The Grand Canyon is a mile-deep gorge in northern Arizona. Scientists estimate the canyon may have formed 5 to 6 million years ago when the Colorado River began to cut a channel through layers of rock. Humans have inhabited the area in and around the canyon since the last Ice Age. The first Europeans to reach the Grand Canyon were Spanish explorers in the 1540s. President Benjamin Harrison first protected the Grand Canyon in 1893 as a forest reserve, and it became an official United States National Park in 1919.

Where Is the Grand Canyon?

The Grand Canyon is located in northern Arizona, northwest of the city of Flagstaff. The canyon measures over 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep, making it one of the biggest canyons in the world.

This natural landmark formed about five to six million years as erosion from the Colorado River cut a deep channel through layers of rock.

The Grand Canyon contains some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth. The mile-high walls reveal a cross section of Earth’s crust going back nearly two billion years. These rock layers have given geologists the opportunity to study evolution through time.

The oldest known rocks in the canyon, called the Vishnu Basement Rocks, can be found near the bottom of the Inner Gorge. The Vishnu rocks formed about 1.7 billion years ago when magma hardened and joined this region—once a volcanic ocean chain—to the North American continent.

Today, tourists to Grand Canyon National Park can trace the canyon’s geologic history on the Trail of Time, an interpretive exhibit on the park’s South Rim.

Native Cultures At Grand Canyon

Archaeologists have discovered ruins and artifacts from inhabitants dating back nearly 12,000 years. Prehistoric humans first settled in and around the canyon during the last Ice Age, when mammoths, giant sloths and other large mammals still roamed North America. Large stone spear points provide evidence of early human occupation.

Hundreds of small split-twig figurines made between 1000 and 2000 B.C. have been discovered in caves in the canyon wall. The figurines are shaped like deer and bighorn sheep. Anthropologists think that prehistoric hunters may have left the figurines in caves as part of a ritual to ensure a successful hunt.

Ancestral Pueblo people—followed by Paiute, Navajo, Zuni and Hopi tribes—once inhabited the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai people now claim the Grand Canyon as their ancestral home. According to tribal history, the Havasupai have lived in and around the canyon for more than 800 years.

Almost all of the Havasupai ancestral land was taken for use as public land with the creation of the Grand Canyon first as a reserve and later a national park. In 1975, the Havasupai regained a large portion of their land from the federal government after influential newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle took up their cause.

The Havasupai today make most of their money from tourism. The cerulean pools and red rocks of Havasu Falls, located near a remote portion of Grand Canyon National Park, draw about 20,000 visitors each year.

Grand Canyon Exploration

Spanish explorers led by Hopi guides were the first Europeans to reach the Grand Canyon in the 1540s.

More than three hundred years passed before U.S. soldier, botanist and explorer Joseph Christmas Ives entered the Grand Canyon on a mapping expedition of the Colorado River in 1858. American geologist John Newberry served as a naturalist on the expedition, becoming the first known geologist to study the Grand Canyon.

A decade later, John Wesley Powell, another U.S. soldier and explorer returned. His expedition produced more detailed maps of the Colorado River’s route through the canyon.

Grand Canyon Village

The first pioneers began settling around the rim of the Grand Canyon in the 1880s. They were prospectors looking to mine copper. Early settlers soon realized that tourism was more profitable than mining.

President Benjamin Harrison first granted federal protection to the Grand Canyon in 1893 as a forest reserve. Tourism to the Grand Canyon increased after 1901. That’s when builders completed a spur of the Santa Fe Railroad that would take tourists from Flagstaff, Arizona—the nearest major city—to Grand Canyon Village, a starting point on the South Rim for tourists visiting the canyon.

President Teddy Roosevelt traveled to the Grand Canyon in 1903. Roosevelt, an avid hunter, wanted to keep the area pristine for future generations so he declared portions of the Grand Canyon a federal game reserve. The area later became a National Monument.

The Grand Canyon achieved National Park status in 1919, three years after President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service.

Grand Canyon Skywalk

Grand Canyon National Park received about 44,000 visitors when it first opened in 1919. Today, roughly five million people from all over the globe visit the Grand Canyon each year.

One recent addition is the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a cantilevered walkway with a glass floor that hangs over a western section of the canyon. The controversial attraction—opponents say it disturbs sacred grounds and is obtrusive in an otherwise pristine area—opened in 2007 and is owned by the Hualapai Tribe.

Tourist development in recent years has stressed the canyon’s water resources and threatened Native American sacred sites. The federal government has put limits on the number of river and helicopter trips through the Grand Canyon each year.

In 2017, the Navajo Nation rejected on environmental grounds the Grand Canyon Escalade, a major development project that would have included hotels, stores, and a gondola that would have transported visitors from Navajo land to the nearby South Rim of the Grand Canyon.


Grand Canyon: Geologic Formations; National Park Service.

Native Cultures; Arizona State University.