracturing the rock and pushing them up and over basement rock. Supergroup rocks were laid down at a time when the basin for the Pacific Ocean opened at ages between 0.75 and 1.2 billion years. The tops of the tilted Supergroup rocks are cut off by the Great Unconformity.
It’s at Lipan Point where we observed how earth and sky come to a still when the day draws to a close and bathes the landscape first in bright yellows, changing over to warm oranges, and finally to deep purples.
South Rim: Hermit’s Rest, Mohave Point
Beautiful clear and comfortable conditions greeted us on our third and final day, as we drove northwest from Flagstaff on highway US-180 and AZ-64 to the Grand Canyon Village area (via Valle and Tusayan). We spent an unrushed afternoon with the shuttle bus exploring the section of the South Rim between Hermit’s Rest and the Village. By late-afternoon, we wanted to have a look at the famous buildings designed and built by Mary Colter.
At Hermit’s Rest, a plaque reads: “Hermit’s Rest, constructed in 1914. Named for Louis Boucher, a prospector and miner, Hermit’s Rest is built into the side of this hill where Hermit’s Rim Road ends and Hermit’s Trail begins. Using native stone and wood, Mary Jane Colter designed the building to provide modern comforts garbed in primitive quaintness for the convenience of the traveler. The Santa Fe Railroad built the Hermit’s Rim Road as an alternative to the Bright Angel Trail, which was a toll road at that time.”
South Rim: Village along Rim Trail
Within the Grand Canyon Village is a historic district which includes famous park buildings many which are listed as U.S. National Historic Landmarks or within the National Register of Historic Places. Many were designed to provide comfort and convenience to the increasing number of visitors in the 20th-century. The buildings themselves are noted for the construction, design, and integration with the surrounding landscape. Leaving her mark throughout the Grand Canyon (see Desert View and Hermit’s Rest above), American architect Mary Colter also left her mark in the Village with Bright Angel Lodge, Hopi House, and Lookout Studio.
We ended the day at the South Rim and our time at the Grand Canyon with last light striking the “temples” to the north. After dark, we were at Yavapai Point to visit before closing the Geology Museum to learn about the geology and chronology of the Grand Canyon.
# Estimated one-way distances for a total of 563 km consisting of the following legs:
- Flagstaff to Cameron US-89/AZ-64 junction: 75.5 km.
- Cameron US-89/AZ-64 junction to Cliff Dwellers: 131 km.
- Cliff Dwellers to North Rim ‘The Y’: 126 km.
- ‘The Y’ to Point Imperial, to Cape Royal: 27.5 km.
- Cameron US-89/AZ-64 junction to South Rim (Desert View): 71 km.
- Flagstaff to South Rim Village, via Tusayan: 132 km.
* I’ve spent a disproportionate and delightful amount of time at Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón in north-central Chile.
I made all photos above with a Canon 6D mark1 on 13, 14, and 15 October 2018. Line-of-sight measures in distance and azimuth were obtained with Google Earth. Thanks to AB for making this memorable trip possible. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-c9U.