Home to Native Americans for centuries, the first European to see the vast brightly colored spectacle of the Grand Canyon was Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, who traveled through northern Arizona in 1540 with the Spanish explorer Coronado. Subsequent explorers also marveled at the amazing view from the rim, but few dared to attempt the treacherous descent into the 5,000-foot-deep canyon and explore the miles of maze-like twists and turns.
Even as late as the 1860s, the Grand Canyon remained terra incognita to most non-natives. In 1869, though, the geologist John Wesley Powell made his first daring journey through the canyon via the Colorado River. Powell and nine men floated down Wyoming’s Green River in small wooden boats to its confluence with the Colorado River (now in Canyonlands National Park), and then into the “Great Unknown” of the Grand Canyon. Astonishingly, Powell and his men managed to guide their fragile wooden boats through a punishing series of rapids, whirlpools, and rocks. They emerged humbled but alive at the end of the canyon in late August. No one died on the river, though Indians killed three men who had abandoned the expedition and attempted to walk back to civilization, convinced their chances were better in the desert than on the treacherous Colorado.
By the late 19th century, the growing American fascination with nature and wilderness made the canyon an increasingly popular tourist destination. Entrepreneurs threw up several shoddily constructed hotels on the south rim in order to profit from the stunning view. The arrival of a spur line of the Santa Fe railroad in 1901 provided a far quicker and more comfortable means of reaching the canyon than the previous stagecoach route. By 1915, more than 100,000 visitors were arriving every year.
Convinced it should be forever preserved for the benefit of the people, the conservation-minded President Theodore Roosevelt designated a large part of the canyon a national monument in 1908. Congress increased the protection of the canyon in 1932 by making it a national park, ensuring that private development would never despoil the Grand Canyon. Visitors today see a vista little changed from the one Lopez de Cardenas saw nearly 500 years ago.